Updating the Silver Tea

I GAZE around my messy living room in disbelief. My friend Carla is still pleading....``You're a `Friend of the Library,' too, why won't you let us use your house for the new-members tea?'' How could Carla be serious about charging newcomers to visit an unhistoric California bungalow with streaked windows and a ragged yard? No, I say firmly. ``But I'm counting on you,'' she wails. ``You're the only person I know who's lived in the same house for 20 years. A lot of these women are terrified of moving to Los Angeles, and seeing your place will reassure them that there is some stability here.'' I smile. I'm from the East, where some people in small towns still live on acreage granted to their ancestors by an English king. Twenty years is small potatoes there.

My eyes move from a cascading pile of magazines on the dining room table to the crayon sketch of a beautiful young woman hanging on the wall. My great-aunt Dorothea shoots me a severe look from underneath her pompadour hairdo. Instantly cowed, I ask Carla, ``What .... what would I have to do if the tea were at my home?''

My great-aunt was always an influence in my life. She was the only family member willing to maintain the rambling yellow farmstead where she'd been raised. In her later life, she kept open house for great-nieces and -nephews, inviting us to explore the gray barn, the mysterious dark woods, the tree house, and the raspberry beds. Every summer we leaped from the car, wild to explore her magic kingdom.

When she hosted the Silver Tea, the annual church fund-raiser, few would guess that she'd spent most of the winter in the kitchen of her drafty house, reading Carlyle huddled next to the wood stove for warmth. By the time of the tea, the storm windows had come down and the guild women had dusted out the winter spiders and baked a mountain of cakes and cookies to feed the paying guests. The orchard was in bloom and the place looked elegant. Local people and strangers alike paid good money to come and gawk at the carriages in the barn, the windup Victrola, and the pantry full of Canton china which had crossed the Pacific as ballast in my great-great-grandfather's ships.

When they'd finished touring, Miss Dorothea, wearing a black straw hat from Filene's Basement, poured tea for her guests, looking very grand dame indeed. The table gleamed with monogrammed epergnes, silver kettles, and coin silver spoons from Revolutionary times, polished to a watery brightness.

Once, I was allowed to help with the Silver Tea. I wore my great-grandmother's flowered dress with a big sash to cover the gap at the waistline, and memorized a speech about the original room of the house being older than 1680. Like the visitors, I thought the farm was ``forever.'' I was mistaken, of course. Eventually the farm had to be sold, its contents dispersed among cousins from Seattle to Florida.

Now while Carla blathers on, my gaze wanders from room to room, assessing the dusting and polishing necessary before my house is exposed to public view. The task seems daunting.

``I'll do it,'' I blurt out to a delighted Carla, while my mind scrambles frantically through a list of necessaries like enlisting the boy down the street to wash the windows and lining up friends to bake cookies.

And miraculously, while I stand there, I have a vision of people streaming up my brick front walk, which is bracketed by an herb garden copied from the farm. The house in my vision is in perfect order. Though the table is short on epergnes and long on borrowed cups, silver gleams under the light of a chandelier. (Wash chandelier, I add to my list.)

My house will never rival the farm's display. Miss Dorothea from her viewpoint on the wall will recognize nothing but two coin silver spoons and a cut glass pitcher of raspberry vinegar made to her recipe. However, orange blossoms in a silver pitcher will scent the room as well as lilacs. And the old Aaron Willard grandfather clock will tick away the minutes and chime the hours, as it has for 200 years.

Suddenly, I am feeling quite enthusiastic about this event. I look at my house with new eyes. The tree house that my oldest son built years ago is waiting for his daughter's stubby legs to be able to climb the ladder. The clutter and the cats accumulated over the years suddenly look less like chaos than a haphazard continuity. Unnoticed by us all, a wisp of ``forever'' has crept out of the past and into our lives.

``I'll be ready,'' I tell Carla.

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