Being one of four siblings in my childhood home was neither good nor bad. It was, in a word, predictable.
Dinnertime was a shining example of predictability. One of the meals in my mom’s regular rotation consisted of broiled chicken made with a host of seasonings – most likely she sprinkled tarragon, oregano, salt, pepper and paprika. I can smell them now, as I write.
Once we were all seated at the dinner table, the platter of chicken would be placed in front of the eldest person at the table: my dad first if he was home or my brother Mark, who was 11 years my senior. And from there it would be passed in age order.
Yup, I am the youngest of the four.
I often talked myself through this, never questioning the status quo aloud, but asking myself privately why I was always the low man [woman] on the totem pole, why I was always the last one invited to the dinner party. For parents who touted the democratic way of life, this was…well…undemocratic. Back then, though, I accepted that this is what happens when you’re the fourth kid.
For the most part, I was fine with the routine of being the last one to delve into the platter—and it certainly kept me from eating too much—but I did draw the line in my head when it came to hot tea, which my mom offered after dinner.
“Who wants hot tea?” she’d ask.
This always felt like a trick question.
Yes, I wanted hot tea, but that wouldn’t be what I was getting when I responded, “I do.”
It would just mean I’d get a cup of something hot but, for me, it would most likely be water; as with the chicken, the tea bag was passed around the table in age order. Yes, one tea bag for as many as 6 people.
If my dad was home, he’d get the strongest tea; Mark who always partook would get the second or third strongest; Denis would go next and Sherrie too before me. For some reason I have blocked out where my mom, a tea drinker, would have fared: would her tea be brown or clear?
It was a tall order for that little Lipton’s tea bag to flavor anywhere from 3 to 5 cups of tea before it got to me.
Here’s my attempt at rationalization.
My mom was born in 1917 and lived through the Great Depression in her grand mom’s home; so sadly, her mom passed away from the flu epidemic when my mom was just 6 mos. old. My grand mom did her best to care for her family and put food on the table by boot legging wine.
I can understand how the Depression changed its survivors. Life was hard, money was tight or non-existent, there was always the fear that they wouldn’t have enough, wastefulness was incomprehensible.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that my mom seemed to believe that one tea bag for a family of six was appropriate; why “waste” more than one if everyone wants the same thing?
At times I thought, but didn’t dare say, “How about we switch it up today and let the baby of the family go first?” Even second or third would have been an improvement.
Old habits die hard, and even though it wasn’t my old habit I’m struggling with but rather my mom’s, the tea bag has tormented me all my life.
I just can’t get the one teabag-per-meal—or was it one-teabag-per-day?—rule out of my head.
I agree that my mom was right that it’s wasteful to use a tea bag just one time, but by the third or fourth dip, it is flavorless. So when should I draw the line? When is it the right time to use a new tea bag?
I can obsess all I want about this when it’s just me—I can and do use my original tea bag for multiple cups of tea—but the issue is more pronounced when others also want a cup of hot tea.
There is no way in good conscience I could give Amy, the youngest of the bunch, a tea bag that had been used multiple times before I served her tea. Even if I could, she’d never let me get away with it.
The other day, Lauren and Amy were both home and said “yes” to my eternal question, “Who wants hot tea?” Right away my thoughts were focused on how I’d handle the tea bag distribution; luckily, I was partially saved from this dilemma, however, when the girls chose different kinds of tea: Lauren wanted decaf and Amy, green. Two varieties call for two tea bags, end of story. Whew!
But then I saw my mug sitting on the counter with the used green tea bag inside, waiting for my next cup. Should this be for Amy? It would be good enough, I was sure, and I could even get another couple uses for myself afterwards. I’m fairly certain that’s what my mom would have done in this situation.
But I didn’t do that. I gave Amy a new one, because David was lurking and I wanted to avoid his commenting on my obsession with the tea bag because his general feeling is each person who wants tea should always have his/her own unused bag.
I did cringe an hour later when I threw out all the tea bags. Did Amy really need her own tea bag, and why didn’t I save it to use later?
Some things I can do without guilt, like toss the supermarket plastic bags that contained tomatoes or cucumbers or apples, which my mom used to wash with soap and hang up to dry and reuse. That’s another smell I can still remember, and not fondly, either.
Anyone want to come over for a cup of hot tea?
Better get here early!