For decades, Evelyn Bence has encouraged and advised me in my publishing pursuits. I’m happy to introduce her as my first guest blogger, with this delightful essay. Her hospitality to North African neighbors reminds me of Lilias in a bygone era.
A Neighborhood Tea Party: Goodwill, Gratitude, and Good-bye
by Evelyn Bence
I no longer owned a teapot. I hadn’t hosted a tea party since preschool, when I’d coaxed my family to a doll-dish setting. So I had no business impulsively inviting three female generations of a neighbor family for tea, a few days before the homesick grandmother returned to Morocco for good. I’d previously been drawn in to a new-baby celebration in their living room. On the stoop, we’d mutually begged eggs and sugar. I’d lent them small appliances. They’d passed along some charity’s non-halal turkey. Grandma—speaking no English—slipped me an occasional dinner platter and once a festive Moroccan dress in a cellophane bag. But in two years they’d never stepped across my sill. So maybe it was my “business” to tend, as a modest extension of goodwill, gratitude, and good-bye.
Hearing my intent, a former neighbor, Angi, invited herself into the mix. Sure. Please bring a teapot. And I included an adolescent Latina—I’ll call her Nina—who frequently comes by my home to “make a recipe.” My budget was tight. I incorporated ingredients from my pantry. Nina and I baked banana bread. We made mint candies—powdered sugar kneaded into cream cheese. Oatmeal bars. I pureed a cold pear soup and earmarked dried fruits. To occupy the youngest guests, I printed some coloring pages.
I was ready but not. Wrap a farewell gift-scarf or present it informally? Sit in the living room or at the table? Lay out place settings or point guests to a stack of plates and napkins?
On the appointed afternoon, I boiled water. Angi made black tea as I would but three times stronger. The ample pot steeped as I welcomed my neighbors. I don’t think they knew my name, but it seemed too late to introduce myself. I mangled theirs, having tried the sounds-like or rhymes-with memory device. Thank you, thank you: I wasn’t expecting their homemade contributions, a chick-pea pudding and warm fried bread. Nor a tag-along teen boy whose name sounds like Abraham.
At the table, they swept up the humblest fare. “What’s this? I like it.” White-bread rounds, cream cheese, cucumber slices. Classic Victorian. We talked about food and families and schools. I touched on manners. “Nina, take one for yourself, then pass the platter.” Grandma unwrapped her gift. Her daughter-in-law, Rhymes with Henna, translated: “When she wears it, she’ll remember you.” I pinched my bright Moroccan dress. Me too.
After a while I suggested that Nina find the crayon basket. The children, even the high schooler, followed her and gathered around the coffee table—a glass-covered type-case, its cubicles containing marbles and dominoes. Moody museum art prints, vintage dress hats, and hundreds of shelved books covered the surrounding walls.
We women kept drinking tea—mine unsweet; theirs, well, they emptied and I refilled the sugar bowl. Tuning out the background classical music, I tried to track two conversations. When I overheard Almost Abraham say, “This apartment is cool,” I offered to adjust the air conditioner. Rhymes with Henna translated: “He means ‘it’s nice.’” When he said he liked the music, I explained, “It’s a radio station you could find at your house.” Eventually the children went outdoors. The women lingered after the young mother went home and returned with a pot of Moroccan tea—sweet green leaves with garden mint. A final round, theirs for me.
The tea party broke up quickly; I had to get Nina home on time. The toddlers rushed in to retrieve their colored pages. Grandma tucked her new scarf and the floral gift wrap into its narrow box. I plated a few sweets for take-home to husbands. We hugged and said thank you, thank you. Half an hour later Grandma at my door handed me more warm bread encased in aluminum foil. In the next three days, Almost Abraham knocked four times—did I hear him call me Miss Evelyn?— asking for Band Aids for blisters and quarters for laundry.
Arthur Wing Pinero, famed British actor of a previous generation, purportedly said, “Where there’s tea there’s hope.” For goodwill and good memories to linger across oceans and generations and stoops.
Evelyn Bence is author most recently of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality (Upper Room Books). Her personal essays include publication in Washingtonian, Washington Post, Books & Culture, CT, and US Catholic. She is also an ongoing contributor to Daily Guideposts.