"Tradition -- Tradition" --sings Zero Mostel as Tevya in that wonderful
musical, "Fiddler on the Roof." As the century closes, Tevya is still
pleading for Tradition, and with good reason. Over the years we have
discarded a lot of traditions -- some good, some bad.
What brought that to my attention was a "tea party" I recently attended. It
was not exactly what my mother would have had in mind, but tradition was
there, at least in the memory of several over-70 guests.
"Tea parties" were once a standard of social intercourse, but they have now
taken their place with washboards and whale bone corsets. We have a more
casual life style now.
The first article I ever wrote for the Sentinel was about tradition. I had
helped a friend celebrate her 75th birthday. Until the end of the party,
when the hostesses were sitting around with our shoes off rehashing the
event, I had not stopped to think how utterly incongruous the whole thing
was for women of my generation. On the table were a beautiful centerpiece, a
birthday cake with a floral bouquet, a family heirloom sterling silver
service -- and paper plates and cups. There were several generations
symbolically tied together on that table.
We got to reminiscing about "teas" and suddenly I realized we all had the
same mother! Our mothers were Victorians, raised on propriety and they
raised their daughters the same way -- or tried to. Some of them were
already scenting freedom and were destined to become active in the battle for
women's rights, but "form" was still all important. All of us had grown up
in the twenties being prodded and trained and threatened by our mothers as we
learned to move socially, more or less graciously, with our hats and white
We went off to college to find that "tea" included all sorts of social
activities. There were rush teas and faculty teas and tea dances where we
spent a lot of time standing around drinking tea -- out of cups with saucers
(mugs came later). Perhaps I should mention that this was during
Prohibition, and tea was the drink of choice.
The sixties children shake their heads at all this and accuse me of making it
up. Nobody is any happier than I am that Queen Victoria exists today only in
the history books and that her influence on social mores is long gone, but in
the twenties we were living through the last vestiges of Victorianism. We
are living in a different world in the nineties, for which I am eternally
But although we grow past one set of customs, we don't forget them. Here we
were that day with a beautiful silver tea service -- and paper plates. Same
idea; different equipment. My mother would never have considered using
anything but her best China. I would never consider using anything I would
have to wash by hand.
A British critic named Stephen Bayley explains the difference somewhat more
intellectually. "The assumption must be that those who can see value only in
tradition, or versions of it, deny man's ability to adapt to changing
At our elegant "tea party" last week we had wonderful non-alcoholic,
tea-stimulated conversation. We covered art, the theater, travel, politics,
philosophy. We talked about changing customs. We felt sad over the things
our grandchildren missed out on, but we were so very glad we can relax now
and let them create their own customs. We laughed at the fact that after all
these years, when I heard the word "tea party" I automatically reached for a
skirt instead of my usual slacks, while the men showed up in sports shirts.
We are living in a vastly different world from that which our mothers
occupied. Personally I much prefer this one. Social relationships are more
casual comfortable and generally more honest. We are more interested in the
people than the form. But the basic ingredients of social intercourse have
not changed. Consideration, courtesy, humor, honesty still work, no matter
what the current rules of etiquette may be.
But we don't ever quite forget some things. Even now, some 70 years later, I
catch myself glancing over my shoulder to see whether my mother is looking if
I put on white dress shoes after Labor Day.