Monday, January 24, 2011

Tea, Toast, Peanut Butter and Cheese

My Dad was a salesman. He could sell anything to anyone and he did. He wasn’t shady; he was genuine, friendly and talked so fast that it didn’t matter whether you heard him or not because he held you in the twinkle of his eye.

He sold Electrolux, Cushman Bakery products and cars in the early days of his ever growing family. I liked it when he sold cars, because he brought home various models from the dealership and we got to ride around in something new and different. I was about five years old and happened to know enough to appreciate cars.

As I have mentioned before, we literally went over the river and through the woods to both of my grandmothers’ houses and sang the song faithfully en route. Most of the time, they [the grandmothers] lived in the woods of New Hampshire, but off and on, my father’s mother, Sarah, stayed in Acton Massachusetts with her spinster sisters, Helen and Rotha.

Aunt Helen – a robust woman with a deep voice and white hair twisted into a bun – always wore a faded apron and chunky black heeled shoes that tied. Her gold wire rimmed glasses rested on her round, red cheeks like a feminine version of Santa Claus. If anyone ever chuckled, it was her.

Aunt Rotha looked a bit like a frightened mouse about to dash off to safety, yet determined to wait it out. She stared with her wide eyes close together, her small frame always about to vanish into the shadows of Aunt Helen. She wore the same kind of apron and black shoes and she was extremely bow legged. Her expression never changed. Optimistically, I detected something stirring when I looked deep into her eyes but I was unable pin point what it was. Without being obvious, I think that I secretly tried to get her to blink or react; I did not succeed. I don’t recall ever hearing a word escape from her thin lips; her sister Helen spoke loud and often enough for the two of them. No one mentioned if she had a disability. She was just Aunt Rotha. She could have been a piece of artwork on the book shelf or hanging on the wall. We knew her as she was and that was it.

So when Grammy was living in Acton, we used to go visit. The drive seemed to be much longer than two hours. Back in the 1960’s, we didn’t drive around mindlessly as we tend to do now. The world was bigger and our trips were essential.

One of our expeditions to Acton stands over and above the rest. My father brought home the grandest car I had ever seen. It was a golden Buick Sportwagon with a tinted split sky roof window in the middle and the sides. I had never seen anything like it; it was swank and cutting edge for the sixties. On the drive down, I sat in the backseat with my eyes fixed on the trees screaming by, to the point of teetering on the edge of car sickness. I just could not get over it.

Relieved to step out of the car when we reached Acton, I darted up the stairs into the grand house. The vision of the house in my mind’s eye is through an amber tinted lens which is likely influenced by the abundance of rich dark woods such as mahogany and oak. Everything and everyone – except for my sisters and me – was old.

I sat at the huge dining room table with a white table cloth admiring the bone china tea cups, now in my hutch with a small tin type of a chuckling Aunt Helen and other family treasures. The pink and yellow painted flowers look as striking now as they did in my childhood. The teapot in the middle of the table was the center of the universe. Everything was about tea. I always put too much sugar in my tea when no one was looking. It didn’t even taste good, but I suppose it was an early form of rebellion. We had a tradition that seemed to originate there and then in my parent’s home and into my own home when I became a mother.

This tradition is expressed in our family in four simple words: “Tea, toast, peanut butter and cheese.” That’s all you have to say; anyone in my family knows exactly what it means. It usually happens on a Sunday evening, but it’s okay if you do it another time. It’s a comfort thing, or maybe it’s a lazy thing when the woman of the house doesn’t want to cook, or maybe it’s a needy thing when there was nothing more in the cupboard than bread, peanut butter and cheese. I don’t know. It is sacred. Once my son spread peanut butter all over the cheese; now I am hooked.

It doesn’t have to be basic black or green tea; you can serve up whatever pleases you. When this originated in my family as a child, I believe it was Lipton or Salada tea – something that you bought in bulk at the supermarket. The cheese is always sharp, the sharper the better. My father used to sit at the end of the table with a loaf of bread and the toaster cranking, piling it on a plate for us to smother in peanut butter.

Grammy and the others were game players. They used to play such things as Rummy, Chinese checkers and Parcheesi. Everyone was fiercely competitive. I mistakenly reached across a game of Chinese checkers in progress. Grammy started slapping my hand in unison with her clucking, “No, no no! Don’t touch! Bad Girl!” After her tantrum I retreated and joined Aunt Rotha, quivering in the safety of the shadows.

At the end of the day we bid our farewells and embarked on a new and exciting leg of the journey – riding home at night nestled in the far back of the lavish station wagon with my sisters.

I watched the stars in utter amazement. It was miraculous that a car had been invented featuring windows in the roof; we were privileged to ride in such luxury. The stars were vivid and twinkling in the night sky; slowly disappearing as we got closer to home where the tree tops loomed over the sides of the narrowing road that wound through the mountains in the thick woods. I fought to stay awake, unwilling to miss even a moment of viewing the night sky in this manner, not knowing if or when Dad would bring this car home again or for how long we would have it. Despite this determination, the gentle swaying of the bumpy road lulled me to sleep.

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