My feet, encircled in pristine white ruffles at the ankles, were lethal in their black patent leather shoes as I swung them wildly from the gold upholstered chair at The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Chicago. My mother flashed me one of her trademark admonishing looks, which I returned with a snaggle-toothed grin before putting a stop to my squirming. I loved these moments when we’d cross the border from Wisconsin and have afternoon tea in this grand setting. If we made the trip during the holidays she would seem endlessly tall and delightfully imposing in her dark fur that seemed like a cathedral-length, royal cape to my imagination. I would bask in her light as we nibbled cucumber finger sandwiches next to whichever of my dolls had come along for the trip. We would chat about whatever weighed upon my 5-year-old mind back then, or about some fun party she’d been to, or gossip about my big brothers, and I’d inevitably shed a tear when it was time to leave.
These are memories I’ve been dying to recreate with my own children ever since—even more so now that my mother has been slowly starting to slip away from us and into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease. The cruelty of illness works on its own time. It doesn’t care that my mother hadn’t yet gotten to know much about my children, or that I might want to spend some quality time with her once we got out of the exhausting cycle of the preschool years. I miss her right now.
When I found out my first pregnancy would result in a baby boy, I only spent a moment lamenting the fact that recreating the holiday teas of my childhood would be a long shot. When my second little guy was born I knew I wasn’t up for trying for a girl. I’m a boy mom, and I relish the windy chaos of it, even when it’s exhausting. But whenever I sit down to start planning out our holiday activities I feel that tug. Maybe we could try taking the boys to a glowing, fully set afternoon tea … somewhere? The very thought makes my husband laugh.
When we moved to a new city this year I was thrilled to find that our new home was close to a hotel that has a tradition of having a special holiday tea for kids and their teddy bears. My 9-year-old will undoubtedly be too cool to indulge his sappy, nostalgic momma for the two hours that include treats and story time. However, I fully plan to plead, bribe and leverage tactics to convince my 4-year-old. But I’m going to try—very hard—not to make this a replacement for those special teas that I look upon like glowing embers seen from a frosty, Midwestern windowpane. Jack and Bryant are loud boys. They question everything (not unlike myself!), and will only sit still if someone is playing along with their game of why-why-why. There’s no way this will resemble the teas that would end with my face buried in my mother’s fur coat, inhaling the scent of Clinique Aromatic Elixir as I begged to stay longer. I need to accept that as I try to take this old tradition and make it fit within a more modern reality.
Most importantly, I must remember to be flexible and have fun. Isn’t that how we all create traditions that stick? We gather pieces of what we know and use them to push the borders of contemporary practicality enough past the limit to make them memorable. I hope everyone gets the chance to do the same this holiday season.