Mary Chilton Steele
When I was growing up, the Steeles would come to visit every few months. My mother would say, “We’ll be having a Sunday tea. That meant a visit with Mr. and Mrs. Steele; a rare treat, and an unusual meal — afternoon tea was more than just a beverage.
Instead of the usual Sunday dinner at around one o’clock, on this day we would have an extra large, early breakfast, then tea at around three, and a small supper at night. This tea wasn’t a simple meal — it was ‘High Tea.’ In addition to neat, ladylike tea sandwiches with her homemade bread cut thin and toasted, Mother would serve several casseroles, a salad, and sliced ham or a roast capon. A rich cobbler with home-made ice cream in summer or custard sauce in winter finished the meal. And of course, there was tea. It was served properly in a warmed teapot, with cream to pour from a silver pitcher and sugar lumps to take from the sugar bowl with tiny silver tongs.
We lived out in the country and I was an only child, so I relished all visitors, but especially the Steeles. Mr. Steele seemed very old. He said little, just sat up straight and smiled, holding the carved silver handle of his cane in both hands, one resting flat on top of the other.
Mrs. Steele carried the day. She was probably younger than her husband, but I saw her as a beautiful old lady who knew how to talk with children. She would always start with the same question to me, “What are you reading?” and I would always have an answer, having been reminded beforehand by my mother. Mrs. Steele had usually read the book and, if not, would write the name and author in her little notebook and send me a note about her opinions and questions after taking it from the library to read during the following week.
I remember her talking about politics with my father, who was often involved in a campaign. She always included me in the conversation. Situations that seemed dull at first, like candidates’ views, came alive when she discussed them.
Some fifteen years later, after my daughter was born, my mother and I took a house at the beach for a month’s vacation. Mother wrote to Mrs. Steele, who by then was really very old, and she came to see us on the arm of a nurse. Mr. Steele had died.
There had always been a little lesson, obliquely delivered, in our conversations and, thinking back about this particular visit now, I realize she had a mission.
My father, who had died some years before, had been 20 years older than my mother. Mrs. Steele could see, at those afternoon teas of my youth, that I was not very connected to him — the age difference was too great. I had a grown-up half brother and sister who lived too far away for me to really know; my mother and I were Daddy’s second family.
Mrs. Steele must have seen my impatience with him. So she set about on this visit, in the nicest way possible, to tell stories. After all, she was the only one left who had known him when he was young. I can’t remember the words, just the impression (which was her goal, after all), and I came away with the sure idea that in his youth, he was funny and light-hearted, had many friends to whom he was true, and a great and lively intelligence. Her tales of his life rang true. They caused me to remember the jolly calls from his classmates at reunion time, his trips with fishing buddies, his love of reading, and his concern when he served on the Draft Board during the War. I have never had another opinion of him through the rest of my life. It was a memorable gift.
Toward the end of this visit, she held her right hand out to me, palm down. “Do you like this ring?” she asked. I reached out and took her hand; she was trembling slightly with the effort, and looked closely at the ring. It was platinum, with a lovely antique-cut emerald in the center, a tasteful size — not too large — surrounded by small diamonds. It sparkled in the sun. It was beautiful on her old, gnarled hand.
“Yes,” I answered.”
“Do you know where I got it?” she asked. I remembered that her husband had been a partner in one of the great Fifth Avenue jewelers in Manhattan before losing everything in the Wall Street crash, but I said, “No.”
She smiled, “I got it at Woolworth’s.” She waited for her statement to take full effect and continued, “After the crash of 1929, my husband’s business failed and all we had left were my jewels. I gradually sold them off over the years so we would not be a burden to my son — so we could live independently. And I’ve never been sorry. Now whenever I wish for a piece of jewelry, I go to the five-and-ten-cent store and find one I like. And, do you know, I wear it with as much pleasure as the expensive trinkets I used to own.”
Remembering that day now, I realize why we had sumptuous high teas when the Steeles visited. We hadn’t much money, but they had less. This was my mother’s way of helping out without seeming to. I remember her saying to me, when we were clearing away the dishes from one of their long-ago Sunday visits, “After all, they only have one meal a day in order to save money, so we can try to make it a good one.”
all MemoriesMatter stories— MWGutmann copyright © 2019