TEA AND EMPATHY:
Fork on the left. Knife and spoon on the right. Plate. Cup and saucer for tea. As I set the table for three, I glance through the sliding glass doors past the kitchen table to the patio. The lengthening shadows stretch through the October light under the canopy of the California Pepper's broad branches. As I watch the dark come, a lone sparrow, startled by something unseen, flits up to land on the brick wall before flying off into the evening sky.
"Dearie? Dinner is ready." My grandmother's voice pulls me back to the room as she calls out to my grandfather. I see him through the kitchen door as he pushes himself up on the arms of his chair and moves to turn off the t.v. His body bent slightly still, highball in hand, he turns our direction. Brown slippers make a scuffing sound on the terra cotta floor as he shuffles into the kitchen and sits at his place at the table.
"Would you get the salt and pepper please, dear?" my grandmother asks me, She is holding the china teapot, setting it down just as she sets her own aproned girth. I sit, too, placing the plain glass shakers in the center of the yellow tablecloth. Without a word, my grandfather reaches for the pork chops first. It is the signal to begin and I spoon into the green beans. The only sounds now that the t.v. is off are those of the meal and the lonesome sound of a whistle as a train works its way up through the canyon below. In silent ritual, my grandmother pours tea for the three of us.
Clink. Clink. Clink. It begins with the three short taps of his silver spoon ob the rim of his teacup. My shoulders tighten.
I wait, not daring to glance his way. It is coming. In my mind I can see his thin, veined hand--almost dainty in its gentle grasp of the teaspoon--hovering over the yellow roses blooming in repose on the china cup. The deep dark honey color of the tea swirls in the cup as he dips his spoon in stirs before sounding the warning clinks again. The moment stretches. Get it over with. Be done. Aw, c'mon. My mind moves over words as my breath holds at attention. C'mon. I know you're going to. I can almost see the gleeful look in you pale blue watery eyes. I pretend not to notice, take a bit of potato onto my fork. Lift the bite--oozing with butter and flecked with black pepper--toward my mouth. Maybe he's not going to do it this time. Maybe it's just a tease. I just sneak a sidelong glance to my left to see...
"Ouch!" The hot spoon on the back of my left hand as I lower my fork smarts for an instant and seems to push the escaping sound out like steam. I grit my teeth as I hear his low chuckle.
"Now, Dearie...," my grandmother's gentle voice chides. Nothing more is said by either of them. We all continue eating silently.
My grandfather, a cold, taciturn man, has played this small trick on me all of my life. I don't think he'll ever stop. Does my grandmother think he will, really> After a bit she asks, with a soft, warm smile on her face, "Don't you both think you're too old for that?" She doesn't seem to expect an answer.
He never looks up, just goes on with his slow, careful bites, chewing and chewing, tools poised and ready for the next bite. His eyes are innocent--almost--twinkling with mischievous light behind wire-rimmed glasses. It is as if the spoon is some kind of jumper cable joining us, sparking some small communication--a link that does not otherwise exist. The small teasing meanness a way to connect, to say I love you without any words. I know this somehow. I, too, can play this game.
Clink. Clink. Clink. He continues to stir, taunting. Outside, the encroaching darkness signals the ending of yet another day. Without looking at either one of them, I set down my fork, leaving the potato I was eating for now. Picking up my own spoon, I stir my tea slowly with my left hand, clinking the spoon on the edge as he does. I am fully enrolled in the game now...a small glow of warmth rests inside my chest. Does he think I wouldn't dare? In fact, would I?
Every movement is slowed to a snail's pace. Smooth and slow. No jerk at all. Stirring....stirring...I can sense their held breath as they watch, wondering. I have their attention. I can feel their eyes. The corners of my mouth itch to turn up. I control them. And I continue to stir, letting my teaspoon just brush against the sides of the cup...just enough....Clink. Clink. Clink.
Then, setting down my spoon on the saucer, I pick up the cup and slowly sip at the hot, sweet liquid within. I smile with my eyes over the rim of my cup, set it down on the saucer without the slightest sound, pick up the spoon, stir again, and...Clink. Clink. Clink.