Friday, March 25, 2016
My Favorite Tea Story
by Aunt Cella, posted by permission
Originally written October, 1969
A true story
I left my heart in England this time. And have left pieces of it in nearly every country we've visited. But with England it went deep. It's simply my kind of quaintness, countryside, people...and my language. We were actually passing through England on our way to Ireland, having "done" England "last" summer, or so we thought. But it's a big mistake. One should not ignore present joys in the hopes of greater, later. Neither is a country ever really "done" --- most of us just scratch the surface. We were blessed for nine days with classically beautiful weather, a little nicety not often enjoyed in the British Isles. Loved rugged Wales, but the southern counties of Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall stretching to the very tip of Land's End, are dearest to the heart of every Briton, and were sheer joy, joy, to us. We loved the high hedges, the hidden "smuggler's cove" beaches, the cottage rambled with roses, old inns with low oaken beams, cozy fireplaces, hanging copperware and pewter, peaceful villages, and always decency, charm, refinement. It's such a "civilized" country! As travelers, we felt a graciousness here not encountered since leaving Japan. One is never a customer, but a guest to be treated with grave respect. I discovered early how enchanting their old homes and tea houses were, so having a passion for this sort of thing, devised a system for getting into at least three a day. Morning beverage, lunch at noon, and afternoon tea, which is promptly at 4:00. All England pivots on the "Tea at 4:00" schedule. . .even if the house is burning, you must not rush out without having tea first! We had Devon shire clotted cream with fresh strawberries, rhubarb pudding, deep-dish English apple pie, high tea, low tea, cream tea, country tea, lunch in a 12th century manor house, and scones, scones, scones. We are talking of another trip.
The strangest tea I will ever have in my life occurred in Ireland, which, by the way, is green, friendly, progressive, and lots of fun. In the wild, rugged, southern Killarney Lake country, Mike and I took an all day trek, making a complete circle, first by pony cart, then by horseback, and later by boat, which circled us back to the starting point again in the evening. Not being so lucky weather-wise in Ireland (where are all those green shamrocks?), we had rain most of the six days we were there. This memorable day was no exception, but we wanted to take this trip badly enough to do it in the pouring rain. We had another lady and a foolhardy couple from California with us and a little sort-of-girl-guide. We set off in high spirits, which sank lower and lower as we got colder and wetter. Transferring from the pony-trap after an hour, we found the horses typical nags, and cantankerous to boot! However, I felt somewhat smug and self-assured, since I was almost raised on a horse. After two hours on horseback and getting into deep, wild mountains, we were stiff and frozen. Our sack lunch became a mass of mush, vitamin pills in my purse ran red all over, our clothes were sodden, and our limbs were paralyzed with cold. Our little-girl-guide reassured us by telling us we only had three hours left to go! We saw an isolated house that offered tea, and gratefully groaned off our horses and dripped inside, running rivulets on her kitchen floor, and apologizing between chattering teeth. We gulped hot tea with Irish soda bread, and stayed as long as we dared. Again, we struggled aboard our plugs, who would not do anything they did not feel like doing.
In the meantime, the country was frighteningly beautiful, with deep gullies, broad rocky valleys, and treeless craggy mountains --- what a fantastic trip in good weather! After two more frozen hours, Mike and I approached the summit (we were ahead) and looked into desolate virgin territory beyond. My tendency was to go left, because it look like we might meet our boats there. But my horse was going right whether I consented or not, and trusting the sure-direction instincts of a horse, Mike and I went right. After a while, Mike wasn't so sure, so turned his horse back to the crossroads, but mine would not go. I kept assuming the others would come (since my horse insisted this was the right road) but, hill after hill, I kept looking back. No horses appeared, and soon the crossroad was far behind me. Gradually I decided this must be the wrong way, and tried again to turn around. I tried to go into the lane of an isolated house, I tried to stop. . .I tried everything, but that broken-down horse was impossible. When I tried to let the horse know who was in charge, he promptly backed me right down a bank into a ravine. Then, for the first time I was frightened, because I knew that I could not handle that horse. I began (in growing terror) to contemplate spending the night out in the wilds of Killarney and likely freezing to death. I had no idea where we were headed, but it certainly wasn't toward human habitation. These were very bad moments. Spying an inhabited old cottage, I decided to stop, even if I had to leap off the horse, but surprisingly she was willing and I lumbered off, hallowing to the occupants. . .
An old peasant lady appeared in black dress and stockings, and at the sight of another human being, I nearly broke down in weeping. Struggling for control, I told her I must be lost (although I suspected that she already suspected that). I told her the boats were leaving soon (there was only one a day), but this horse insisted on coming here. She then dropped her little bombshell --- the horse belonged there and was merely coming home --- with an unwilling visitor! She later admitted it was not the first time it had happened. The horse and I had been on the trail for four solid, er, liquid hours! She led me inside her home (which I was than anxious to see despite my distressing situation) to an open peat fireplace with an old black kettle hanging over it, and then began stripping off my soggy clothes. I sat by the fire with this kindly soul bustling about, putting warm clothes on me, getting hot tea, trying to hurry with three huge dogs, and a red-haired Irish grand baby, and a flock of baby turkeys all under foot. I couldn't believe my eyes and wanted to laugh and cry both, at this unreal situation. I watched bemusedly while one little turkey jumped into the rim and then into a large pail sitting on the kitchen floor. Hearing noise, the lady of the house rushed over to the pail in time to pull out a half-drowned little turk from what was obviously a pail of water. Calamities! It was a wild scene. She shoved them all under a basket and then proceeded to cut a homemade raisin loaf for my tea without benefit of hand washing of any sort between turkeys and bread. I may have winced, but I wouldn't have refused her hospitality for anything. It tasted delicious and was served on her best china. She commented that I "seemed to fit in very nicely here in this country" probably because I was petting her dogs that were running in and out, and trying strenuously to see everything I could while just trying to appear as if I had grown up with peat fires and turkeys drowning themselves in the center of the kitchen floor! When I told her I was from California she was very surprised and said she thought I was one of the local Irish girls from "up North". I concluded that I must be fitting in very well indeed. My Yankee twang was mistaken for an Irish brogue...!
Meantime she sent her daughter-in-law (who incidentally had worked two years at Schrafft's Restaurant in New York but got homesick and came back to marry a local boy) to the neighbor's house at the end of the road for a car. No one was home, and now we were all in a frantic frenzy. That boat was due to leave 30 minutes before. I threatened to walk, and finally they consented, but insisted the daughter-in-law walk the 5 or 6 miles with me. In a few minutes, we heard a car driving up behind us, and the much-sought neighbor materialized. We roared over ruts and believe it or not, when we arrived, the boats were just leaving, having waited over 30 minutes for me. Mike, who was beside himself, had just told them to go on without. He was going to start after me, spend the night in the mountains, stay with a farmer, hire a car (no more horses!) or anything that was necessary. An interesting postscript was that the California woman's horse also took her to its house in a different direction from me, and the farmer there had to bring her back in his car also. Well, now that it's all over, I'm glad it happened. How else could I have taken tea in front of an open peat fire with the turkeys and the dogs and the O'Donahue's of Killarney?