As is typical of office workers in December, it’s 11 a.m. and I’ve not yet seen the sun. I wake in the dark and I drive here in the dark; there are no windows at my desk. My computer screen substitutes for the sun’s light, and my tea break at this hour substitutes for its warmth.
I begin my morning here and drift for a while into a spreadsheet-induced focus, crunching through invoices and tidying my company’s endlessly messy reception inbox. I can quite reliably sift through these tasks by this time so I can quite reliably have a warm beverage by this time. I tell myself that it’s important to take breaks, but realistically, I just need the caffeine. This break has become so much a part of the daily monotony that it’s almost an extension of it.
The mugs in our kitchen are custom-made, branded, as you’d expect from an advertising agency. But we are a “cool,” “young,” “hip” company, so the branding features punchy catchphrases such as, “If it’s wounded, kill it,” and “What’s the headline?” Sometimes by 11, the cabinets have been ransacked and I’m not left with many options, but when I can choose a mug, I like to pick a slogan relevant to my day, like some kind of corporate horoscope. Today I go for “Don’t fuck it up.” That’s a good one.
I tear open two bags of earl grey, add hot water and almond milk coffee creamer, the usual. Then honey, to soothe my aching throat, which winds up on my hand as I palm my mug for its heat. My foray into office work was first enabled by coffee abuse, but tea is my preferred caffeine delivery vehicle lately. It feels more natural to me. I was raised on tea.
When I was a kid, my grandmother would serve my sister and I orange pekoe with milk in special china cups with accompanying plates. Mine was pink, my sister’s purple, with gold leafed at their rims and on their handles, their outsides like sand lapped on the ocean floor, grooves between soft peaks.
Both those cup sets survived our clumsy childhoods. We didn’t know anything about fine china, but we understood their preciousness, the delicacy of them. From fine china, you can learn the power of fragility, how the fragility of something else demands you rise to the occasion, exercise caution. I still sometimes am a bumbling kid trying not to break her teacup. I still sometimes am the teacup, trying not to be broken. I still don’t know anything about fine china other than that my grandmother loved it and I loved my grandmother.
It’s impossible to treat a basic white slogan-emblazoned coffee mug with the same reverence as an artisan-made pink china teacup, but I’m sure trying not to fuck it up. I haven’t spoken to my grandmother since the day before she died. I wish I was one of those people who are convinced they’ve at some point felt the presence of those who’ve passed on. I don’t feel my grandmother anywhere. She’s like the sun at this time of year.
But I remember her, which is a sensation that, if leaned into enough, could pass as feeling her. It’s half of the way there.
She says hello with tea. Hydrangeas. Knick-knacks. I wish I could say hello back.
But the tea break ends. I wash the honey off my hand. Back to work. My grandmother was born into poverty and abuse and died in the home her daughter bought for us, amongst family who, like the garden of flowers in our front yard, she planted, raised, and watched bloom. She gave me so much more than a pink teacup, so I do what I can to not fuck it up.