Mothers’ Tea Sets by Angela Caldin
Stamford in Lincolnshire is one of my favourite places to visit. It’s a beautiful limestone town, home of the characterful George Hotel, a comfortable old coaching inn with a luxuriantly leafy garden restaurant. It has Burghley House, a spectacular Elizabethan mansion, the Water Meadows with the starting point of the Jurassic Way to Banbury, and the Arts Centre where our Stamford friends perform and direct plays at the Shoestring Theatre. Last time we visited, one of our friends treated us to an old fashioned tea at her house, served in her late mother’s best tea set. The cups and saucers were Heathcote fine china with a thin gold rim and a sky blue band edged by another band of gold and brown with an intricate art deco design. The blue band swooped into an arch on each side of the cup to frame a garland of yellow, red and blue flowers with delicate foliage. These lovely cups and saucers made having tea so much more of a ceremony, because the cups were small and dainty, requiring filling more than once. My friend remembered her mother’s threat of ‘If you break that you’ll have to pay for it’, which seemed very real when she was a child. Her mother came from a rather loveless family so that she valued and took great care of ‘things’. Though nothing she had was of great value, it was all hard won, as money was scarce. She was a great housewife, gardener and darner, stoic about her deafness, adept at making ends meet, but the pinching and scraping coloured her view of life.
I have my mother’s beautiful tea set too; I think it might have been a wedding present. It is Shelley fine bone china with an ochre rim and the cups have pink and purple hollyhocks framing a sundial. On the plates, stone steps lead up to an archway covered in yellow roses with two blue butterflies soaring in the sky. I also have the beautifully worked mats her dearest friend embroidered, copying the same pattern. To my great disappointment, the set isn’t worth much: I took it up to our local Chiswick auction rooms (as seen on TV), where the valuer looked it over and gave a sigh which showed that he was less than impressed. He said that if the cups had been more triangular in an art deco style, then that would have been a different matter, but my mother’s cups are round and plain. So I brought the tea set home again, and put it back in the cupboard. I wanted it to have a good home where someone would cherish it and use it even though it doesn’t go in the dishwasher.
When I open the cupboard and see the cups and saucers, all neatly stacked, I think of my mother. She had a very hard life. Her mother died when she was twelve and when she was 18 her father married a widow with twin daughters who made her life a misery and teased all her boyfriends. She became a primary school teacher and that career was to stand her in good stead through her marriage to my errant father who never managed to settle to civilian life after his wartime service in Africa and Italy. When he finally left her, she carried on teaching until aged 65, hard-working, generous, welcoming, funny and, most of all, kind. She was a gifted teacher and was always bumping into old pupils around Manchester who hailed her with great affection. She was a talented knitter, gifted baker and, in later years, creator of beautiful rag dolls. I didn’t always treat her as well as I might have done: wayward, thoughtless, sometimes unkind, not spending time with her when I could have done, not considering her enough. Now she’s no longer here, I appreciate all her wonderful qualities, together with the sacrifices she made for me, and I’m reminded of the words of the Joni Mitchell song:
‘Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?’
So I’m keeping the tea set as a souvenir of my mother because this is its home. I’m going to use it from time to time, even though I’ll have to wash it up by hand. It’ll be a reminder to be as kind and generous as I possibly can be to those I love (and also to those I don’t love, come to think of it), while I’ve still got them. And my advice to each of you out there, if you’re listening, is to treasure your mother while you can, keep her in the loop and show her a good time. Because before you know it, she’ll be gone and all you’ll have left is the tea set.