Alice felt a good deal like her namesake. Her mother had fallen in love with the “Alice in Wonderland” stories when she was pregnant and named her first born daughter Alice. Once Alice was old enough to understand the chaotic and mysterious story, she seemed to embrace the strangeness of life.
And today was definitely a strange day. She had accepted an invitation to “tea.” Now, I ask you, who in the year of our Lord 2015 -- in rural Vermont where women drive pick-up trucks, stack wood and shear sheep -- gets invited to tea? Alice, that’s who. And from the time she arrived at the old house on the banks of the Batten Kill, she experienced one strange and fanciful thing after another.
Her hostess was a quixotic elderly lady that she had befriended over the counter at the little red country store where she toiled away her days lacing imagination and fantasy with her work. There was never enough time to converse properly and thus Alice was pleased to accept an opportunity to chat unfettered by duty.
Entering the house, she was immediately assailed by the perfume so peculiar to old houses; a potpourri of dry wood and vegetation, of old books, wool throws and scented soap. The power of the aromas transported her to magical, long-ago times when she had, in fact, had tea with women that she thought then to be the very definition of “old,” women steeped in crocheted shawls and. marinated in history. But now, as she herself was considered old, Alice found fewer and fewer of these older women, these friends, family and mentors. She was not aware until today how much she missed them.
The house stood stoic, like a lad dressed for military inspection, as the hostess of the tea party explained some of its history and renovations, ownership and role in family holidays and summers in Vermont. And then, with a quirky grin, she told Alice that the very room that they were standing in, not a big room at all, was the room with ten doors. Alice’s head swiveled, for she had not seen ten doors at all. But there they were, blank, white identical doors marked only by the black-strap, pounded-iron latches; one door to the attic, one to the cellar, another to the kitchen and yet another to the parlor. There was a door to the powder room and one to the “tub” room, a door to the porch, another to a closet and yet another to a bedroom. The tenth door was the door that allowed entrance to -- or exit from -- the mysteries and surprises that the walls contained. Oh, how Alice longed to peek behind the doors.
Instead, she followed her hostess into the kitchen where, to her amazement, the outside window boxes pressed their rich blooms of phlox and geranium right to the old wavy glass as if asking permission to come in. “Ah,” she thought, “this is what window boxes are meant to be but rarely are!” Alice almost expected to see a miniature white rabbit with a pocket watch emerge from among the blossoms and say: “I’m late, I’m late – for a very important date.” Why, Alice asked herself, had she waited so long to get to know this lady better?
Tea was placed on a tiny round table and served in porcelain cups with a vase of fresh flowers and tiny tea cookies. Alice and her hostess sat in comfy chairs, looking out over the lawn and spreads of black-eyed Susans to the banks of the river below. And then … and then … Alice began to peek behind the doors. Not the ten physical doors, mind you, but the doors of the mind of this woman who had lived a long time, experienced so much, who was wise and funny.
For three hours, Alice sat and sipped, free associating and sharing with her hostess. Doors of literature flew open, touching love poems were read. The shock of shared widowhood was discussed and the quality of their loneliness was compared. Instead of the usual topics of roads and weather that were covered over the country-store counter, they examined the naivete of believing that race relations where solved years ago and the chaotic political scene of today. The joys of music and importance of family were explored, youthful pleasures were recounted. The complications of the electronic age were analyzed. The changing of the scenic vista beyond the window boxes – trees growing and houses sprouting in what used to be fields – were discussed as a metaphor for the changes in life that could not be controlled. The mystery was that these discussions had no rancor or regret.
Alice realized she was reluctant to leave the rabbit hole she had gone down, to close the doors that had flung open. She had not expected to hookah-smoking caterpillar, but by the end of the tea she would not have been surprised to see an eleventh door open in the ceiling, tumbling down a set of stairs toward another thoroughly delightful tea party in the attic of the mind.
So, thought Alice, if she could dispense one piece of advice to her women friends, it would be this: Put your pickup truck in “park,” let the wood tumble where it may instead of stacking it neatly, and let the sheep shearing go for another day. Accept an invitation to “tea” if one presents itself -- or create a tea party of your own.
And then she thought of one more thing: If you’re lucky enough to be invited to “tea,” please leave your electronic gizmos at home -- they will be there long after these rare trips into a mini-wonderland of truly shared digressions, confessions and history lessons of the past are no more.