The Chinese Tea Basket
It was Katherine’s seventy-fifth birthday, and Mary Linda could hardly wait to present her with a gift.
The two had lived near each another in Atlanta since the time their parents brought them home from the hospital within four days of each other. Katherine was the older girl, and Mary Linda never let her forget it.
They were fast friends from early on and more like sisters by the time they graduated high school. For that reason, their parents were quite comfortable surprising the girls with a three-week trip to China as a graduation gift. Flying out of New York, they were met in Beijing by old family friends, a missionary couple who agreed to serve as hosts and chaperones.
During their stay, they toured some of the country’s many magnificent sites, including the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. No matter how busy they were, their hostess served green tea every afternoon using a beautiful Chinese teapot and matching handleless cups stored in a wicker basket. Katherine and Mary Linda found it the height of sophistication, and both developed a lifelong appreciation for green tea.
Katherine had shopped for a similar set for decades. Once, she thought she’d found it at a small antique shop in Chicago, but the lid had been smashed to smithereens and inexpertly repaired. Perhaps that tea set was supposed to remain a memory.
Their love for teatime wasn’t the only thing influenced by that trip. For Katherine, the taste of travel whetted her appetite for more. Once home, she got a receptionist job in a small Atlanta travel agency where she fell in love and married a man who loved to travel as much as she did. Because they both worked in the travel industry, when their children came along, the young family got to enjoy many trips across the United States and abroad.
Mary Linda, meanwhile, had caught the eye of the captain on their flight to Beijing. Phone numbers were swapped, a courtship ensued, and she married him with the understanding she didn’t want to leave Atlanta. Since the airport there was getting busier every day, that was not a problem for the young pilot.
The girls’ trip to China was just the beginning of their travel adventures. They had enjoyed tea in the shadow of Windsor Castle, had toured the Colloseum in Rome, and had purchased matching Hermès scarves in Paris after visiting the Eiffel Tower. In their seventies, they continued to enjoy trips together, such as the Alaskan cruise they’d just taken with their husbands.
Mary Linda couldn’t believe Katherine was about to celebrate such a milestone birthday, and she was just days behind herself. Seventy-five. How did those years fly by so quickly?
She could tell by the mirror—and by the medicine cabinet—that her body was changing, but inside, she was still that excited eighteen-year-old who flew to China after graduation. She was a little wiser, she hoped, but eternally young where it counted.
One winter day, she and her husband were headed to a family reunion out of state when she spotted a huge, junky-looking antique mall. Something told her to stop.
The place was freezing cold, and Mary Linda shivered as she walked the aisles with a watchful eye. She was ready to head back to the car to warm up when she saw it—a wicker basket fastened with a metal latch and clasp.
Don’t get your hopes up, she told herself. How many times had she come across what she thought was a wicker tea basket only to realize it was simply another old purse?
Could it be?
Mary Linda had unhooked the latch, lifted the clasp, raised the lid, and held her breath. Finally! Inside was a set that was a dead ringer for the one she and Katherine had used in China fifty-seven years ago.
The night of Katherine’s party, Mary Linda and her husband pulled up at the country club and parked the Cadillac. As she reached into the backseat for the carefully wrapped package, Mary Linda smiled at the bright red rice paper she’d found to wrap the gift. Perfect. Up the steps and into the club she went, eager to find her friend.
The party invitation had expressly said no gifts, but Mary Linda couldn’t have cared less about that particular breach of etiquette. The second she saw Katherine, she motioned her over to a small side room at the club, one that was temporarily quiet and empty.
“Come here. Open your gift,” she said.
“Gift?” Katherine said. “I thought we agreed we weren’t swapping gifts this year.”
“I lied,” Mary Linda said. “Now go on and open it.”
“You’ve got my curiosity up now,” Katherine said, tugging at the paper and tape. She wriggled off the bright red bow and paused to admire the giftwrap.
Mary Linda had used a lot of tissue in the box, so she knew it would take Katherine a few minutes to unearth the gift. A gasp. A look. And … was that a tear?
“It can’t be,” Katherine said. “Not after all this time.”
“Yes, it is,” Mary Linda said, a deep joy filling her as she watched her best friend admire the same tea accoutrements they had enjoyed as young women on their first travels around the world.
“And just for fun”—Mary Linda reached into her fuchsia floral tote bag—“I brought a Thermos. It’s green tea, and I want us to share the first cups using your new tea set.”
Tears streamed down Katherine’s face, and Mary Linda’s wasn’t exactly dry.
“I washed the teapot and the cups, by the way,” Mary Linda said as Katherine laughed.
Mary Linda poured some still-steaming tea into Katherine’s cup and then her own. She held it aloft, urging Katherine to do the same.
“To friendship,” she said, gently clinking cups.
“To friendship,” Katherine said.
And just as they had all those years before, they sipped and enjoyed their tea.