Tea parties were the most cherished ritual at the Enson-Morton house. At ten to four, Romaine and I rushed upstairs to the dress-up trunk, where we found fancy dresses, shawls, stoles, mufflers, and little straw hats trimmed with ribbon and lace. Ara, having heard our feet trample up the stairs, would often follow us, shyly asking if she could join. We always said “yes,” even when we didn’t want her around.
Lynnie came down from the studio, toting Boo on her hip, at five to four. Once she stepped off the stairs, she set down Boo, who scurried to the living room at the front of the house, crawling up couches, collapsing against the pillows. Lynnie went to the kitchen, slid a rag across the small, wooden, tea table—our size—made sure it didn’t collect dust. From the cabinet to the right of the sink, she extracted tea cups, pots, the little saucers, the silver, sugar cube tongs. The sugar cubes were my favorite part of tea.
Lynnie set the china and silverware on the table and folded the cloth napkins like they would have been done at a fancy restaurant. If I squinted my eyes properly, the napkins looked like swans. The saucers and teacups were placed on the table; they never exactly matched. Some two went together—a saucer and teacup, pen and paper, neurotransmitters and neurons, but they were never a true set. Floral print served as the predominant motif—roses and lilies, crimson and violet daisies, delicate jasmine flowers we used when we drank jasmine tea. I liked leaves on my teacups: vines, a few flowers. Romaine liked the teacups decorated with large pink roses or those with gold rims and solid bodies. We put our pinkies up like we’d seen in movies.
At precisely four, Dave emerged from his downstairs office, saw that Lynnie had set the table, noted the three of us in our dresses and hats, fastened his snap-on bow tie, and pulled out our chairs for us. In the British accent he used at tea, he said “pleasure, ladies” as we put our napkins in our laps.
Lynnie hovered near the stove, waiting for the teakettle to whistle, then shriek. She waited for the water to cool before seeping the tea and handing it to Dave to pour into our cups. We didn’t want to scald our tongues.
Some Thursdays, Lynnie served me warm apple juice. She was the only one who noticed that I crinkled my nose when I tasted the tea; it was an acquired taste I found too bitter. She told Romaine and Ara that I liked apple tea. Romaine and Ara said they preferred flowery teas, so they didn’t mind if I had my own special one; they never asked to taste it.
The rules of etiquette were enforced at teatime, rarely adhered to at any other time in the house on Oak Street. When entering the kitchen, Dave looked down at our feet. Teatime was the only time shoes were required in the Enson-Morton house. Lynnie often walked barefoot, always in the house, occasionally even when she picked us up from school; the second-grade mothers’ group didn’t exactly approve. But at teatime, only the most cultivated of behaviors were allowed—“please,” and “thank you,” and the proper utensils for the proper plates. We thought Dave, with his well-mimicked British accent, could pass for a proper English butler, and we suppressed giggles whenever he spoke. If we let one pass our lips, he would chastise us for our lack of restraint. Lynnie stayed near the oven and stove, pursing her lips together at the same time we felt the urge to giggle.
One Thursday afternoon, in what must have been December—it was raining and cold and the trees had lost their leaves—Romaine and I rushed upstairs at eight to four, as we’d been listening to Ara talk about the picture book she’d made at school. We quickly ran to the dress-up trunk and flung open the top, hinges working furiously to keep up with the enviable energy of eight-year-olds, sifting through dresses, cardigans, and overcoats. I chose the Cinderella dress—showing signs of wear and spilt grape juice—while Romaine found a vintage dress decorated with little flowers at least nine sizes too big. Romaine slid the elbow-length white gloves up her arms, and I situated a blue headband atop my hair. It felt too gloomy to wear hats that day. Ara joined us at five to four, slipping a white, silk dress over her head and fastening a bright pink, faux-fur stole over her shoulders; Ara liked being noticed, no matter what the occasion. She was going through her actress phase at the time.
We returned downstairs with one minute to spare. Lynnie had already folded the napkins, like fans atop our plates. She’d even draped a lace tablecloth over our little table. Romaine and Ara darted to their usual chairs while I clunked along in the Cinderella glass—well, plastic—slippers I’d chosen to wear. We waited, standing next to our chairs for Dave to arrive. Lynnie tended to teakettle on the stove; Boo could be heard jumping in the living room; Dave was three minutes late. We closed our eyes and willed him to appear; he didn’t. After what seemed to be an eternity of four full minutes, Dave opened the door to his office, poked his head out, and came to meet us. If we hadn’t been so concerned with being proper ladies, we might have cheered. We didn’t even mention the properness of punctuality; tardiness was frowned upon in the Enson-Morton household, especially at tea time. To my chagrin, in the years after they disappeared, I found my mother was incapable of being on time; I was known for being perennially late to school.
“Mesdemoiselles,” Dave said, indicating our chairs.
Each of us sat, one by one, as Dave pulled out our chairs. We scooted closer to the table, placing our napkins in our laps.
“That’s French,” Ara whispered from my right.
“It means ‘young ladies,’” Romaine added from my left.
He usually just said it in English; my French was limited to a heavily-accented “bonjour” and the occasional “oui oui.” I was convinced I had to say it twice; I found it far more euphonic.
After seating us, Dave wandered over to Lynnie. She whispered, handed him something—probably pills, since he grabbed a glass, filled it with water, shoved whatever he had into his mouth and swallowed. She kissed him, he tickled her sides and we pretended to be engrossed in tracing the intricacies of the tablecloth. I couldn’t help but stare; they were so different from my parents. I wished my parents were as young and beautiful, as fashionable as Lynnie and Dave. Mom wore a fanny pack and mom jeans; her hair was cropped short, like a boy’s. Lynnie dressed in nice jeans and beautiful tops—silk, probably from one of the high-end department stores—when she wasn’t wearing paint-splattered overalls; she could make paint-splattered overalls and bare feet look trendy. Dad wore suits with ties and belts, straining as he put on his middle-aged weight. Dave wore jeans, sometimes a bow tie at tea time. Romaine told me once, in the first few months we knew each other, that her parents were twenty-eight. My mother was fifty and my father fifty-one that year.
Dave returned to the table with a pot of tea—jasmine, which I preferred over the green and chamomile we’d had in the preceding weeks. He set it down in front of Romaine before returning to where Lynnie stood, holding a plate of scones with the tiniest bit of clotted cream and lemon curd and enormous gobs of butter, which I applied amply.
We held out our cups and Dave poured tea into them, placing a scone on each of our plates. We finished them quickly, then nibbled on the strawberries Lynnie had sliced. Dave refilled our teacups. We drank slowly, careful not to burn our tongues, even if Lynnie had let the pot sit for a few minutes before Dave served it. When we had finished, asked to be excused, and had our request granted, Romaine stood up.
“Daddy, daddy,” she called. Dave had that look, the one as he calculated numbers in his head.
Dave shook his head slightly, as though falling back down to the present, and looked at her.
“Daddy, we’ve been practicing our curtsies. Watch.”
We had been practicing our curtsies since last week. Proper ladies curtsied, we knew, and we had been raised with impeccable manners, meaning that we should be expected to be proper ladies.
“Curtsies, really?” He asked in a tone that was meant to sound interested but really wasn’t. He looked toward Lynnie, who nodded her head carefully.
“Watch,” Romaine whined.
We grabbed the folds of our dresses and slid our right legs behind us, teetering slightly before regaining our balance. We bent our left legs, tilted our heads forward and down in a gesture of reverence and slowly came back up. Ara, who stood behind us, clumsily tried to mimic us.
“Excellent,” Lynnie called next to us; we hadn’t noticed her stray from the kitchen. She clapped loudly.
“Yes,” Dave concurred weakly, “great.” He clapped briefly.
We smiled broadly, our missing teeth creating a void only a child’s smile can. Ara attempted another curtsey and fell over. Lynnie rushed to her. Ara stood up and tried again, this time succeeding.
“Just like a movie star,” she beamed. She practiced, bending more deeply until she could scrape the ground with her fingers.
“Mommy,” Romaine asked when Lynnie had finished tending to the determined Ara. “The fourth graders are talking about cotillion. Can we go? We want to be proper ladies.”
That was what Lynnie and Dave said when Romaine, Ara, or Boo didn’t want to practice their manners: proper ladies, a proper gentleman. After two months spent at the Enson-Morton house after school, Mom couldn’t believe it when I slid my napkin on my lap at the dinner table without prompting. She’d been making valiant but failed attempts at convincing me to do so since I began kindergarten. Whatever doubts she had about the amount of time I spent on Oak Street dissipated.
“Oh, Roma,” Dave replied, using his own diminutive for her, “cotillion will ruin a proper lady.”