The Residue of Womanhood

by | Feb 7, 2022 | CNF, Issue Twenty Five

Watching the smoke rise from the cup, the rim gives my lips something to hold. An Earl Gray tea bag hangs its arm over the edge, keeping itself steady in the milky water.  I cannot help but see the specks in this tea as little floating bodies moving their way to the surface, coming up to take some air.  My body starts to feel steadier with the anchor of a mug grounding my fingertips.

As a child, my grandmother told me that I would inherit her rose-trimmed Royal Doulton tea set. They were kept on the top shelf of her dining room cabinet, hardly ever touched, building dust for generations. She also promised to teach me how to brew fresh beverages from her collection of tea plants on the windowsill. She said these plants gave her something else to raise: two Camellia Sinesis flowers for green tea, a handful of red Rosa Rugosas, and a stemmed root from Echinacea.

I would sometimes catch her singing to her green audience as she sprayed their roots, bringing back the fishes swimming in the sea, the children of the colonies got a different tale to tell… 

***  

On December 11th, 1776, the fog overtook Boston Harbor. By the ship anchored to the ocean’s floor, skirted by a hundred floating boxes, a line of docks pointed towards the row of white houses with navy shutters, a mass of dark-lit rooms filled with sleeping leaders. Ship wires stretched over the base, pulling the sails into the midnight air. Textbooks will recount the herd of Indian costumes onboard, blue feathers in their head, wool around their bones, shouting in the name of freedom. 

            In the distance of the early morning, a loyalist woman named Rebecca Phipps Lee sat in her house, watching the commotion outside her window while brewing a cuppa tea, listening to the telephone line ringing for her husband. 

***

When I was eight, I learned how to mimic my ancestors. Behind the chimes of church bells next door in the distance, multicolored Christmas lights from Asda hanging over the doorway, ferns cut and shaped to hang over the windowsills, I watched my mother disappear from the conversation to make everyone else a beverage. After putting on the kettle, pouring the hot water, and milking it down, she delivers a part of herself and nods along to the beat of her husband’s voice. 

In my family, tea comes with a facade of compliance. My mother has a variety for every occasion: one to give the angry neighbor complaining about the weeds, another to give the uncle who spews controversial politics. When the neighbor comes around to complain about the dog on the lawn, when the grandparents come over disapproving of not going to church, I hear my mother saying, let’s talk about this over a cuppa tea. I’m sure we can work something out.  

The ritual is followed by her silent smile, rocking her head up and down in the plastic chair, trying to ease their tension in the air, keeping peace everywhere except inside herself. I can hear the kettle inside of her screaming, as her thoughts slowly burn around the rim of the mug.

***  

“A silent paradox immediately presents itself, for if the family is an institution for whose greatest general failures the only remedy is the placebo of modernization, we must acknowledge that the family continues to produce itself, it is fertile…”, —Edward Said from Orientalism

***

On Tuesday afternoon, I left my grandmother’s house and took my inheritance to work with me. Walking into the restaurant, I picked cat hair from my black uniform. I could feel my new black flats giving my heel a new blister. 

I went to the hostess podium and started cleaning menus. There was a mysterious yellow stain on one cover, a sea of black dots on another. My boss walked through the glass doors, pushing them with force. He pointed at me, while continuing to walk, and whispered, remember to smile.

***

During the American War of Independence, Loyalist women in Boston weren’t allowed to voice their opinions on the war. They put candle lights in their windows to signify that they were loyal to the cause or dark windows meant they secretly believed in the resistance. The candle shines its light on the blue walls of the night, absorbing all its silence. 

Anna Rawle was one of the women who lit candles in her window, which secretly allowed her to announce that she favored the Rebels. She was oppressed and tortured by her community for years, but she never felt like she could justify her opinion.

***  

When a small amount of water residue at the bottom of the mug, the psychic will tell you to move it clockwise three times and wait for the leaves to settle. The scientific name for this process is tasseography, but most people call it reading tea leaves. The process involves formulating a clear and concise question, while slowly sipping your tea. In the end, the leaves tell you about your journey and your direction moving forward. 

There are swirls in your chart, the psychic says, which symbolizes cycles. She pauses for a moment to look at the cup more carefully. But in the future quadrant of the mug there is a line that almost looks like an arrow facing away from you, which can sometimes symbolize your past.  

She sets the white mug on the table and spins it to see another angle; Is there anything about your past that has been concerning you lately?  

***  

When asked about British colonialism, the artist, Wangechi Mutu said, “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.” 

***  

On this December evening, I’m sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen watching the drizzle of rain hitting the surface of the pond next door. My eyes catch the gaze of a heron and their babies jumping off the boulder edge into the pond. The mother goes first, and the babies mimic her legs, squatting, rising, splashing into the cold.

At this moment, I understand that some parts of my inheritance are accidental. I knew I would inherit the Royal Doulton tea set and victoria sponge recipes, but I didn’t know that each time my grandmother gave me a cup of tea, I mimicked her lessons on accommodation, learning to make pleasantries about the weather, smiling at my boss, studying ways to turn conversations towards the food to avoid conflict.

I didn’t realize I inherited the smile I give to distant relatives when I don’t agree with their politics. I knew I would inherit her cutlery. I didn’t know I would inherit the people in my ancestral lineage; all the weight of their ships weighing down my chest. The teacups taught me how to sip my words back down when I really wanted to speak. I place my mug back down on the table and watch the ducks following each other to the other side of the pond.

I almost forgot, my grandmother says, walking over to the stool next to me, I found an old picture of your great grandmother using that blanket I gave you. She pulls out a stack of albums labeled with sticky dates: 1950, 1930, 1890. 

I can’t believe the blanket is still in perfect condition, she hands me the torn black and white picture. The woman in the image is at the shore, the wind ripping through her hair with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Something about its mint condition doesn’t surprise me; I know the thread of that lifetime remains today.

I see you in your grandmother, she continues. I nod to agree with her. There is something about that closed-mouth smile, wading her fingers in the muggy Bristol Bay, creating a cloud with the mud at the surface.

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