Copyright © 1997 Henrietta W. Hay
After Tea . . .
March 14, 1988
Recently I helped a friend celebrate her 75th birthday. Until the end
of the party, when the hostesses were sitting round talking with their
shoes off , 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
silver service -- and paper cups and plates, albeit very fancy ones.
We got to reminiscing about "teas" and I suddenly realized that we all,
figuratively speaking, 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, including mine, already were scenting
freedom and were destined to become active in the long battle for
women's rights, but form was still important.. All of us in the circle
grew up being prodded and trained and threatened by our mothers as we
learned to move socially, more or less graciously with our hats and our
As we sat around, we could remember when the word "tea" meant not
something that you drink out of a mug, but a form of entertainment and a
form of behavior. We went off to college to find that "tea" included
all sorts of social activities. Any get-together for the purpose of
meeting new people or celebrating something was called a "tea." So
there were rush teas and faculty teas and nurse teas and tea dances
where we spent a lot of time standing around socializing and drinking
tea -- out of cups with saucers.
The '60s children will shake their heads at the whole idea, but at that
time we knew that we had best mind our carefully learned manners if we
ever wanted to go home again. This was, of course, before Thomas Wolfe
discovered that we couldn't anyway.
And here we were in Grand Junction in 1988, mixing heirloom silver and
paper plates. I don't think any of us thought much about what had
happened in the intervening years until we got to talking about our
youth and discovered its common thread.
I am not about to discourse on the relative advantages of growing up
with white gloves, and growing up without them. I am sure my kids would
never believe that I ever wore them. But it is kind of fun to think
about. Certainly a kind of formality did not hurt us any and maybe it
has even made it easier for us to negotiate some of the pitfalls we have
But we live in a much different world. Personally I much prefer this
one. Social relationships are more casual and generally more honest.
We are more interested in the people than in the form. Those of us at
the party know that. We have managed to move comfortably into the
casual informality of the 80's and have perhaps even helped lead the
But still, I suspect, we carry way back in our collective consciousness
a bit of the tradition our mothers wanted us to have.
Where but at a 75th birthday party will you find a beautiful sterling
coffee service and paper plates?