Saturday, October 23, 2010
Tea and Books Saturday #43: "Tea with Sister Anna"
Tea with Sister Anna
By Susan Gilbert Harvey
Golden Apple Press, 2005
Several weeks ago, my friend and co-worker Jeff arrived at the office and handed me a book he and his wife Barbara had come across while sorting through their stacks. They knew immediately it was something I should read, and I can't tell you how happy I am to have been introduced to "Tea with Sister Anna: A Paris Journal" by Susan Gilbert Harvey. The author is a visual and performance artist in Rome, Ga., where Jeff once worked.
While tea plays more of a supporting role in this book than it does in those I usually read for review, in which tea is the star, it is nonetheless an important "character" in the book and the title is quite fitting. You see, in the late 1800s Harvey's great-aunt, Anna McNulty Lester, left her small town of Rome in north Georgia to travel overseas and study art in Paris. A hundred years later her great-niece, the delightful Susan Harvey, feels something of a spiritual nudge and decides to retrace her great-aunt's path. Guided by her aunt's guidebooks, journal entries and letters — along with her own apparently unerring sixth sense — Harvey explores what she calls "Anna Lester's Paris."
It is by no means a first trip to the city for Harvey. In 1957, she was a student at Hollins College in Virginia and spent a year in the Hollins Abroad-Paris program. In "Tea with Sister Anna," she somehow manages to weave a seamless tale which includes her writings from that 40-years-ago trip and the current one along with her great-aunt's writings from 1897 and 1898. It is fascinating to watch the 60-something Harvey revisit her 20-year-old self as well as the great-aunt she never had the pleasure of knowing. I was reminded a great deal of the wonderful series of blog posts on "Strong Women" recently concluded by the writer and tea blogger Marilyn Miller. Certainly Harvey and Lester qualify for that group!
But perhaps I care too much about this story because I, too, am often afflicted with wanderlust — plus as a lifelong Georgia girl I have the good fortune of being pretty well acquainted with Anna Lester's hometown.
So would you like some tea tidbits? How about this passage where Harvey is still in the early stages of planning her trip: "On Aunt Joy's Chinese lacquer tea table I place one of Anna's miniature portraits, her plaster cast of clasped hands, the edelweiss she and Granny picked in Zermatt, and the last coral geranium from my porch. Anna's blue-and-white Paris teapot comes off the shelf of my grandmother's secretary. I splash copper-colored tea into two porcelain cups — one for me, one for Sister Anna. I add lump sugar and lemon, and stir with my great-great-grandmother's spoon …"
Anna is focused on learning to draw the human figure while in Paris, and naturally she also visits the great museums and writes of art and artists. But tea and the foods she ate (or didn't eat) are often mentioned, and often humorously. Early in her travels, Anna wrote to her parents of how she was appalled to learn boarders such as herself were being asked to furnish their own sugar for their tea. "I do have sugar in my room but they shall not see it! And I gave the maid a cup and expect to have tea when I like. I call them stingy old maids. I am an old maid but if I had boarders they should have good sugar and plenty of it too!"
Did you note the clever cartoonlike drawings which appear on the front and back cover of the book? Be sure and check out the back cover, especially, by double-clicking if you have a moment. These drawings are by a Scottish woman who was at one time a neighbor of Anna during her stay in Paris.
Though Anna never got to achieve artistic success since she died so young, of tuberculosis, her joie de vivre in her too-short years comes shining through in this well-written and charming book. You can't help having the distinct feeling she would be so pleased her great-niece found her life worthy of this tribute. Interested? Learn more about Harvey, her art and her Sister Anna book here.