proust says it’s the smell

In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust purportedly dissolves into long textual ecstasy — or is it deep nostalgia? — after smelling a particular kind of cookie. I’m doing that thing I hate, a loose citation that’s probably only folk-memory and is otherwise completely inaccurate. I suspect my alternative is to dive head-first into tracking it down, like Westley into the lightning sand* but without the vine, and with less probability of returning to complete this made-thing. Folk-wisdom it is; feel free to put the correct reference in the comments.

Proust’s madelines are on my mind because my nose and <tests carefully> mouth are full of apricot tea from House of Coffee Beans. Decaf. Because I now drink too much tea to inflict that level of caffeination on anyone.

clockwise from left rear: stainless steel electric kettle, mango-yellow 2-cup teapot, tea infuser sleeve resting in a white Corelle saucer, Harney & Sons black metal 4oz canister with a paper House of Coffee Beans label taped around it. the label is yellow with green ‘stenciled’ logo; the tea-name, Decaf Apricot-Peach Tea, is printed in black on a white rectangle.
tea tableau

I drank a lot of this tea during my undergrad. Probably all caffeinated, but it’s the floral-fruit notes of the apricot and peach that I remember. Right now I close my eyes and see my dorm room, my circa 1975 industrial-ish desk, tucked at one end on top of the platform Andy built me… I had plenty of room to sit and work, with the clerestory window at my right. Sunlight buffered by Lovett’s brick mesh, a little foot-traffic along the hall. I’m remembering my junior year, but the setup my senior year was much the same. And apricot tea all afternoon.

House of Coffee Beans was a local Houston chain, mostly whole-bean coffee (did they roast their own? probably) and also an extensive loose tea selection. I only found this tea there… never paused to wonder how they hit upon this flavoring, just delighted in it. Did I find it first and tell my mom about it? Did she find the shop and then bring me along one of the times she came in to town to lunch with me?

“My” House of Coffee Beans was on… Shepherd? Near the Bookstop? It’s been a long time. Bookstop went out of business in the late 90s. I heard they shut HCB down completely too, maybe five years ago.
I could be making that memory up.

Mom was a tea-drinker. And only loose tea, particular varietals — no Lipton, no orange pekoe, no tea-bags. Her tea came in brightly-enameled tins, which when empty we would use to pack holiday treats for teachers in; the tin was its own wrapping. She drank a lot of English Breakfast, in the red tin, and Assam (I liked the sound of the name). And there was Irish Breakfast, and Darjeeling (in…turquoise?), and infrequently something in a purple tin. Maybe that was Jasmine; she wasn’t much for jasmine tea.
Nobody else’s mom drank tea. Much less in a teapot, where you could see the little hydrated leaves at the bottom when you picked up the lid and looked in.

Dad would tease her that her stomach would be perfectly preserved: tanned, like leather, from all the tannins in all the tea she drank.
I didn’t think to ask whether we could find that out for real once she died. Would’ve been expensive, no doubt. And folk are disconcerted by child-like curiosity once one is past 10.

This apricot tea that I’m drinking in Brighton MA is my mom’s. Was my mom’s.

When I was in Austin over Thanksgiving, I asked B whether she had any tea samples she wanted to hand over.

B, like my mom, is a big-time tea drinker; less-like my mom, B orders sampler packs from her favorite national purveyor. So she ends up with ‘meh’ tea or ‘heck no!’ tea in the mix. Now that I live in a chilly clime, I’m drinking more hot tea than iced… given my iced-tea run rate of 1-2 gallons/week, I anticipate I’ll need a lot of tea leaves. Taking her leftovers is good for the environment and my budget!

B rummaged in the cupboard where the tea and coffee go, pulled out various small pouches, a larger pouch of oolong (I do like an oolong!)

and then the 4oz packet of decaf apricot-peach. “Grandpa had me take this. I don’t drink it much. I remember Grandma drank it a lot, though.”

Afternoon teas are the ones with complicated noses. With flowers or fruit or smoke. Those are a lot to ask first thing in the morning, before pulling oneself together for the day; morning teas are straightforward, sharply clean. There’s a Chinese black I like — the box I had said Thé Kuan Yin — that’s even more basic-flavored than English Breakfast. But after 10am I want complexity, I want to give my mouth something busy just like I’m giving my brain something busy.

Maybe I can start drinking my feelings in decaf apricot-peach tea. Instead of eating them in Cheez-Its. Which my mom also loved.

As I rode home from school today on the T (Green Line B!), I tried to decide whether I’d eaten enough lunch — a moderate wedge of pasta-bake, a Granny Smith apple — and decided I’d make a pot of flavorful tea when I got home, after walking back from the dry cleaners. Rooibos? Mmmaybe? Mmm, apricot. That’s the one.

After I put my trousers away, I unpacked my tea haul. The big suitcase came in with Marty at 11:30pm Monday, and Tuesday there was a bunch of schoolwork to get lined up, so unpacking had to wait. Most of B’s teas are in poly zip-top pouches. The House of Coffee Beans tea was in a plastic-lined paper pouch, the kind with the bendy wire strip up top, the kind local roasters often sell coffee beans in. One package fits most? It was how my apricot tea came to me in college…

When I opened the pouch the smell wafted straight up my nose. How long had it been waiting? And still such a strong fragrance-!

But I don’t want any more glorious apricot scent to escape. So I took the empty Harney & Sons tin that I’d washed out a few weeks ago, and poured all the tea into it. I also find tins easier to scoop tea out of — less likely to tip and spill, hard sides to push the spoon against — so even if I’m wrong about preservation I’m okay.

The Harney & Sons tin was originally full of their Paris blend, also decaf. Mom handed it to me, goodness, four years ago it could be?, because she didn’t want it after all. I don’t remember now what she told me, the tale of why she had it. Decaf, certainly, because caffeine sensitivity as one gets older is A Thing. But a loose tea whose top note is chocolatey? For a person who does not (does not) like chocolate? Perhaps Harney’s description was unclear.

I brought it with me to Brighton because I knew it would be cold here. That I likely would drink a lot of tea in this cold place. Just as my mom did, when we lived in cold Pittsburgh. And yes, I drank the Paris all up by the middle of November, and it hasn’t even been very cold. I kept the tin, even though Harney tins are somber, because… well, it’s a perfectly good tin. And I would probably want to put some tea in it. Sometime.

a shelf-and-desk scene with thin cables in the foreground, running through a cable-clip. there are papers and notebooks and a USB hub. the focus of the picture is the Ember mug, and there’s a sympathy card with a tree on it just behind.
an Ember mug on its charging saucer

My birthday was in July, just before the ratcheted-up pain that turned out to be Mom’s metastasized pancreatic cancer. Mom and Dad gave me a ridiculous thing, so I assume it was something Mom saw in a catalog, or maybe in one of her Fast Company magazines: a Bluetooth-controlled drinking mug that will hold a beverage at a specific temperature. It made me laugh when I opened it. The package and product design was/is clearly an Apple(tm) homage and while the problem it solves is real, it is a highly engineered way to solve it. More so even than the USB powered hot-coasters that have been around for a little while, and really… wouldn’t a quilted cozy do the trick?

Such an excessive small vote of encouragement as I prepared to move away (at this age!) for school. A ridiculousness to set next to theology texts, journal articles, twenty-page research papers. A delight from my parents, to set next to the delight of study. Both these things make my heart fizz and sing.

Tomorrow I’ll get up and spend my day making one of the 20-page papers I have due now that the semester is wrapping up. Biblical imagination and practical theologians, because if we claim our logos of our theos it’s good to weave our Scripture in, too. I’ll make pots of apricot tea, Ember-held at 137 degrees Fahrenheit (for black teas).

Tomorrow I’ll dive right in.

Today I’ll weep. And remember. And maybe wonder whether someone who treasured her children’s and grandchildren’s learning so intensely might, even in the completion of her baptism and wearing the ‘starry crown,’ might bend over a little and nod. “You have such a gift for technical writing!” Thanks, Mom.

*Princess Bride reference. If you needed this footnote, you really should watch the movie. You’ll like it. “It has everything!”

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