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On becoming a grandmother and taking up tea | GUEST COMMENTARY

Allow me to tell the story of tea bags and grandmothers.

In 1985, I was teaching high school English and theater full-time. My daughter was born that February, and I was fortunate to have a 10-week maternity leave. (Though the topic of family leave recently has received long-overdue attention, women have juggled careers and the responsibilities of motherhood for generations.)

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When my leave came to an end, both my mother and my mother-in-law jumped into action. We developed a well-orchestrated babysitting schedule: my mom watched our daughter two days a week at our house, one day at her home. My mother-in-law watched our baby at her home the other two days. Weeks often flipped, and everyone remained organized and flexible.

If one of the grandmothers had a conflict, I had the option to bring my baby to work occasionally. I taught at a Catholic school, and at the time, there was a convent attached to the school building. Several loving, retired sisters willingly and capably doted on faculty babies and kids who became their vicarious grandchildren. These nuns were trusted and generous providers of backup plans for child care.

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My mother loved her morning cup of coffee, but once the baby was down for her afternoon nap, Mom would make a sandwich and relax with a cup of tea. A product of thrift so prevalent among those we call “the greatest generation,” Mom never used a tea bag only once. My husband and I became accustomed to an ever-present saucer with a used tea bag on our kitchen counter. Once Mom squeezed out her second cup of tea from a bag, its replacement found its way onto the saucer.

It wasn’t only used tea bags that our daughter, and eventually our son too, grew up seeing on the counters of both our home and the home of my mom. My mother-in-law drank only leaf tea, held in a silver strainer as she poured hot water over the tea leaves. (Her ancestry was English/Scottish. My mother preferred a brand of tea called Swee-Touch-Nee, an orange pekoe tea, popular with East Europeans.)

My mother-in-law’s sense of thrift came in the form of a tin can into which she would pour fat drippings after frying bacon in her cast iron skillet. Her drippings can became a focal point for our son during his regular Sunday visits with Granny when he was a toddler, and eventually a high schooler who loved his time with her. To this day, the aroma of frying bacon reminds me of that can on her stovetop.

The first time I babysat for my grandson, I brought with me a box of tea bags. He was a newborn, and my husband and I were helping our daughter and our son-in-law with their precious firstborn. Since then, I have become a classic tea drinker on days with my grandchildren.

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My daughter and son-in-law welcomed twin daughters this past April. As their personalities start to emerge, my husband I now joke about taking the girls, one day in the future, to London for high tea at Harrod’s. This experience has become a family legend whenever we reminisce about what my husband considers a ridiculously overpriced touristy activity from November 2005 when we all visited our daughter during her college junior year studying abroad.

I have not yet started saving bacon drippings, probably because I seldom fry bacon. (We are a microwave turkey bacon couple in 2021.) But on those precious mornings when my now nearly 3-year-old grandson spends time at our home, we have our own little routines. He always asks that I make him a slice or two of toast and a cup of milk as a midmorning snack. I drink my tea but have yet to reuse a tea bag. Perhaps some memories are too deeply treasured to imitate.

Carolyn Buck (bucklaz@aol.com) is a local writer, performing arts educator and teaching artist.

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