This essay originally aired on December 21, 2017.
My paternal grandmother, Helen, was a frugal and reserved woman with dyed-red curly hair. She always wore a 1960s-style house coat, even into the 1990s. We visited occasionally and I played with a few antique toys in the sunroom while the grown-ups talked in the den.
Helen enjoyed drinking tea and, I’m told, favored a weak brew. When I began drinking tea in the fourth grade, my parents compared the sweet, weak liquid I sipped to Helen’s. She passed away that spring, almost a year after her husband.
After Helen’s death, my parents inherited her French porcelain teacup. Tiny and burgundy, it features a small painting of a stylish 19th century woman being handed a glass of wine by a stylish man. Years later, I inherited this gold-trimmed ornamental cup.
Although I don’t know much about its origins, I like to imagine the story of its emigration. I picture someone carefully packing what she would absolutely need for the journey to America and then packing this valuable, non-essential, fragile object. This petite teacup somehow represents my family because it makes me ask more questions than I’ll ever have answers for about who my ancestors are and what their lives were like.
As a child, my husband, Brady, began each school morning at his grandmother’s house. Her name was Shirley and she would make him breakfast and quiz him on assignments. In between questions, she sipped her coffee. Brady can still hear the sipping sounds between those review questions.
In Shirley’s house, mugs hung on the wall near the kitchen table, and my husband remembers looking at a souvenir mug showing the Columbia Space Shuttle. He also remembers feeling encouraged by 1990s math computer games he played at Shirley’s home. Brady enjoyed science and grew up to be a computer engineer. When Shirley’s house was cleaned out after her death, there were only a few mugs left. Brady brought the Space Shuttle mug home. It reminds him of his grandmother, but also regularly reminds him, with each sip, of the ways he was formed by her influence in his life.
My namesake and maternal grandmother, Ann, was warm and welcoming to everyone. She is famous in our family for bringing a hitchhiker home and feeding him before taking him on his intended way. She always had a home-baked treat ready for visitors. When she died this past winter, I inherited her green daisy patterned dishes. As I placed them into my own cupboard, I thought about how many stomachs and hearts those dishes had cared for. I look forward to giving them new life with my family, hopeful for many moments of serving others for another lifetime.
Today, my fingers slide into those familiar handles and all at once, I’m in the past, present and future. These cups are a time-travel tour guide each morning as they remind us of where we’ve come from, recall treasured memories with our loved ones, and help us create beautiful moments together.
I believe in drinking tea out of grandmothers’ mugs.
Essayist Ann Bickel is an artist, photographer and educator from Altoona.