Teatime with Pearl

I am currently in the process of writing my next book—this time character-driven fiction set in the Canadian prairies circa 1963. It’s developing very slowly. However, as I write I find myself reliving some vivid childhood memories. The following is one of those memories.

The first of my teatime treks began on a warm, sunny summer morning when I was five years old. Fed and dressed, I was bursting with energy, ready for whatever the day might bring. My mother was busy with my newborn sister and suddenly had little time to play with me. I conjured up my best pouty face, plopped down heavily on the worn hardwood floor in the living room, and started talking to my favourite doll, Precious. I was working hard to contain all that running, jumping energy. And then a miracle took place! My mother stood over me, cooing baby on her shoulder, and announced, “Sharon, Pearl just called and asked if you could walk up to her place for tea.”

I sprang up leaving poor Precious lying in a forgotten heap at my feet. I loved our neighbour, Pearl. She was beautiful—tall, slim, round glasses, steely blue eyes, soft grey curls. I called her Auntie Pearl. It wasn’t until I was much older that I found out she wasn’t my biological aunt. I think Pearl loved me too. She always found time to talk to me and she treated me like a grown-up person, not a silly little kid. As I ran for the door, my mother called out, “I’ll watch you from the kitchen window until you get to Pearl’s house. Stay to the side of the road and don’t get into a car with anyone, not even if you know the person.”

Pearl’s house sat on a small hill about half a mile up the gravel road from our farm. There was a clear view between our houses, and I am sure both Pearl and my mother kept eagle eyes on me during the walk back and forth. Nowadays, many would be shocked at the thought of giving this kind of freedom to a five-year-old. But it was the early 1950s, we lived on a farm and knew everyone around, there were very few cars on the road and most of them were neighbours. Also, I understood the safety instructions.

I sang little songs to myself as I skipped along the road savouring the warmth of the sun on my skin, the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet and the whisper of the breeze in my ears. My stomach leapt in anticipation as I reached the door of Pearl’s weathered farmhouse. She greeted me with a warm smile and directed me to sit with her in the cosy kitchen nook. In the middle of the table, she had set a freshly brewed pot of fragrant tea, a can of condensed milk, and a bowl of sugar. Pearl took out a delicate china cup and proceeded to pour a small amount of tea into the bottom. She filled up the rest of the cup with the thick sticky-sweet milk and a spoonful of sugar. I can still taste that warm creamy saccharine ‘tea’.

While I was drinking my tea, Pearl would talk to me about my dolls, my new baby sister and all the wonders of being a little girl. Time with Pearl became the highlight of my week. On really special days she would bring out a deep pan filled with a shimmering molten liquid. I would watch, mesmerized as she dipped her arthritic hands into the pan and slowly pulled them out coated in waxy white gloves. Sometimes she would even allow me to dip my fingertips into the liquid wax when it had cooled a bit. We made a game of seeing who could peel the wax from our fingers first.

One day, a few years later, just as I was getting ready to leave I peeked into the bedroom and saw Pearl using eye drops. I had never seen that before and asked her what she was doing. She replied, “My eyes don’t make tears, so I have to use tears from a bottle.”

I was shocked. “Auntie Pearl, does that mean you can’t cry? What happens if you feel sad?”

Pearl gathered me into her arms and whispered, “My dear, you can still feel sad even if you don’t cry. Sadness comes from your heart and tears just come from your eyes.”

Those treasured days with Pearl taught me many things—remedies for arthritis, the difference between sadness and tears, and the value of a shared cup of tea.

I miss you Pearl.