Tea with Alice was amusing, if not, slightly charming. My Grandmother Alice enjoyed a spot of tea, Earl Grey being the tea of choice. Alice used a cooking pot to boil the water before transferring some of the scalding liquid into a metal teapot to warm it up. Then, my grandmother would take a minute timer and tip it over, the sand slipping through the tiny channel of glass. After 3 tips of the timer, 3 minutes, according to Alice, she would dump the warming water into the sink and fill the teapot, adding Earl Grey to the mix. From my vantage point at the cluttered chrome table, I could see Alice’s prep area, a tiny room that extended off of the kitchen area, as if built as an after thought, Where shall I cook, Charles? There was a window through which Alice could observe her two sisters who lived in the house next door. Looking to the right, Alice could see her garden of pansies. Usually, Topsy, the cat was sunning on the brick borders or the adjoining sidewalk between the two houses. Painted white cupboards attached on either side of the sink area. The counter top was wooden. There was a plunger on the floor. Beneath the sink was open shelving crammed full of various odds and sundries, a container of Ajax, a tobacco tin, plastic bucket, oil, paper bags, bolts, washers, and a mousetrap. The Scotch and Sherry were hidden behind the plastic bucket. The everyday cutlery sat in a large empty tin of Nabob’s Instant Coffee. The yellow handles looked like they were fashioned from bone. Open shelving lined the wall opposite the sink, where Alice kept her box of saltines, sugar biscuits, canned ham, flour, and baking items. Did I mention the cookie bags and cake boxes? I should tell you that Alice stashed cash in the bottom of cookie and food packages. Like a resourceful little mouse wife, Alice managed to stash a lot of cash.
The stove was in the open area of the kitchen, where I would patiently sit, watching and waiting for our tea to brew. Alice preferred her tea strong and would let the tea brew for five minutes, before pouring the dark, amber liquid into a teacup. I preferred my tea, weak. It’s practically water, Grace! Carnation Evaporated Milk to flavour the tea, turning the liquid to a creamy, caramel shade. Alice would pour a drop of canned milk into her cup and stir it slowly with a teaspoon, the creamy milk creating swirls in the dark liquid. The biscuits were usually Peak Frean’s Sugar Biscuits, the thin wafer deliciously sweet with sprinklings of fine sugar.
We always sat across from one another, Alice with her back to the mudroom, mine to the stove. Picture this, Alice’s drying rack hanging directly behind me to the left of the stove. Always, there would be bits and pieces of personal garments hanging from this suspended contraption. Slips, nylons, knit wool socks, when my Grandfather was alive; Alice never wore socks, only nylons. Sheer scarves would dangle, along with the occasional brassière. I always thought that this was rather unusual and out-of-place to air your laundry in full view of the guest, so to speak. If the space heater was blowing or the window open, it was not unusual to find a sheer half-slip or a pair of nylon stockings on your head or dangling off a shoulder-blade, all the while sipping tea. It was rather cheeky and quite disconcerting to politely pick the undergarment off and return it to the drying rack. Alice was rather proper in her deportment therefore I never understood this rather improper arrangement she had with her laundered undergarments, scarves, and guests.
A comfy Queen Ann style chair sat beside the stove, under the suspended drying rack. Alice would sit and read the daily paper; teacup perched on the stovetop, before retiring off to bed. It was the very same chair that held her tired shell, the morning I looked in the window and saw her sitting in the chair, dead, with a half-slip covering her hair.
Alice’s sister, Molly fascinated me. Molly was constantly soaking her feet in hot water. Newspapers would be spread under the bucket to catch the splashes and drips. Sometimes, when I would enter Alice’s kitchen, Molly would be soaking her feet as she rested her ample bottom on the Queen Ann. My grandmother, Alice, said that Molly worked in a local Fruit Cannery and had, rheumatism. Molly’s legs bowed as she ambled with an awkward, stiff gait. Aunt Molly never spoke, ever. We would look at each other and I would say politely, How are you Aunt Molly? She would nod and grin. Whereas Alice was pretty, Molly was crone like, slightly frightening, her feet plunked in a bucket of hot water, watching and grinning. I’m ashamed to admit, I imagined Molly flying about the night skies on a broomstick. Molly read trash magazines; that’s what my father called them. The National Enquirer was her choice. This tidbit piqued my curiosity as I was only allowed to read real books, forbidden comics, no sensational trash. Once I located Molly, sunning in her chair, I would stroll by, attempting to crane my neck enough to see the tabloid cover shot of the MAN WITH TWO HEADS or some other fantasy alien creäture. Purposely, I would venture to the side of my Grandmother’s house, lurking about, hoping to find a forgotten copy of Molly’s trash tabloids. That opportunity ended abruptly, my childhood days spent visiting Alice, over, and by the time I was seven.
That’s the perplexing thing, why did our occasional visits to see Alice cease? My father appeared uncomfortable in his childhood home; he didn’t seem to handle the small, claustrophobic space that well. Pacing about the perimeter of the small kitchen, sitting for a few minutes, standing and pacing, that’s how I remembered my father’s actions. Sometimes, my Grandmother would bring out some of my father’s tin toys with wind up keys. Minstrels, feet tapping on a tin stage, wind up cars, a one-eyed sawdust teddy bear, and mechanno covered the living room carpet. Our visiting time was usually up, shortly after we arrived. On the car ride home, father would comment on his mother, She’s an odd old bird, junk and stuff everywhere, never throws anything out. Dad does everything for her and the sisters.
It was about the time that our visits ended when Alice began to take it upon herself to preach the word about, Cod Liver Oil. Alice decided that my sister and I could use a bit of fortification and took it upon her self to administer a tablespoon-sized dose of the ghastly oil. We weren’t impressed. The grown ups crowding, Molly, grinning that crazed grin, watching as the spoon got closer and closer. My sister would cry until my father picked her up, puckering her mouth shut, refusing the vile liquid. I would resist for as long as possible until finally weakening, succumbing as the hard edge of the spoon was pushed into my mouth. It was about that time that I decided that it would be best for all if we never returned to Alice’s house. We never did, not as children.