I closed my eyes and took that first tentative sip. Instantly, I was back in time, sitting on my southern Great Grandma’s porch, sipping sweet tea, staring out at that silly yellow ribbon my cousin and I had put around that old oak tree that shaded the front porch (although, I think the tree was a Maple, actually).
It’s THAT tea I’ve tried to create in the past and failed. Not miserably failed, but failed in capturing it.
I’ve steeped it in the sun, as I read, but it was never quite the same. Just, not quite there.
Until last week when I bought a bag of loose tea, as I had gotten a notion to sit and write and sip on a nice hot tea, and the 18million in my cupboard wouldn’t do, cause they were not loose leaf Yorkshire gold. When I bought it, TK at the store (from Newfoundland), with her missing teeth and Newfie accent, asked me if “I were Irish?” and how I liked my tea. I said strong, and she said: “yip, your Irish”.
And so I brought it home and made it just like I would coffee, in my fresh press. Lo and behold it was the most gawd awful concoction I’d put into my mouth. BLAW!!!
So I left it there. Left it there ALL day on the counter. The next day I thought…iced coffee…iced tea.
And, so there was the key. And so I used that vile tasting crap, poured about 2-3 tbsp’s into a cup, added water (approx. 2 cups) and sat there in this chair and sipped on beautiful memories, of my southern family, and the way it felt sitting there on her porch, staring out onto a landscape that I knew so little about at the time. To me, the land had a certain spooky at a distance, a sense of place and reason that the southern Ontario farmlands I grew up with never had.
Those giant plantation mansions, with their stately Georgian presence still dot that landscape, and where black field workers houses line the highways and dirt roads. Where white farmers, with actual guns in their gun racks, plow down those self-same gravel roads, and cotton still lines the crossroads, like southern snowflakes.
It was a strange land to me, probably more so today maybe, even stranger than it was back then.
Back then, in the 1970’s, racism was words you said behind closed doors to people you knew, not right out in public, not blatant, but there none the less.
That sweet tea, as it went down my throat, had me thinking about all that. And I now learn more every day about the illusions I carried with me all these years, where manufactured, fiction, created by me and me alone, with little basis in fact. And naive. Very naive.
If I said I never heard racist things when I was growing up, I would be lying. I did. I heard prejudice, and certainly racist things, and I could say it was different in Canada, and perhaps it is, but we are no less in danger of experiencing the same level of isolationist, nationalistic, exclusionary ideologies, ripe with the words of hate and prejudice in the open, in the public spaces, and from the mouths of elected officials, just as susceptible to the subtle artifice of hate that rules the White House today. And I see people nod their head, and agree, and say that “everything he says is the truth”, and I merely stare incredulously at my screen.
And I say, what is it about that southern sweet tea? What is that spooky action at a distance sense of place I remember? How the food tastes better, the tea sweeter, the air brighter, the soil darker – and at the same time a foreign land, with people speaking in a strange accent, of things I didn’t understand as a child.
How easy it was to accept that black people in North Carolina lived in houses that would be condemned in Canada, with brand new cars out front, and white people lived in nice homes with crap cars. That was the dichotomies that lined my vision. Not racial tensions, or racist ideologies, so much as a fabled land of Brier Rabbit, and Brier Fox, and the Civil War, and my Northern Uncle from Upper State New York, who spoke in a brash loud voice and made, apparently, the best Martini my Mom had ever had. I accepted these dichotomies of economies as just the way it was.
Like, those neighborhoods where black people lived, in inner cities, where places you went warily. Where lost once in St. Petersburg, Florida, we four drove through in our brand new Ford station wagon, while many stopped and stared at the lost white folk, and knowing full well we would never stop and ask for help.
Then I remember another time, lost in Hull, Quebec, and my Dad’s watch Mom bought him for Christmas went off. It played Dixie, and it played it really, really loud, and it echoed through the car, and out the window to the spectators that lined the streets, as we somehow had accidently caught the tail end of a parade, and we were in it. As Dad almost ran into a light standard from trying to get the damn thing to stop…I can remember him, with his southern twang grown stronger saying “Jinnet (Mom’s name was Janet), how da ya get this thing to shut up”?
And so there we were in a parade, driving through Hull, Quebec, Canada, with Dixie blaring away like we were an invading army of four. Spectators lining the streets, staring, in much the same way, knowing full well we ain’t asking for help, as that ancient English and French thang is still alive and well in the hearts and minds of some, and my parents were no more going to stop in Quebec for help then they were in those black neighborhoods in America.
And that’s a snapshot of my childhood. Rife with dichotomies, with Fathers who in one breath were telling racist jokes that my sister heard and went to school the next day and told the whole class. Or one night after a heated argument I’d had with him about racism, his stories of friends who were sometimes not allowed in the same places he was, couldn’t drink in the same bars off the base of Fort Brague when he was in the National Guard.
Ah, sweet tea, what is it about thee? I guess it just is something you just have to sit with, really, to understand, and work through the bitterness I now see as vital to its strength and flavour. And, I do wonder, as I sip those childhood memories and wonder why we are not over all this BS already.
And then, I close my eyes and think of her rocking back and forth on that front porch with her best friend who some silly law way back in the ’50’s when Dad grew up, said couldn’t go in her house. I imagine the two of them laughing and talkin’ bout whatever two old women talk about on sunny afternoons, in the cool shade, sipping Sweet Tea together.
Yes, I see that in order to make a proper sweet tea, one must have the right mix of dichotomies.