Afternoon Tea by Alexander M. Rossi

January 12, 2008

Last week my sister-in-law had two of my friends and me for lunch. It had been arranged before Christmas, a flurry of emails having saved and secured the date, but as I set out on that dour January morning, it seemed to me that the timing of our little gathering was exquisitely providential. My mood was as heavy as the dark clouds piling in from the west; tears seemed even more imminent than raindrops and the headache that had been brewing with the approaching weather front was raging so violently I could hardly see straight. I pulled into her driveway with something like a sigh of relief and hauled myself out of the car, grateful only that I hadn’t gotten a speeding ticket on my way there as I had two days previously en route to meet two other friends for lunch…

Edie still had her Christmas wreath on the door—fresh and yet fragrant it was too lovely to take down. I gazed at it rather mournfully, luxuriating a bit in my post-holiday blues. But before I had a chance to knock the door swung open, and there stood Edie, smiling in her radiantly gentle way, and beyond her, Ashley and Debra, waiting to receive me with hugs and smiles of their own. Is there any medicine on earth so potent as the embrace of a friend?

I forgot my headache. I dismissed my Janu-weary mood, for what place had it in this little sanctuary of beauty and warmth? The 1920’s bungalow was aglow with candlelight, and soft French music lilted through the rooms. A collective gasp went up at the sight of our table, for a more daintily feminine array cannot be imagined. There were place cards (with appropriately deco script), and the damask cloth was laid with every possible accouterment for a ladies’ tea: antique china, vintage silver, a tiered cake plate boasting everything from homemade scones to macaroons and melt-in-your-mouth truffles. On the sideboard stood enticing decanters of chilled lemonade, with crystal goblets at the ready. And everywhere I cast my eye, it seemed, were sweet little bottles and vases of pink and white spray roses. Pretty as a Valentine; proper as an English tea room.

Edie brought out the soup course while I poured the tea, and then we fell to the feast of fellowship with as much relish as that with which we polished off the roasted red pepper soup, and the mushroom and pine nut quiche that followed. Our conversation took a delightfully meandering course, as it only can in the hands of like-minded ladies. We discussed everything from organic gardening to vacuum cleaners, touching on politics, homeschooling and needlepoint, each in their turn.

But over all our talk, it seemed, a shining mantle was cast, a high vision of beauty’s worth that infused every subject with a strange sort of lowly nobility. Time and again we came back to one of the tenets of our homemaker’s hearts: the value and validity of loveliness. The power of beauty, in its simplest and purest sense, to speak audibly of the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. Beauty is of Him, from Him, for Him. Beauty has a language that transcends even the finest words, that soars above our sweetest experiences in this life and whispers to our souls of what heaven will be.

Debra and Ashley are painters, artists in both life and craft. It has been beautiful for me to watch the former inspire and instruct the latter, pouring herself out, as it were, to the enrichment of a friend’s creative world. As a homeschooling mother of three, Debra could easily justify the forestallment of her own artistic desires. But instead, she’s set an example for the three of us childless women not to deny the significance of our own unique and God-given talents, even in the whirl of a houseful of teenagers. Creativity is a hidden spring, feeding the deep wells of our personalities. And when that spring is tended, unclogged and running true, cups of cold water in His name abound. We give of ourselves, because there is something there to give.

Ashley has approached the discipline of oils with courage and joy (almost she makes me want to paint…not quite. I’m not that brave!). I love to go into her house and see a new work in progress lying on the dining room table, or to catch that light that comes into her eyes when she’s describing some technique that Debra’s entrusted to her. Ashley doesn’t want to have her works in the Met, or even make a living off her paintbrush. She wants beautiful things of her own making on the walls of her home; she wants to give gifts that are indeed a portion of herself. When one considers that her whole life is a gift, that being around her is one of the most energizing occupations I can think of, it appears that the hours spent mixing paints and poring over a canvas are a perfectly natural and even necessary replenishment for her.

Into the midst of all our high talk that afternoon, Ashley slipped an analogy she’d heard in a sermon that caught my fancy in a compelling way. She gave us a picture of our callings: Some of us are tiny watercolor brushes, with only a few strands, intended for the most delicate of detail work. And the range goes all the way up to those big industrial paint rollers that can cover a whole wall in minutes. If you asked a watercolor brush to coat the side of a building it would be a disaster that ended in despair. And a paint roller would wreak havoc upon a little violet in a cut glass vase. Is the paint roller more important, more valid, because it covers a greater area with speed and efficiency? Is a Winsor & Newton more extraordinary merely because it is able to capture the rare beauties of life that might otherwise have been trodden underfoot? We all know the answer—in our heads. Both have their place and their job to do. And it’s a job that is certainly never going to get done by looking around at the other brushes nearby and comparing oneself to their bristle size and handle length. Or their subject matter, for that. And just as an artist will rifle through many brushes in the creation of one painting, we will doubtless find that the Master Painter will bring varying sizes of implements to bear upon the living landscapes we’re all creating, day in and day out.

And, if you happen to be a watercolor brush, don’t be mistaken in thinking that you cannot have a far-reaching impact in this world for beauty and truth. In a recent (and umpteenth!) viewing of the movie Miss Potter, I was struck by something she said regarding her own art: “I’m not very good at landscapes,” with a somewhat regretful glance over a sweep of Lake District loveliness. But Beatrix Potter was good at animals. And charming little stories that revealed their dignity to untold numbers of children the world over. She did not set out to write the best-selling children’s books of all time, or to almost single-handedly save the Lake District. She was just brave enough to be good at what she was good at. And there’s not a one of us alive who should not be grateful to her for it.

In like manner, Edie was merely living in her gifts that day. Hospitality, gentleness and grace; the touch of an artist upon her table and the rooms of her home. She gave of herself in that little luncheon for four, and created an environment for edification to flourish. It took time and great care, and a painterly attention to detail. (And if she wasn’t the immaculately tidy housekeeper I know her to be, I’d say she was still washing dishes!) She refreshed us from a source both deep and true, and I feel safe in assuming that she was refreshed in the process. This is beauty’s seal and signature: a mutual joy and a glory to God.

Renée Zellweger as "Miss Potter", Phoenix Pictures, 2006

originally published on YLCF