My Totally Un-Grown-Up Coloring and Tea Party!

My 64th birthday was more than a bit grim, as I awaited surgery for a potentially terminal illness. Oh, the family celebration was enjoyable; a young relative and I have birthdates falling only ten days apart, and we chose to make the whole gathering a lively thing by celebrating together in conjunction with Chinese New Year. But throughout the entire evening there was no way to escape the knowledge, lodged like an evil imp in the corner of my brain, that this might be the last time I gathered with my family to celebrate a birthday in this lifetime.

Circle the world on its axis…  I woke one January night nearly a year later.  Lying there, unable to sleep, I was overwhelmed by a deep gratitude that I would be entering soon upon my 65th year, healed. This year, I suddenly realized, I wanted a birthday party that was truly a celebration. I wanted something simply fun. I lay there pondering the question of just how to achieve that aim, and the answer came easily: I and many of my cronies considered coloring to be fun: just plain good fun. An Inner Child sort of party, I thought. A return to the simple pleasures of childhood. A coloring party would be the perfect way to celebrate my 65th birthday. Still restlessly tossing and not sleeping, I considered the question of what foods should be served at a coloring party, and again the answer rose up easily: another childhood favorite. A tea party.  I might no longer own my beloved childhood Blue Willow tea set (see the post, My Blue Willow Tea Set, 06/26/18), but I still loved a tea party.

Having taken hold, the idea spiraled. IMG_20190228_072333378_HDR (2)A family member suggested that all the pages colored at the party could be gathered into a scrapbook by which to remember my 65th birthday; an old friend arranged the use of a local church hall, so that I could invite as many people as I chose. Family and friends committed to bringing tea party-themed dishes. I searched for and found delightful miniature tea sets—thumbnail-sized plastic teapots with matching fairy-sized cups–to be inserted into organza bags and handed out as “tea bag” party favors.Tea Set I bought crayons and colored pencils and markers and coloring books and door prizes and party goods, and lovingly warned out-of-town friends who could not be present that they were expected to send me a colored page, too. Then, much as I had done for my daughter’s wedding, I petitioned all the saints and powers given charge of the weather for a snow-free February afternoon, and prepared to party.

The saints and powers were kind; the Saturday of the party dawned grey, misty, and perhaps a little ugly, but snow-free and fairly warm for a late February day in the Midwest. Friends and their young children or grandchildren arrived in droves–with late arrivals and early departures, over 40 people were present at some point during the party. They hunkered down to laugh, gossip, win door prizes and sip tea while nibbling a luscious assortment of goodies: rose petal jam cookies and tiny tea sandwiches; canapés and strawberries; nut bread and cupcakes–all the while producing colored pages—beautiful, funny, delightful–for my scrapbook.

At the end of the day, everyone pronounced the party to have been a great success. I was gratified, exhausted, and pleased beyond all measure. All I had really wanted was for my family and friends to have fun as they helped me create the memory of a lovely birthday to expunge the uneasy recollection of the one that had preceded it.

And for that reason alone, the Coloring and Tea Party was more than a success; it was a small miracle. Although nothing will ever completely erase the memory of those  anxious weeks spent awaiting cancer surgery, the support and care of family and friends who saw me through those dreadful days limns that fearful remembrance with a halo of shelter and sanctuary. In the same way, the recollection of that former gloomy birthday pales into insignificance beside my wonderful new memory of loved ones gathered in laughter and  happiness to relive childhood pleasures.

Growing old is inevitable, the saying goes, but growing up is optional. I could not ask for more than that each of us occasionally once more experience the simple joys of childhood, right up until the day we leave this life.

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.