THE TEA PARTY
(A True Story About my Mother)
By Marylou Shira Hadditt
In 1933 Sophie was tired of rented homes and went shopping for a home of her own. Since nothing she saw on the housing market suited her, she convinced Lawrence to build her a house. After making my father drive the streets of Atlanta for nearly a year, she found the perfect site for her dream house: in exclusive Druid Hills, she chose a steep lot with three large oak trees and two dogwoods in the front, ascending an acre to a partially landscaped back yard. Sophie insisted on an architect -designed house and, because Lawrence got status from his beautiful well-dressed wife, she always got her way. Atlanta’s most noted architects were retained to design and supervise construction of a perfectly ordinary white-washed brick Cape Cod cottage centered on the crest of the hill, behind the oaks. Sophie was very specific about her desires; she wanted green porcelain fixtures in the bathroom, black and white tiles in the kitchen, and a slate roof. The architects told her slate would not be practical in a house with steep dormers, that the slates could break in a rain or ice storm. A composition roof would be better. Sophie was stubborn and refused to approve anything other than Vermont slate, “That’s final”, she said. No one dared cross her.
The house was completed in time to move in on New Years day, 1934, so my father could listen to the Rose Bowl game in our new house. Sophie decided to give an open house in early February when the jonquils and forsythia were in bloom. She and Necie (my Nanny and our housekeeper) spent hours dusting, polishing, wiping, vacuuming to create a spotless house. Grandma came over to make tea sandwiches: little hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds cut from soft white bread and filled with layers of pink and green dyed cream cheese. Necie alternated between baking cakes and polishing the silver tea service borrowed from the jewelry store.
The Tea Party afternoon arrived. I was posted in the entrance hall, dressed in a pale blue iridescent taffeta dress, pale blue hair bow, pale blue lace tipped socks in my little Mary Janes holding a silver tray, curtseying and saying, “Welcome to our new house. May I have your calling card?” Everything, including six year old me, had to be perfect, precisely as Sophie has dreamed.
Except the slates rebelled.
Last week’s hail was followed by a pelting rain storm. The slates cracked, water seeped through the broken slates saturating the attic insulation. The morning of the party, a blister formed in the living room bay window. By noon, it had become a large bubble with a constant drip. Necie put a pail underneath to catch the water. Sophie anxiously watched, hoping a miracle would cause the bubble to disappear. A half hour before the party, she had Necie replace the zinc pail with a sterling silver ice bucket. If she had a leak, she’d at least do it in style.
The cousins and aunties were the first to arrive and greeted me with their usual attack of pinched cheeks and calling me a “living doll”.
Sophie ritually embraced them, gave them a tour of the house and with a slight cough and giggle, apologized for the ever enlarging bubble on the ceiling.
“Of course the architects insisted that we have a slate roof for a house of this style and period. They said anything else would not be fitting”, Sophie spoke with complete aplomb. “It’s from Vermont, you know”. In the midst of her explanations, short, plump Aunt Esther, bounded into the living room, speaking faster than her rapid pace:
“Oh, Sophie! I love your house … I’m so glad you got your jonquils in the ground early enough so they are blooming and the forsythia look perfect under those green shutters … and that Jenny Lind portrait is just right over the mantel … and such nice marble … from Vermont?” Aunt Esther seldom stopped talking long enough to take a breath.
“Well, it’s certainly the handsomest black marble I’ve ever seen … matching seams … Sophie, they did a fine job on the details. I bet you and Lawrence are really pleased.. and, oh! My goodness. What is that?”
She pointed to the dripping bubble in the bay window.
Sophie tied to be nonchalant. “Well, Esther, the architects insisted that we have a slate roof no matter what Lawrence or I said, so we figured we’d hired the experts, we should listen to them.”
“From the looks of that thing, Sophie … Hmmmm. Ought to be something we can do about that before everybody arrives. Hmmmm.”
Aunt Esther walked over and stood directly under the dripping bubble, then she asked me to run into the kitchen and tell Necie to bring a pail and a small ladder. “Don’t just stand there, Mary Louise. Scoot!”
I looked at Sophie who was frozen with her back against the mantel, her shoulders erect, refusing to admit to anyone, and especially herself, that she had made a mistake. She held her hands together across her abdomen, determined to give the appearance of serenity. Sophie nodded for me to follow Aunt Esther’s instructions.
Necie, wearing her pink “serving” uniform, came into the living room toting a battered apple green step stool in one hand and the old zinc pail in the other. Sophie watched, biting her lip.
Aunt Esther put the ladder under the bubble, “Mary Louise, now you come over here and hold my hat for me. Careful, I don’t want it to get squashed … no, no, give me the hat pin … that’s it… thank you. Now, Necie, I want you to hold the pail right under this bubble and hold it good and steady because I don’t want any spills…quick now.”
She heisted her tight skirt, climbed the small ladder, reached up, pushed her gold beaded hat pin into the bubble, watched first a dribble, then a gusher, filling the pail. Aunt Esther climbed down from the ladder, brushed her hands on her skirt, put her hat on, fastened it with the hat pin. She told Necie to remove the ladder and pail so we could get on with the party.
My mother was a proud woman. I watched her almost succumb. I was afraid her honor would gush out like the water from the bubble. Her shoulders drooped over her chest and she looked almost as short as Aunt Esther. Sophie lowered her head, struggling to hold back the tears.
“I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me, Miss Sophie,” Necie’s firm voice unequivocally spoke to the Lady of the House.
“Thank you, Necie”. Sophie straightened her shoulders, pressed her hands against her skirt, brushed back a straggling hair, raised her head in a proud smile, nodded to Aunt Esther and reminded me to open the door for guests.