Jim gave me a teapot more than thirty years ago as a birthday gift. This is a love story told in teapots.
I only really knew one other teapot before his gift. It was pink, and my mother redeemed countless Lipton tea bag tags for it before I was born. My family drank iced tea, always. Iced tea was poured from a hardy stainless steel pitcher my dad redeemed from the discard pile of the US Marine Corps. One of my most tender memories of my mother is when she brought out the pink teapot for either of two occasions: to serve me hot milky tea when I was sick, or to serve homemade hot chocolate with marshmallows for my January birthday. I still have it, and I have forgiven it for its’ pinkness. I have been known to serve my daughter homemade hot chocolate from it. My daughter won’t drink tea. The pink teapot is about a mother’s indulgent love. It’s about my mother’s gift for enchanting the ordinary in otherwise meager times. This teapot comforts me, and it is durable. Not unbreakable, but able to withstand use. Just like my mother’s indulgent love.
Love always comes from somewhere. The economy of love is both prodigal and parsimonious. Nothing is spared. Nothing is wasted. The scraps of love from one generation are sewn into the wedding garments of the next. Unfortunately, the same thing can be said for family dysfunction. I am stubborn in my belief that even a scrap of love salvaged from the wreckage can overcome the shipwrecks we endure in the name of love, family of birth or family of our making.
Jim’s family is from Wales. They come from a great tea drinking tradition, even though my father-in-law prefers coffee as the “elixir of the gods.” The first time that something like attraction pulsed in my veins for Jim, we were on our way to the airport in Chicago at the beginning of Christmas break from college in Valparaiso. He offered to take me because “it was on his way home.” Just after Thanksgiving, my roommate revealed her engagement to a Fort Wayne seminary student. She had failed to recognize that Jim’s attentions to her had romantic interest and purpose. He was understandably hurt. We left school early in the day after hearing that an impending ice and snow storm was on the way. We made it to Schaumberg in plenty of time, so he suggested that we stop in to visit his grandfather. Looking back now, I am very grateful that we did so. I only had two opportunities to meet this delightful and delighted man. “Jimmy brought a girl home!” flickered behind every sentence in his lilting and musical Welsh accent. He insisted upon serving us tea, even as he showed me around his impressive collection of train memorabilia. Silly that I was, I didn’t realize that 3:00 in the afternoon was close enough to 4:00, and there was much about tea that didn’t fit in a teacup. He brought out all the delicacies he could find in his widowed bachelor pantry. His Welsh was thick, and I didn’t understand him very well. I understood enough, however, to hear the music in his voice. I felt no need or impulse to correct him about his assumptions about the nature of my relationship to Jim. At that moment, his delight became mine also. This silver teapot was likely to have been the one from which he poured his delight into my cup. I later learned that it had been a gift to him and his wife from their children on their 25th wedding anniversary. It still fills my cup with delight and the pulse of love first recognized. The love that grew between Jim and I after that impromptu date was as unexpected as the sudden departure of my plane that night. Thinking we were arriving in plenty of time, I was informed at the check-in that if I wanted to leave that night I better hurry–no, run –to the gate where the last plane before the storm hit was about to depart. Jim grabbed my luggage and we ran like crazy through O’Hare. My only regret in marrying Jim is that we did not take that ticket agent’s advice sooner when it came to running down the aisle. Ten years was too long to dally. I’m glad and grateful that I didn’t miss either plane.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
In a perfect world, we would never quiver in this. Limited in understanding the future, and fearful about what we do know in the present, I’m surprised that our knees do not turn to jello at the end of the wedding aisle…or by the end and fulfillment of our vows. Brides and grooms pick 1 Corinthians 13 for their weddings so blithely, little knowing how much the truth of the chapter will hurt and cut at them in their worst days, months, and yes, even years. Sometimes it hurts because it is the truth. Sometimes it cuts at us deeply because the truth of our lives is so far removed from this truth.
We had no idea how much we would have to bear and endure when we made those promises to each other September 16, 1989. We had no idea how long our hope for children would be unfulfilled. We had no idea how much we would have to go on faith, not knowing where the road would take us but only trusting that we would take it together and God’s hand would lead us. (Thank you, LBW evening prayer for that image) If someone had told us, we would have nodded politely and gone on our way (while holding hands, of course.) We have acquired a knack for taking turns with our despair and discouragement. One knows how to hold the other up in turns. One long night on a getaway weekend to Indianapolis, all three of us– a very young David, Jim, and I–became sick with an intestinal bug. With only one toilet in a hotel room, we miraculously succeeded in taking turns. This could be the plotline of our life together. Complications in life tend to build on one another. It’s never just one thing. At the same time, we hold on to each other so that we can build one another up as the complications stack up.
I knew that Jim really loved me on that night we spent with a youth group beached with our canoes on Mosquito Coast, Maine. I don’t know if that was really the name of the beach. I know that there were enough mosquitos swarmed around our food to count as a portion of protein. The teenagers generously allowed us the use of the two person tent, and even pitched it for us. In the middle of that mosquito infested night, I discovered that the tent was situated in a field of poison ivy. I figured that out when I came face to face with the leaves as I threw up again and again all night. It was difficult to get out of the tiny tent fast enough, and as I grew weaker Jim’s stomach must have grown stronger. He held my head tenderly, wiped my face with a cloth dampened in a water bottle, and held a pith helmet under my chin, emptying it over and over again so that I didn’t have to face the poison ivy. Love indeed endures and bears. I might have read that a million times before, but that night I understood it for what felt like the very first time.
After cancer I learned again how much love could endure even when I could barely endure my own self without repulsion. The surgery, the hairloss, the constant dizzying sickness and the fear of dying were bad enough. When my wound did not heal and developed a horrible fluid filled cavity that took 10 months to close, Jim tenderly nursed my wound. Twice a day he removed packing, drained tubes, cleaned the mess, and kissed me. I could not bear to even look at my own body. We practiced again that dark humor that we learned through the years of infertility and pregnancy losses. He honored my wounded, disfigured body with respect I could not even give myself. I saw so much of Jim’s parents incarnated again in him then. John cared for my mother-in-law through a long, horrific disease. At one point, she had bolus wounds on her ankles and feet that required constant cleaning and bandaging. John attended to her without ever flinching. During one Christmas time visit to San Diego, a first grade David injured his big toe with a deep cut from a sharp edge in the hot tub. Grandpa John tended David’s toe alongside Grandma Peggy’s toes. We have a delightful picture of the two comparing Grandpa John’s handiwork on each of them. David never forgot it.
The gold and yellow teapot, along with the gold creamer and sugar, was another gift to Jim’s grandparents from their children. This time the occasion was their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Jim and I may never see a fiftieth wedding anniversary since we “married late” at ages 34 and 29 respectively. I hope we may. This year is our 25th wedding anniversary. We had once dreamed that we would go back to Hawaii to celebrate in the place where we honeymooned. That is pretty much impossible to now. Again, circumstances converge and my underemployment (as Jim calls it gracefully) limits the kind of money we have for that. It’s another one of “those times” to endure, to bear with one another’s burdens, and to hope and believe beyond all we can presently know. We’ve been in this kind of spot before, and probably will be again. We’re getting to be adept at this, when we’re not too weary. Gold is fitting for a love that has weathered fifty years. I think it’s fitting even for the 35 years we have endured and loved and born with each other. Fools gold is not able to withstand this kind of stuff. Real gold is what is found in the refiner’s fire. You can’t create it, cultivate it, or even take credit for finding it. You can’t squirrel it away for safe keeping or multiply it by any get rich quick scheme. It’s more like the discovery of a gift that is left when all else has changed or been taken away. This teapot is more fragile than the others, and I take it out more rarely. It doesn’t especially comfort me, but it pours unqualified satisfaction deeply into my veins, my very soul.
Finally I come back to the clay teapot. It is a beautiful creation of an unknown someone’s hands. There was no mold. It is unglazed, giving it a rather raw appearance. We have used it many times in the years of both courtship and marriage. Many times we just nuke water in a mug and add a teabag. That’s just about having a cup of tea. This teapot would never go in the microwave. It’s bamboo handle is wrapped in the wire that attaches it to the pot. This teapot is about the ritual of sharing tea. This teapot begs us to slow down and spend time together.
The clay teapot has taken on its own unique personality over the years, no matter how many others were made like it. It wasn’t packed properly during one move, and the infuser chipped the inner lip under the lid. Cup after cup of tea has stained the interior to a deeper shade of mahogany. No amount of scrubbing will change some of those stains. I’m not even sure I would want to now. I noticed just this week how the bottom side of the lid has retained the original, brighter terra cotta color. It’s still there, but you literally have to lift the lid and look for it. The outside changed, just as Jim told me it would. With use, tea and clay have come together to create a thing that is different than the thing I was given. Each now becomes more than they were when merely tea and merely newly shaped clay. Each gives something to the other that it did not have apart. The patina is deeper, the color no longer raw and somewhat uneven in places.
This teapot is certainly not in mint condition, but I love it all the more for what it is. I would be deeply chagrined if any of these four teapots would break, but this one would be different. This one would cause pain for being broken, but I
would quickly find a way to repurpose it as something else. Love is like that. Whatever is broken and left for dead finds a new life in unexpected ways. The destination isn’t gleaming and glittering. It is the dirt that gathers as we travel, turned into mud by our sweat and tears and disappointments, then in a surprising work of hopeful imagination, it is gathered and turned and shaped until it becomes something else. Maybe adamah, the Mud Man into whom God breathes God’s own spirit and comes alive. Maybe a teapot. Maybe just ashes to return to the ash heap so we can let go of it and start all over again.
I said at the beginning that this is a love story told in four teapots. It is our love story, mine and Jim’s. I think we can find God’s love story in here too. Maybe it’s God’s love story that helps me to understand my own, that helps me to uncover the gold refined in the fire and the pearl of great price buried in the field. Let’s find the tea in the back of the cupboard. Not the tea bags–which Jim’s grandmother always suspected of being “sweepings” from the tea packaging floor. Slow tea. The kind where you can look closely and still see the leaves. The kind you have to measure out and pour water over that is brought to just the right temperature for this kind of tea. The kind you sit down to, bringing out all the delicacies you can find, and delight in the company of another while you sip it in breathy, mindful sips.
This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness; not being, but becoming; not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are always growing toward it. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.