On an evening of rare solitude, I put on the kettle to treat myself a cup of real Ceylon orange pekoe tea from my precious and well guarded stash of said tea. To mark the occasion (of having time to myself) , I decided to just sit and drink the tea without any of the usual accompanying activities like reading, talking to my sister or watching television. The intention was to be in the moment with the cup of tea…
So after the tea was brewed, and I lifted the cover, and the infuser holding the tea leaves out of the mug, I brought the mug to my face and inhaled deeply. The distinctive aroma of real Ceylon tea immediately (and unexpectedly) transported me back to my maternal grandmother’s kitchen in Matale, Sri Lanka, where, in my memory, I first appreciated the aroma of that tea…even though I was not allowed to drink it at that age.
The flood of memories released by that one inhalation started with an image of the first kitchen I knew as hers. It had 3 walls and was fully open on one side, with a wood-burning stone or clay hearth for cooking food (and boiling water for tea). The hearth was about 3 feet above the ground, and that space served as storage space, I think, for firewood. I recalled sitting in the kitchen on low wooden benches. My grandparents, uncles, an aunt or two and my cousins, would all gather around for tea. One of my uncles would mix powdered milk (which came in a tin with a blue and white label), and sugar with a little water to make a creamy paste, while the water was brought to boil on the fire. The tea leaves were put in a large enamel mug and the boiling water added to it. When the tea was brewed it would be poured carefully into the mug containing the powdered milk and sugar mixture. I cannot remember if a tea strainer was used. The tea and milk mixture was then well stirred and poured into smaller mugs for individual consumption.
I was 9 years old then, and my mother did not allow us to drink tea. I envied my younger cousins who partook in the consumption of this delicious smelling hot beverage on a daily basis. So at that time, I could only enjoy the aroma of the tea, and eat the sweets my grandmother made to have with tea. Sweets that I don’t know the English names for ( like “kaung” , “agala ” and “pani wallalu”). That was at my grandparents house on the hill known as Kandegedara.
Later, when my maternal grandfather died in 1982, we returned to Sri Lanka for the funeral. This time the tea ritual took place in a different house on flat land , with paddy fields visible on the other side of the main road that ran in front of the house. The kitchen in this house had four walls, with doors connecting it to the outside, and, via a passage, to the rest of the house. There was still a cooking hearth, but I think there was also a gas stove. not unlike the one we had at home in Jamaica. The benches were a little higher, my uncles and cousins were older, but the process of brewing the tea, mixing out the powdered milk, and combining the two to make an incomparable hot beverage was the same. This time I did not have to be satisfied with just enjoying the aroma, because I was deemed old enough to drink tea if I wanted to. After that first experience of having real tea brewed from one of the finest teas in the world, I refused to drink tea bag tea (aka “not real tea”) for many years, because as far as I was concerned it neither smelled nor tasted like the real thing.
Perhaps it was the feeling of being included with the grown ups that the shared cups of tea produced, or maybe the fact that the tea flavour lived up to the promise of its aroma that made those cups of tea in my grandmother’s house a big thing for me at age 11 years. I didn’t even realise how much I had looked forward to the tea until our next visit. By this time I was 15 years old. I think my grandmother saw how much my sister and I both enjoyed drinking tea. When it was time to return to Jamaica, she gave each of us the mug that we used to drink the tea in while we were at her house…
As my Ceylon- tea -aroma induced trip down memory lane drew to an end, I realised that I still have the mug my grandmother gave me three decades ago. It is chipped and cracked and no longer capable of holding tea. Yet I kept it because it was a memento from the last time I saw my grandmother, and because I guess I want to believe it still contains some of my grandmother’s love for me, even if it can no longer hold tea.
While I sipped my Ceylon tea, I reflected on how grateful I am that I had a chance to know my grandmother, and to know from a very young age how much she loved me – not because she told me in words, but because she showed me in so many ways. Now in a country an ocean away, in a different house on the flat, my mother has her own tea ritual with her two grand-daughters (my daughters) every Friday. I hope they can continue to enjoy that ritual for many years to come. I am pretty sure they already know how much their grandmother loves them, and like me , they will carry that love with them for the rest of their lives.
Maybe one day, when her physical presence is no longer with them, something – like the aroma of a cup of real Ceylon tea – will release a stream of memories that reaffirms and reminds them of that love in the same way that I was reminded of how much my grandmother’s love is still with me.