This evening as I took my dog out for a walk, I gazed up into the sky and saw pink-hued vapor trails from a passing jet. Vapor trails and the sound of single engine planes passing overhead always take my mind back to the yard in which I grew up. When I think of my childhood, it feels just like the Andrew Wyeth painting of the girl lying in the grassy field. I spent so many days lying in the yard, searching up to the sky, always wondering where the passing planes were going.
For some, strange reason it was the sight of those vapor trails and the memory of that enormous, isolated yard of my youth that reminded me that tomorrow is my birthday. Somehow I had forgotten! Not hard to do at this age, when each passing year is a reminder of one’s own mortality. But as quickly as I remembered my birthday, I remembered the tea set.
Growing up we had so little money. Toys were things you only got twice a year – Christmas and your birthday. My brother and I spent all year long leafing through the Sears and Best catalogs circling items and dog-earing pages of toys we wanted. When I was six going on seven years old, I spotted the desire of my heart: a tea set. Given the fact I was a tomboy, a tea set was a surprising wish! I was the girl who wailed when told she had to wear a dress to church on Easter and the girl who modified Barbie dolls by chopping their hair off, ripping their dresses, and giving them ink pen tattoos to make them look like post-apocalypse warriors aka Road Warrior/Mad Max. I was the girl who begged for plastic swords so I could pretend to be Conan the Barbarian. I was the girl who pretended to be a gladiator, not a princess. My girlish heart yearned for battle not baking (still does). So a tea set? I still can’t explain it.
I remember telling my parents for what felt like months that I wanted the tea set. I didn’t get it for Christmas but I wasn’t deterred. At every opportunity, I pulled the Best catalog out and flipped to the page carefully marked to show my parents this glorious tea set! I can still see the picture of it in the catalog- a beautiful white teapot with flowers, what seemed like a BILLION cups and saucers, and best of all, it came with a trolley! It was exquisite. In my six going on seven year old mind, I couldn’t imagine being happy without it. But their response was always the same: It was too expensive. This was a phrase I knew all too well. My parents drummed it in to my head how “skint” we were and how I was never going to have all the things “those rich kids” at school had. They were just middle class kids but I suppose to my working poor parents, they may as well have been the children of billionaires. Sometimes I wonder if my parents secretly read Marx and Engels after we went to bed because so much of what they said and taught us gave me such a lasting disdain for the upper classes. I’m confident that out of all the children at Breckinridge Elementary, I was the one most aware of class warfare. But that tea set…..
My birthday was on a school day. I spent the entire day in Mrs. Rhode’s class wondering what I was going to get. I had resigned myself to a kite or maybe one of those paint-by-numbers set. When I got off the school bus, I called my mom at work and she told me that she’d be a little late because she had to go to Food World to pick up the cake. It was a tradition in our house for our mom to take us to the bakery at Food World (beside Hill’s) and let us pick out the icing color for our cake. I can’t remember what I ordered that year but I do remember always wanting red icing and ALWAYS being told no by the lady at the bakery. Apparently red icing is disgusting.
My mom was very late getting home and I was reaching critical mass from excitement just as she pulled into our driveway. She brought the cake in and I remember jumping around and begging to know if she had a present for me! She ignored my pleas but turned to my dad and said that she was late because she had to go by Best to get my present. Best?! BEST?! The tea set!!! They bought the tea set!
I remember feeling deliriously happy and also anxious and frustrated by how slowly my dad was opening the cardboard box for me! When he pulled it out of the box, I expected to feel euphoria but instead, a totally unexpected emotion washed over me. Disappointment. The tea set was junk. Nothing at all like the catalog picture. And there it was….the first moment in my life where I can honestly remember making a choice to hide my feelings to protect those of another. I looked up at my parents who were beaming with pride. My seven year old heart understood. My parents worked hard. Too hard. My dad worked as a welder in a steel factory and his clothes bore the burn marks of the hot slag that showered down on him all day. At night he’d pass his pocket knife to me and I’d sit on the floor picking steel shavings out of the soles of his boots so he could make them last a little longer. My mom worked for nearly nothing in an office on the “bad side of town”. We didn’t have the money for the tea set. I knew it. I was seven years old but I knew it. The pride on their faces told me so.
So there I sat on the kitchen floor, choking back the tears and disappointment, pretending to love a tea set I had yearned for so long but hated for being less than promised. I’m sure the moment only lasted a few seconds but it is freeze framed in my mind forever.
I don’t remember most of the birthday presents I’ve received through the years. I have no idea whatever became of the tea set, to be honest. I probably took it outside and used the saucers as ninja throwing stars. Who knows? But every year, when my birthday rolls around, I always remember the tea set. What my seven year old heart couldn’t fathom then was that the tea set would end up being one of the greatest gifts I ever received for my birthday. The memory of it is a reminder that though I didn’t have an idyllic childhood, sacrifices were made for my happiness. I hold on to that. Every year I hold on to that.
Tomorrow I plan to have a cup of tea to celebrate. Earl Grey.