Monday, March 19 , 2018, 7:25 pm | Overcast 57º


Jamie Stiehm: The Tea Party Takes the Cake

I wore my best summer dress — bright yellow — to the tea party the 7-year-old girl in our family gave for my birthday. Peonies and snapdragons in profusion. What more could I ask on a Tuesday afternoon in July?

Well, the company.

There were six of us at the lavish table: my mother and father, a sister, and her son and daughter. We were home away from home: in the Midwest house my grandfather built when he was a tall young man in Madison, on his first job in the Wisconsin Highway Department.

My mother grew up in this house, this village. Her summer job was teaching kids to swim in Lake Mendota. Every night, her father played ragtime on the piano, until he was very old. He died at 99.

Lush green grass was still rolling outside the window, where my grandfather bird-watched with binoculars. The raspberry patch has seen better days.

What an uncanny child to know I’m an Anglophile at heart. I never told her about the storm-tossed London chapter of my life in my 20s. The British man I married told me, in all seriousness, that there was no calamity on land or sea that could not be calmed by a cup of tea. I grew fond of Earl Grey.

The birthday tea party was all the girl’s idea as we admired my grandmother’s teacup collection, each adorned in a different flower design. I’ve loved those teacups for a long time, but they stayed on a living room shelf for decades, even after my sweet Wisconsin grandmother died in the 1990s at 93. She grew up in a small town in Kansas.

Sterling, Kan., have you heard of it? Her large Kilbourn family lived in “town” but had a ranch, too, where she spent summers. The “men” worked from early in the morning and needed hearty meals.

So I got to choose the first teacup. Primroses please, to remind me of storybook Primrose Hill in Northwest London (of 101 Dalmatians fame). We were going to put these cups to work, by Jove.

This turned out a matrilineal thing, based on the female line. The girl had connected to my grandmother Eleanor’s spirit — her great-grandmother. She was born 20 years after my grandmother died.

For the party, I made cucumber sandwiches, thinly sliced cukes on trimmed white bread with a bit of butter, cream cheese and, yes, salt and herbs if you wish. The English knew how to cope with the midday sun in India and Africa, a cricket match picnic at home.

The Championships at Wimbledon also create an English garden character. Elderflower cordials, a well-kept secret, are perfect on a summer day.

The boy requested Bengal Spice tea and coffee cake. He and my father were sports for this light-hearted affair. It gave me a magical contrast to the heat where I live.

Now I’m back in the boiling cauldron and smoking guns of President Donald Trump’s Washington. I’m wearing my press pass to go to the Capitol. Must I go? Washington is one harshly masculine world after my Wisconsin tonic.

The scene here feels like The Mad Tea Party given by the Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s far less amusing, of course, and more sinister.

Fresh from dairyland’s sanity, the latest father and son Trump ties to Russia, apparently disclosed through emails, does not surprise. Like father, like son. What surprises me is all the powerful people — on our shores — who tolerate his utter nonsense. The British word is “appalling.”

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., uses the Russian story to deflect the news media and people from the health-care repeal he means to ram through the Senate this scorching summer.

Trump talks, but McConnell moves, all day long.

Watching all these spinning Washington teacups has me yearning for my stable Wisconsin table.

The centerpiece was the lemon citrus cake. As you see, a tea party can be just the thing. A present from a prescient girl.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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