So Ma, how did you get to be ninety years old?

Hello all, this intro is from your current Pfister Narrator, Jonathan West. It’s with the greatest of honors that I share with you this Guest Narrator post today from my immediate predecessor, the inimitable Anja Notanja Sieger.  While I was out of town over the holidays, Anja recently spent a lovely tea time with some special ladies who believe that celebrating a birthday is not merely a once-a-year affair, but something that you should put on your calendar at least every month.  I think you’ll enjoy Anja’s tale just as much as I did.

Every month Margaret’s daughters take her out to celebrate her birthday, because once you turn 90 you have to celebrate your birthday every month. This month they’re having teatime in Blu.

DSCN4114Juan, the tea master wheels a cart over to the party and initiates us:

“I am going to pass thirteen tea jars to you so you’ll have a chance to smell and select the one you’re going to be drinking.” He unscrews the jars and hands each to Margaret first, “This is the 1893 Rose Melange… Chinese oolong green tea, very light on the palate… German chamomile blossoms, a very soothing and relaxing tisane… Cinnamon plum… Hibiscus with a blend of berries and mango flavors… Tangerine ginger… Earl grey with a blend of lavender flowers along with bergamot oil essentials, it has a brothy flavor to it along with an amber color… This one comes from Sri Lanka, a Ceylon, stands very well with milk.

One of Margaret’s daughters interjects, “Which one goes best with champagne?”

 

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Juan smiles and continues, “A white tea infused with peach blossoms… A green tea from the region of Pu-erh… Chocolate chai, it has cacao nibs, coconut shea beans, yerba mate, dried dandelion roots, cardamom, vanilla and long pepper… This one here is making an appearance for the season, it is called: Cocoa mint… And lastly a black tea infused with sencha vanilla bean, very aromeric and flavorful.” I’m not correcting aromeric to “aromatic” as I relish how Juan jumbled the word into something more enticing and elevated to the world of the senses than the usual phrase.

DSCN4103I am one of nine women gathered for tea, and impressively, none of us orders the same tea, and Margaret doesn’t even want tea. After sniffing hearing the described virtues of all thirteen varieties she just wants a hot chocolate. After nine decades she really seems to have a grasp on what she desires and has no trouble asking for it. Meanwhile, Margaret’s daughters ask her, “So Ma, how did you get to be ninety years old?”

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“I got to go to college because in the summer I would work for a restaurant in the Wisconsin Dells.” Teenaged Margaret started work on the first day of the summer and for three months she’d never have a day off as a waitress. “That was the rule,” confirms Margaret. After graduating from The Milwaukee State Teachers College, she taught first grade for thirty years until she retired. Margaret taught jillions of kids how to read, including her own grand niece who had learning disabilities. She didn’t even quit her day job once she became a mother to Art, Jane, Tom, Nancy and Barb. There was only one bathroom, no shower. On Saturday nights the children took their weekly bath before shining their shoes.DSCN4072

Margaret liked to sew. She made Halloween costumes, a Santa Claus suit, lovely dresses for her daughters and granddaughters, teddy bears and kangaroos for students to hold at rest time at school, table runners, aprons, seat cushions, and matching swim trunks for her boys. They were striped and long before long swim trunks were popular, but they were made long so that they could grow into them.

DSCN4064Sitting beside Margaret is her great-granddaughter Lauren, who just turned 13. Lauren aspires to be a surgeon and likes going deer hunting with her brother, Margaret’s only other great-grandchild. In the summertime when Lauren was little she’d come visit Grandma Margaret on Lake Winnebago, a very algae ridden lake. “I’d come swim and then rake her seaweed,” explained Lauren.

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Margaret has splendid health, her only ailments being mild Parkinson’s and severe gluten intolerance. It is revealed that I am united with Margaret in that we both have celiac disease. She found out she had it when she was 70, and before the diagnosis they suspected she had intestinal cancer. After the diagnosis she got a bread maker and lived. I found out I had celiac when I was 21 and before the diagnosis I took three naps a day. After the diagnosis I spent year subsisting off of avocados and zucchini until my gut healed, and I too lived.

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I admit I’ve always avoided teatimes because I assumed it would just be a sort of gluten fest, cookies, crumpets and lady finger sandwiches wagging at me in a taunting chorus, “No, you can’t have this, no, no, nyah-nyah-nyah!” So I am amazed when a tiny tiered platter of gluten free delicacies are set out just for Margaret. I am amazed again when she requests that I sit beside her and share the hors d’ouevres which were made specifically for her and none of which happen to taste even remotely gluten free. Thank goodness. Included on the platter are these pita slices with dallops of hummus, and the pita even has that powdery surface I recall from years ago when I last ate gluten. This is pure miracle.DSCN4081

Margaret goes straight for the chocolate covered strawberries, while I prefer the cucumber sandwiches and savory items. Margaret has a sweet tooth, and her favorite ice cream is white chocolate with raspberries from Kelley’s, a creamery outside the town of Eden that boasts something like 106 different flavors including chocolate covered potato chips and a thanksgiving dinner flavored concoction known as “turkey lurkey.”

DSCN4067After spending seven decades as a reading teacher and matriarch, it appears some caretaker instincts are ingrained, such as turning the platter just so that the very able bodied twenty-something kid beside her can have a slightly easier reach to the cream dalloped pastries. “Don’t burn yourself on this tea kettle, it’s hot,” Margaret warns me.DSCN4073

I am told that Margaret is having the time of her life. She plays dominoes, and is known as the “bingo queen.” She recently moved to her own condominium, and now for the first time in her life she lives alone and on her own terms.

They Seem Very Busy

The woman does not want to be identified.

The woman can make you an iced coffee.

The woman frequently makes me an earl grey

with a side of questions concerning Harry Potter.

 

She first read Harry Potter as a high school student

back in her homeland, viagra the third major island

of the Philippines’ 7,107 total islands.

“I think every kid was inspired by Harry Potter,

he’s not perfect, he has a lot of flaws,

but the people around him make him strong.”

 

This management, accounting and law school graduate

has been in the states for a year now

working at her first job of all time

and has observed:

“Things are cleaner over here, purchase

and the people here are on their own always

instead of compounds of families all living together.

Things are very peaceful here,

but people have no time for other people

they seem very busy.”

 

She would tell me more

but a line has formed,

it is three in the afternoon

and everyone wants

a medium cappuccino

or some other brown dessert drink

that requires rituals & cream.

 

I go away to become busy

and am reminded of something

Joe Charney described before parting ways:

the ‘zombie grocery store,’

where Joe goes to get his food,

is a place where people go to ignore each other.

“They don’t mumble to themselves,

they pass each other,

but no action or reaction,

statement or thought,” he said.

People pushing their carts around

all demonstrate something he called, “the stare:

looking straight ahead, but not side-to-side.

They are unaware!

I often think that one of them could be stabbed

a little to the right of their field of vision

and they wouldn’t even notice.

Like horse blinders.”

 

I know what he was talking about,

but luckily here at the Pfister people greet each other

like in the elevator where I am asked,

“Hey, where’s your typewriter?”

And I say, “It’s heavy, I can’t lug it with me everywhere I go.”

“But heavy things are good for your muscles.”

“That’s true, but you see I have snake arms.”

I roll up my sleeve and expose my thin, straight arm.

The elevator rider laughs,

“Snake arms! I like that. I myself would call them ‘buggy whips.’”

 

Now there’s a term that is at least as old as the hotel,

pre automobile

and pre virtual fake reality network friendships.

‘Buggy whip.’

When horses wearing blinders

clomped down Wisconsin Avenue en masse.

 

I go back to the café and the line is finally gone.

I ask if I can take a picture of her tattoo,

and she says sure, it is not her face

though it has an eye of Horace

to represent restoration—

not bad luck

like some people think.

I think it’s pretty,

she got it here in the states

since in the Philippines it would be too controversial.

She tells me that both “The Da Vinci Code” author Dan Brown

and boy band “One Direction,”

have been banned from the country

she hopes one day to return to

though she now has a golden snitch

engraved on her arm to represent time flying.

 

Take your grandmother out for Afternoon Tea

Tea butler Juan Rodriguez assists patrons. Outside sun sets on the Federal Building.

Last weekend my grandma and I decided to go out for afternoon tea. I don’t believe anyone’s ever taken tea with my grandmother, aside from a bag she dropped in a mug above her stove. When my mom called to remind her, my grandma asked what she should wear for such an occasion, what is appropriate attire for tea? “We didn’t go out for tea when I was a girl. Am I supposed to wear her long white gloves? I would if I had them.” Fear not, we found that beautiful silver can be placed in front of you in an environment that isn’t stuffy.

My grandmother, Phyllis, grew up in rural North Dakota. People have asked for years why her skin looks so fantastic and she attributes this to never smoking or suntanning. Like everyone in her hometown she worked on the farm before and after school and despite the fact that all the kids worked on a farm they did their best to not look like farmers. She’d work in the field wearing a long dress or slacks (her word), a long sleeved shirt, gloves, and a big floppy hat. When Hollywood started producing suntanned movie stars the population of Minot, ND decided the west was a bunch of fools.

Our tea date happened on one of the last sunny days of autumn. I decided we should take our time and drive through the Miller Valley en route to the hotel. Somewhere near Hart Park I could feel her looking at the side of my face. After a few moments she announced, “Eddie- you’ve got white hairs in your beard. How old are you anyway?” We’ve reached ages where it’s now the younger person’s job to remember details. She’s 86 now and as a mother of 7 has recently acquired the title of great-great-grandmother.

Mary Keppeler’s harp pairs perfectly with afternoon tea.

A sidebar reason behind our afternoon date was to record my grandma recounting some of the stories our family has heard many times over. When I was offered the position of Pfister Hotel Narrator I immediately purchased the professional-grade audio recorder I’d been lusting after (Instead of replacing the clutch on the Subaru. What can I say, art uber alles) and I’m still getting acquainted with my new toy. Seemed like a perfect opportunity to record Grandma’s stories for our family archive.

No need to conclude your evening with tea. This is the Wisconsin Gas Building as seen through a glass of red. The flame changes according to the weather forecast. A blue flame means unchanging skies ahead.

After parking we rode the elevator to the 23rd floor. Straight out of the elevator my grandmother wrapped her arm inside of mine. This is not something often done by ladies of my generation. It caught my attention akin to aftershave.

My grandmother wore a lovely sequined blouse and pant combination and I had on some variety of tweed poet/1920’s iron worker juxtaposition. Once inside Blu we walked past the harpist, Mary Keppeler and sat across from the ceiling to floor windows overlooking Lake Michigan. Assistant Manager Juan Rodriguez brought over the tea cart to explain our tea options for the afternoon. Juan explained the ingredients and offered scent samples of all the teas. During his explanations we’d look at one another from time to time and grin. We’re announced simpletons when it comes to tea. Juan was patient and concise in explaining the origin and nuance of every leaf and spice and how flavors interact. Grandma went for Earl Grey and I opted for the same but with mango thrown in.

Our tea arrived and shortly after our food also arrived. Crab cakes, fresh baked scones with lemon curd and strawberry preserves, curried quail eggs, smoked salmon, herb roasted turkey. Oh, and there were just as many desserts too. Chocolate dipped strawberries, pumpkin muffins, opera torte, savory crepes.

My grandmother and I sat next to one another watching as Lake Michigan whitecaps tickled the breakwater. Cars the size of ants entered and exited 794, which was once “The Bridge to Nowhere.” Grandma told me about the tiny convertible that looked like it was smiling; the one her dad drove after all the kids were grown up. From time to time we’d raise our teacups and tilt the pot until our cup filled steaming once again. There was a table of young ladies seated with their mothers and aunts near us. My grandma told me about the aunt and uncle I’d never met, the twins whose monument she visits annually. She told me about her brother Kenny, who my brother Kenny is named after. How Kenny and my grandma and my great aunt Shirley were like the Three Musketeers. The skyscrapers began reflecting the west golden sunset. She talked about the time my uncle got sprayed by a skunk. The time her uncle was accused (Falsely, darn it all to heck!) of being a horse thief. We watched the sun fade while a woman played the harp. My grandma has the stomach of a bird, I finished both of our food trays. Suddenly the Wisconsin Gas Building’s blue light brightened the Milwaukee skyline sparkle. We kept talking and enjoying our remaining Earl Grey after the sun went to bed, even after the bartenders began pouring cocktails. She told me part of the reason she married my grandfather was because his father was such a nice man. I didn’t record any of it. Why interrupt a perfectly perfect afternoon?

Learning From Tea Time

Let me make your weekend plans for you. One way or another, they should include a reservation for Victorian Tea at the Pfister. I’ve been to London a couple of times, but the last visit included an endless hunt for the perfect “high tea” with a friend. The hijinks that ensued made it a memorable experience and of course we ate all our little cakes, but it wasn’t the full, austere, formal experience we had always thought tea to be.

Making up for it, two friends and I recently had tea at the Pfister. My anglophile companions and I were moved from the moment we walked into Blu and met Juan, the tea butler. Admittedly, walking into Blu with its amazing panoramic view of the city is a breathtaking gesture in the first place, but the rigor and grace of a perfect British tea only added to the atmosphere.

The selection process.

After being seated, we were presented with a worldly selection of teas and their history, vibrancy, scents and stories. Each was uncapped from its jar, passed delicately around the table for smelling and returned again to its station on the silver serving tray. It’s worth noting, Lipton ain’t got nothin’ on Juan. It wasn’t just his knowledge of the teas that made his service impeccable. Nor was it his honest assessment of our choices of fruit and spice infusions to be added to the teas. What we each noticed about the presentation was the time and care in every gesture, every description and every piece of the event. And it was an event, which is exactly what afternoon tea should be. Though the teas were indescribably delicious and the sweet and savory trays so scrumptious that they were too few, in the humble opinion of we omnivores, the process of the afternoon is what moved us.

All of the delicious offerings.

Each piece of the event was a part of the experience. John, also helping with our table, and Juan moved slowly and deliberately. They spoke carefully to us and saw to our every request. The delicacies weren’t just the food bites on the table, but also the treatments and services bestowed upon us as we sat there.

I constantly joke with friends that Prince William made the wrong choice in proposing to Kate Middleton, not me. Sitting at tea, with close friends, watching the sun set on the city and being treated as a royal, however, more than satisfied my need to elope with a prince.

Often, in our every day lives, we miss out on such treatments. When someone asks you “how are you?” we all take the question as a standard, uttered too quickly, with little intent and no desire for an answer. What the tea service made us all conscious of was how we do not deliberately use time. There are rules to how you use time. There’s a benefit to slow, thoughtful consideration of ideas in speaking, in sitting, even in steeping tea. But steep the tea too long, it becomes pungent and too strong.

The afternoon wasn’t just girlfriends chatting and cakes being eaten. It was a lesson exemplified in the process of tea. Time is your friend and careful use of it bestows many benefits; but the lesson isn’t to always slow down. Rather, thoughtful attention to details allows you to steep and become delicious, not overbearing.