If you’re offered tea, it’s not food. It’s not a beverage. It’s an invitation. A welcome with ritual importance. To say “no, thanks” is to deny your place at the table; to renounce your claim to the throne; to reduce a home to merely a house.
When you accept (and I hope you do), you will want milk—it’s too strong otherwise. Loose black leaves imported from India. English or Irish Breakfast mixed with Oolong. More bite than drip coffee, nearer to espresso than Lipton, and almost as bitter.
Let him pour the milk first; he knows how much, and the order is important (I don’t know why). If you’re unused to caffeine, ask for the first pour, like my mother does. (Don’t worry, she’s accustomed—it’s more habit than defense).
And so you don’t err: We don’t mean herbal tea. We don’t mean green. Yes, those are tea drinks—but that’s not what we’re drinking. We mean black tea.
After your first cup, pause. Wait for the light sweat to form across your back. That’s how you know it’s working. If it’s hot enough, and caffeinated enough, you’ll feel the warmth radiate through your body, and you’ll be the right level of relaxed.
After your second, sit up. That’s when the conversation begins.
Listen. Or talk—if it’s your turn.
We’re having tea, my father and I. And he tells this story:
We’re in the dining room, the whole family, at the house on Barry Hertzog. (“Having tea, probably,” he grins and lifts the teacup to his lips). Jack and Bluma, Cliff and D and I. It wasn’t late—not even dark.
We hear a commotion on the street. Yelling, a scuffle, a car’s backfire. And all at once, we leap up and rush to the stoep.
There’s Moffett, one of our workers. (“Servants,” my father corrects me). He’s talking to a man with an axe stuck in his head.
(“I remember the conversation being casual,” my father says. “They were just talking.”)
“Baas,” the man says to my grandfather. “Call me an ambulance?”
Another day, another tea. This story:
Suddenly Moffet, my father says, stops coming to work. (“Actually,” as an aside, “we called him ‘Moff.’”). I was still young. Maybe ten. It turns out, he was stabbed to death on the train, while on his way from the city to the townships.
“What happened?” I ask.
He was just heading home.
“And they randomly killed him?”
There was a lot of violence in those days. Bikers, gangs, organized crime, politics, and of course the police. But also just violence: stabbings and shootings and robberies gone wrong. They think he was killed by the tsostis.
He pauses, sips, adds: “Why do you think I wet my bed until I was 13?”
As much as I want to understand, I know there is a limit to how much I can. Every time I ask him to refine a detail or explain a bit of context—something I can’t quite see or don’t entirely understand—I’m inundated by this anxiety: and when he’s gone?
I know I won’t be able to clarify what comes from his mind or his memory. I’ve already lost a store of knowledge from my grandparents (I was too young to ask Jack, had no idea what to ask Bluma) and now what will I do when I want to ask him?
Were you at the kitchen table or the dining room table?
Did the man with the axe in his head knock on the door himself?
Did Moffet hear the noise and run out to look ahead of you?
(Before I asked, I thought they’d answered the door and the man with the axe in his head had been standing there on his own. No, my father clarifies, he was Black. He wouldn’t have knocked on our door like that. “Even with an axe in his head?” I ask. He sighs, sips his tea.)
(Another time: “So Moffet heard the noise first?” I ask. He doesn’t remember; assumes Moffet was out working outside, or else the man had knocked on Moffet’s door. He lived in the backyard, as all servants did at that time. “In the so-called ‘servant’s quarters’,” my father says with a frown).
I know memory is a fiction, a construction—a rebuilding of a time that no longer exists; a remembering of a remembering; a castle hoisted on the foundation of another ruined castle; a high street traced onto the sunken indent of an old Roman road.
I know memory is a story told and retold, like shoes are worn and re-worn—until they change color, change shape, change texture, until they eventually even lose form. And then what?
It hurts my chest to know that I can’t hear these stories forever, and so I grasp at everything he says—everything he remembers. I ask and ask, pull and pull. Paint vividly, I request. Please provide details, I plead. Give me color and shape and texture, and even give me form.
But ultimately that’s not his job. (And so—is it mine?)
I hit record on my phone halfway through each anecdote. (Hear the rustling and fumbling as I start the Voice Memo app). Fear that I’ll miss a nuance, a name. That I’ll miss something he could already forget. That I have already forgotten.
I wonder: am I robbing myself of these moments? In exchange for fragments a future-me can hear and misinterpret? Is this what matters—the moment, or the story? Am I sacrificing our bond for the impossible urge to fact check?
I don’t want to exchange flow for detail, or rupture connection with clarification and Wait, what was that? How do you spell that? It’s tiring—for me if not for him.
I also want to sit quietly. Side by side and sip our tea. Not force him to clean out the cobwebbed corners of his ailing mind. Become subject of a memorial while he’s still alive.
But he never complains. Never hesitates to share. (Yet nor does he bring it up himself.)
He asks: “More tea?” Holds the small metal filter over the mouth of my mug: pours—my third cup, his too—until the wet black leaves spill into a silty mound atop the sieve.
The third cup is always bitter. The pot has been steeping too long.
Come, would you like some tea? (Say yes.)
May you find your way onward
toward creative joy,