America's Favorite

My mother snuck up on me tonight. She likes to do that, when I make a cup of tea.

Tea was her clock and her comfort. She fixed a cup first thing in the morning, rawboned and pensive in faded flannel pajamas. Thinness kept her girlishly limber into her fifties, and she would sit with her knees drawn tight to her chest like a child at story hour, a faraway look masking her thoughts as she sipped. In those moments it was as if her whole body were wrapped around the mug, pulling heat and strength and reassurance from its steam.

All day. She drank it all day. With meals and afterward. Between chores and before bed. My mother drank tea the way some people smoke tobacco: agreeably and pleasurably chained to it.

She drank cheap American tea, which she prepared the tragically American way: by nuking a single-serve baggie in cold tap water on high for two and a half minutes. As I child I thought microwave ovens worked by conventionally heating their contents, only with greater power. When I learned they actually operate through radiation, I was terrified to think what my mother was ingesting from those little bloated brown bags of leaves. Now I know whatever poisons irradiated Lipton left in her blood were nothing compared to what the alcohol did. But kids aren't always good at recognizing the enemy.

Tonight I wanted to wrench more from the dwindling evening than my brain seemed prepared to give, and past a certain hour coffee just feels obscene - so I made a cup of tea. The cabinet is stocked with Earl Grey, peppermint, and chamomile, not to mention a half-dozen tins of Terence's oolongs and greens and other more exotic blends. But I chose from the bright yellow box with the red and white logo - the one containing several dozen miniature envelopes packed in cheerful uniformity. The cheap stuff. America's Favorite Tea. Well, perhaps. One American's that I can attest to anyway.

I can't drown it without smelling it first. And that smell is everything. Things I've known and things I'll never understand. Things familiar and things forgotten. Things that make sense and things that have no business speaking to me at all, much less from the depths of a delicate paper packet the size of a pocket watch. Orange blossom, pepper, and miscommunication. Timothy hay, chocolate, and blame. That smell is my mother.

A funny thing about tea, though: its scent seems to fade under the kettle's boiling spout. So she comes sometimes, when I reach into the bright yellow box. But she rarely stays longer than two and a half minutes.