How we remember them: My sister’s tea basket

For two non-biological sisters, tea time is the thread that keeps them tethered – across time, distance, and even death.

A drawing of two women having tea
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

In the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, loss has been part of the lives of millions. In “How we remember them”, we reflect on how we process that loss and the things – both tangible and intangible – that remind us of those we have lost. 

It is the Fourth of July and the local park hums with the buzz of adults and children playing with sparklers, whose tales burn a bright red. Kids wave them in circles, figure eights spinning round and round against the night sky. My sister, who is not related to me by blood, carries me on her hip. My body bounces up and down against bone. She has the lithe body of a runner. When we vacation in New Hampshire in the summer, Sue will run the circumference of Beaver Lake returning to the cabin drenched in sweat.

During at least one of these vacations, Sue will take a feminist stance against societal norms and declare to all four of us, “I am not shaving my armpit hair to please men.” My embarrassment by her decision will pale in comparison to Sue’s empowerment. When we float among the lily pads, after a morning of feeding the ducks, who attempt to nudge each other out of the way in a frenzy, Sue’s arms hang like wet noodles behind the plastic tube she sits in. Her pit hair is visible. I wish she would shave. I imagine it fanning out in the water and attacking me like a carnivorous sea creature.

These are the things I remember when I think of Sue, years later while I search for a basket in the store. The basket will house the tea I plan to fill it with just as my sister had when she mothered her children. I remember how she mothered me. Our 13-year age gap almost made her seem more mother than a sister, though she was neither, really. Our biology was as different as our views on armpit hair.

Sue’s mother Esther took me in when I was 10 months old. My biological mother was a drug addict so her mother, my grandmother, stepped in as our guardian. My grandmother and grandfather worked corporate jobs and needed someone to care for my brother and me during their often long workdays. Esther lived in a housing project in the same city and worked as a mother’s helper while raising her own three children as a single mom. My grandmother called Esther “the babysitter” but she became a mother to me and, by extension, her children became my brother and sisters.

Sue’s house in the woods

When Susan got married, I stood next to her in a foolish bridesmaid’s dress praying that her life would be filled with happiness. I imagined my own wedding standing in a beautiful white dress next to the man who would soon be my husband. Sue was the person I looked to when I thought of the adult life I would have one day – college, husband, home, children, career. I could have it all, just like she did. She found work examining cancer cells as a clinical researcher and she remained a feminist even as she married and shaved off the body hair she had once found to be such a symbol of pride, keeping her own last name well before it was common for women to do so.

Throughout my teen years and into my early twenties, I found my way home to Sue often with visits first to apartments and then to the home she and her husband had built. It was a beautiful two-storey set way back from the road surrounded by forest. Esther worried about how far out Sue was, referencing Little Red Ridinghood each time we drove the winding roads under the canopy of trees to go for a visit. We were city people and the woods scared us far more than any crowd-filled street. Muggings and pickpockets were nothing in comparison to what could wait for us in the dense woods that made us feel a strange sort of claustrophobia. We could run into bears or wolves or get lost and die of starvation or thirst.

While the drive to Sue’s filled us with anxiety, once there we felt like we were home. Sue had filled the house she had built with all the things a real family needed, a mother, a father, children and blazing lights from inside that allowed her to find her way back no matter what. It was exactly what I wanted. No housing project or ambiguous family structure like the one we felt we had grown up with.

Sue’s house in the woods was perfect. It even had a picnic basket, a wooden square with a cover. Inside it was filled with a soft felt-like material and tea. Sue probably found it on one of her many trips to a local craft fair or flea market.

Our tea time bonded us as we drifted further from each other. It was the thread that kept us tethered to one another even as Sue married and had children and I went to college five hours away.

The basket came out each time I went for a visit. Sue would rush to the kitchen, her stockinged feet padding against the tile floor, to pull it from its place high above the shelves. When she opened it, the tea packets were organised according to flavour. There was lemon zinger, green tea, chamomile, Sleepy Time (a favourite of Sue’s), English Breakfast, peppermint, Darjeeling, chai, and apple cinnamon. I remember the animated way my sister would describe each type. Sue would hold a bag up to her nose and take a long, deep inhalation. Then, she would pass it to me and say, “This one, sniff this one. Isn’t it amazing?”

Once we made our choice, she returned to the kitchen and put on the kettle. We would settle in and wait for the kettle to call to us with the high-pitched squeal that broke the silence of the whispered secrets we had waited to share during the months between visits.

I always chose a cinnamon apple-flavoured tea, mainly because Sue would add in a cinnamon stick, which I would use to stir the dark liquid as it cooled, swirls of heat rising above my mug like mythical ghosts. I ran my teeth along the cinnamon stick, a reminder of our shared childhood. These treats were always in the metal pantry cabinet in the kitchen when we were growing up, one of the few luxuries bought with my foster mother’s meagre pay. The stick always reminded me of tree bark, and I imagined myself lost in the wilderness, trying to survive on only the things that nature provided.

Tea talks

It was during these tea talks that I learned my first lessons on motherhood through Sue’s own experiences with her two children, my niece, and nephew. We chatted about love, college, marriage, and our shared experiences recalling our summer lake vacations and the horrific Boston winters we had endured, including one blizzard that dropped 68.5cm (27 inches) of snow joining the 21 that had already fallen just two weeks before. Winds gusted up to 134km/hour (83 miles/h), and when it was all over, we built a fort next to the apartment Esther kept at the housing project where we grew up. Sue pulled us in sledges down the hill to get milk at the store.

We talked late into the night, our bodies huddled together on the couch, our shared yawns ignored until we could no longer keep our eyes open. The tea basket returned on the evening where we watched our mother struggling to learn to read, a skill she’d lost after her brain surgery. Esther had a highly aggressive tumour, which was the result of brain cancer. It would kill her during my senior year of college, only months before my graduation.

After watching Esther succumb to cancer, Sue would find out that she had it too. We discovered this just before we were going to visit for New Year’s Eve. Sue had what they thought was a stroke because she lost her ability to speak as she ate breakfast with her husband and kids. The culprit, cancer, was aggressive and mean just like the one that had killed our mother.

During one of our visits, Sue went through her things and spoke of how she wanted to begin leaving letters and other reminders so her children could remember her and look to her when she was gone. We both cried as the kettle boiled and the kids darted in and out of the kitchen unaware of what they were about to lose.

The funny thing is, I do not really like tea. I never have. I am a coffee drinker. I enjoyed the time, the memories, and the nostalgia that surrounded those moments. I enjoy them still, and think of them often, even now.

Susan died at the age of 45. I am 46. She survived for several years as she battled to make the most of the remaining time with her children.

Now, as my children have come to love tea, I search for my own large basket to fill with the many flavours I know that Sue loved. We can sit around in our kitchen and bond the way I once did with my sister back before life became so complicated, back when she was around to share tales of motherhood that continue to help me now as I mother my own four children.

Susan Kissell Rainville was born in 1963. She was the daughter of John and Esther Kissell. She was my sister. She liked tea. This is what I remember. I am going to buy a tea basket and cinnamon sticks so my children can remember too.

Source: Al Jazeera