Everything Ends, and So Will This Tea Party

There were other phrases which I could have taken as a lifetime mantra, but…

One of my all-time favorite novels, which I’ve reread multiple times since first discovering it on my mother’s bookshelves over 50 years ago, is Desirée, by Annemarie Selinko. The book (and it’s important to note that I’m speaking of the novel in its original, 1953 translation from German to English; later translations completely lost all the charm of the original), is the fictional diary of the genuine person, Desirée Clary, the first and callously discarded fiancée of Napoleon Bonaparte, who later married General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and finally became Queen of Sweden.

I absolutely adore the story, which traces Desirée’s life from the age of 14 until her coronation in 1829. It is, as I said, charming, delightful—and also sad, funny, and thought-provoking. It was a perfect novel for my then-17-year-old self to be reading; it is still the perfect anodyne for my 68-year-old-person to a world now gone as mad as the one in which the real Desirée dwelt.

But of all the captivating scenes in the book (and there are many), one of my favorites is the moment in which Desirée, confronted at an afternoon tea by three still-living former Queens of Sweden, endures a host of censorious and disapproving comments, criticizing every aspect of her behavior, antecedents, and person. Unable to defend herself against their combined and determined condemnation, she simply folds her hands into her lap and shuts out the vitriol by observing silently to herself, “Everything ends, and so would this tea party.”

Everything ends, and so would this tea party.

The first time I read that line, it both drew a smile and a gasp from me. As a victim of both childhood abuse and of school bullying, I’d so often told myself, “It will all be all right when I grow up and get out of here”. (Not true, but that’s a subject for another blog post.) However, at the time, reading those words and smiling just a little over them, I realized that, historical fictional or not, this woman—no, everyone—had something: something awful, something painful, something degrading, something humiliating—to endure in a lifetime. Even being a queen did not protect one from ill-treatment. (Or a princess. But I was still decades away from seeing the abuse that would be heaped upon the heads of Princess Diana and Duchess Meghan, events which simply confirmed the truth of my long-ago teenage analogy.)

I decided then and there to take the line, almost as written, as my mantra. Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Mistreated by teachers and bullied by fellow students; stormed at by temperamental supervisors; verbally abused or neglected in relationships: Everything ends, and so will this tea party.

I found that I could apply those words, also, to my tendency to become easily overwhelmed when responsibilities and onerous tasks piled up seemingly without end. The mantra served me a lot better than a deep breath, or even several deep breaths. I could tell myself, “It will all get done, eventually” until the cows came home, but that did not serve to relax me, or to remove the sometimes-crushing burden of overwhelming responsibility from my shoulders, not half as well as my longtime mantra. I could mutter it under my breath, and nearly laugh.

Administrative Assistant to a group of 103 people, each of whom needed something from me, usually at the same time? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (It did; the 50-plus temporary staff were discharged when an immense paperwork backlog was at last cleared away.) My mortgage transferred by the lender to what was possibly the worst mortgage servicer in the country? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (I paid the damn loan off.) Dealing with the drunk who lived next door? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (He moved, and the new neighbor was, is, a gem.) Bored absolutely out of my mind at a ridiculous required employment training session: Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Wading through the pain of family members who seem bent on controlling and causing hurt and harm? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Horrified beyond belief at a governmental administration? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (Unfortunately, not soon enough, and not without immense damage to our country.)

As a lonely teenager, I read constantly; still do, as an adult. Rather than the one I chose, there were many, many phrases I encountered in the endless books that I read which I might have taken as a personal refrain to guide me through the reefs and shoals of my existence.

But I chose the one that spoke most clearly and simply to me. And as lifetime mantras go, it hasn’t been half bad.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Lessons in the Thimble”, which was published July 17, 2018. You may locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

My Blue Willow Tea Set

A few years ago, I gave a young relative a china tea set for Christmas. It was a darling thing, with holly-bespattered cups and plates, and even tiny cloth napkins.  And when I saw her later on New Year’s Eve, I told her this story.

As I grew up, I gave away all my childhood toys. They were nice toys and dolls,  well-maintained; in our family, we were expected to take good care of our playthings.  I was never allowed to drag dolls about, unclothed, with rooted hair pulled out, or to leave my toys out in our backyard, exposed to weather and wind.  Toys were picked up every evening and put in their proper places in my room.

I had some lovely dolls—Amosandra, of whom I’ve spoken in a previous blog post, and Lisa, my realistic baby doll. I had an heirloom doll crib that had been my own mother’s toy, and a gorgeous ballerina doll.  Being raised Roman Catholic, I even had a nun doll in full habit, with a rosary dangling from her fingertips.

But of all my toys, one of my favorites was my Blue Willow tea set. A dark wooden hutch held tiny china cups, plates and saucers, tea pot and sugar bowl and creamer, all in the well-known Blue Willow pattern.  The little plates and saucers stood balanced in rims along the shelves, while the cups depended from tiny hooks; there was a little drawer at the bottom of the hutch, and there I stored the tea bags my mother allowed me to have.

I played with that tea set constantly. I brewed tea using hot water from the kitchen faucet and drank it laden with sugar stirred into the cups.  I snuck a can of chicken rice soup from the pantry and took it down to our basement play area and served it to myself, cold, in the little cups, using a baby spoon that I liberated from the silverware drawer. I placed unwrapped Hershey’s kisses on the plates as canapes.  My playmates being older, they were uninterested in tea parties, but I gathered my dolls about me and played hostess to them.  Only once did I ever break a plate in the set, and my father carefully glued the two split halves together again, warning me to always be careful with it.  That plate sat always to one side on the hutch, unused.

And then I grew up.

My tea set sat, untouched, in the corner of my room as I moved from ballerina and baby dolls to Barbies, and then away from dolls entirely, to teen magazines and Monkee records and teen-heartthrob posters and lip gloss and all the paraphernalia of adolescence. Finally, embarrassed to have such childish things in my room, where they might be seen by my friends and mocked, I gathered together all my remaining dolls and toys and distributed them to the little girls in my neighborhood, or handed them over to be taken by my father and stored in the attic.

And one day after school, I gave my Blue Willow tea set to the little girl who lived in the house behind ours.

This, then, is the story I told my little relative on that New Year’s Eve a few years ago. Mimicking the look and voice of a young teen,  I told her how I became “too big for a silly tea set!”  I described how I gave away my beautiful Blue Willow china, to be played with by another little girl.  And then, feeling the tears gathering behind my eyes, I offered her the advice–words to which she probably did not listen at all, but which I felt it necessary to say:  “So, when the day comes that you are ‘too big’ for your holly tea set, don’t give it away!  Keep it.  Put it away someplace safe.  Because now I am an old woman, and I would give anything, anything at all, to have my Blue Willow tea set once more.”

I have seen Blue Willow tea sets many times since on sales sites like e-Bay and Etsy, but never the full set in the dark wooden hutch, and always at prices far beyond my reach. Sometimes I wish that I could find one just like my own lost set.  It would never be quite the same, of course; it would not be the set I played with; it would not have one carefully-glued, broken plate.  But perhaps,  just perhaps, I could touch those tiny cups and plates and saucers, gracefully lift and pretend to pour from the tiny teapot, and thereby recapture just a little bit of the woman-child who I once was, playing hostess with watery, sugary tea and soup; serving up dreams  of a future filled with grace and elegance and charm.