I often make myself a cup of tea early in the morning, in those quiet, morning hours when the household is still asleep, mostly on weekends. And there I am, standing in my kitchen, stirring the milk and the saccharine into the hot, tea-soaked water, when I hear the noise. “Clink, clink… clink.” There it is again. That sound. It is the teaspoon. Bumping against the side of the teacup. And suddenly, always, I am overwhelmed by memories.
That was the noise I used to hear when I was a young girl, sleeping warm, under blankets, in the wintry city of Milano, in Northern Italy. The person making the tea was my father, George. In his pajamas and an old-fashioned, striped British-style wool housecoat, with fur-lined leather slippers on his skinny, flat feet, he would carefully make tea for his five girls: his wife and four daughters, all still in bed. All waiting to be awakened.
It was a morning-tea tradition that was brought to the cold industrial Milano from a sweltering and colorful Mumbai, then called Bombay. Just a few years earlier, George himself, his wife Ruth, and his daughters would be awakened with a milky and sweet cup of hot tea by the ayas (maids) who worked in our house. In those days, we used to have three ayas waiting on us, in addition to a driver and two cooks.
But in Milano, where my Jewish-Indian family immigrated in the last year of the ’60s, when I was 7, there were no ayas and no cooks. And my father took on the task of bringing his beloved family their morning tea.
He would come into our bedroom crowing like a cock: “Cokooroo Cokoroo Cokoroo Cokooro,” and he’d put the warm cups into our hands, once we had sleepily propped ourselves up on our pillows. Two sisters and I shared a room. Then he would go and wake up my mother, with her own mug of piping hot tea, allowing her to snatch an extra few minutes of peace before she’d have to get up and face a morning of breakfasts (toast, butter and a glass of milk) and sandwiches (cream cheese and olives, butter and jam, butter and salmon), before sending us off to school.
We girls would groggily sip the brew in our beds, and then doze off again, balancing the cup between one hand and a thigh, protected from the warm brew, if it ever spilled (very rarely), by the layers of blankets. Then we’d get out of bed and face the day ahead.
My father made us tea every morning, until we left our home to study abroad. And even then, when he came to visit, if he stayed with me, he’d make me tea and bring it to my bed. When I lived alone and then when I married, I learned to make my own cup of morning tea, even if I did drop a hint about the tea-making tradition to my novice husband. The hint fell on hollow ears, mostly, although these days, he does come up with a mug of tea for me, on weekdays. By the way, I hardly ever bring tea to my kids’ beds — only when they are sick.
My father continued to make the morning tea for my mother for many years after we daughters left the house. Until the housecoat sagged on his broad and strong, once upright, shoulders and his fingers became knobbly with age. Until one day he forgot how to boil the water. Then, how to find the kitchen. My mother Ruth, gently and lovingly, started making the morning tea for him.
He died, at the age of 82, 12 years ago. My mother learned how to sip her morning tea alone, and we daughters were left with the memory of a loving and warm wake up call.
December 18 was his birthday. We took my mother out for breakfast today. And I made sure my tea was extra sweet this morning.