On Monday I had my second gum graft, which was as gruesome as expected. The dentist double-sutured the new tissue in place and insisted on showing me photographs of his handiwork, which I now cannot unsee. Once home, I handed off the bulk of the household chores and parenting to my husband and climbed into bed, as I’d been instructed not to speak, and the children respond best (if imperfectly) to voice commands.
While my husband was putting pajamas on the four-year-old, our seven-year-old spilled most of a pitcher of orange juice on the kitchen counter, down the side of the stove, and all over the floor, and told nobody – just the kind of surprise one wants to find at 8:30 p.m. when one parent is nodding off in tylenol-3-land. (The floor under the stove is very clean now, and the counters are sparkling.) The next morning, after my liquid breakfast, I put a load of sticky dish towels in the washer, along with my tea cosy, which was sodden with juice.
I was not pleased to do this. In general I try to take care of my things, but I never wash my tea cosy, despite its stains. It belonged to my mother, who died almost ten years ago, and it’s the thing of hers that I use most frequently: daily, in fact. It was a fixture of my childhood. I remember being three in our west-end Winnipeg house and asking for tea and toast before bed, and the teapot, a Brown Betty with a yellowish ring around the lid, lived in this little cottage with its climbing flowers, charming cats, and brick chimney. On the farm, my mother brewed Red Rose under it every afternoon. My sister was working in east Africa when Mom died, but if she’d been local, we might have fought over it (though at the time we were too wrung out to do anything but agree about her modest estate, dividing up the money and handful of valuables without argument). It is irreplaceable. In some ways it’s safer to use than other objects, like the pottery mug I took from her kitchen, which my eldest shattered in a strop as a toddler. Textiles can’t smash. But they can fade, and rip, and shred in the washing machine. So I leave it dirty.
Because I’d never washed it before, I turned it inside out to see if the forty-plus-year-old care instruction tag was still inside. I found it, and more.
Cuckoobird, I read. Designed by Pat Albeck. I am not really a design aficionado; my enthusiasms (Kähler Lyshuse and vintage Pyrex) are mass-produced and affordable; but, lightly drugged and relieved of childcare duties, I decided to do a little research. I fell down the most well-appointed of rabbit holes. I discovered that my tea cosy is just one in a whole village of cosies – not just for teapots, but also eggs. And just who is Pat Albeck? None other but the queen of the tea towel.
Albeck, who died in 2017, attended England’s Royal College of Art in the early 1950s, and went on to design myriad textiles, household objects, including, of course, over 200 souvenir tea towels for the National Trust. To say she was prolific would be an understatement: . Later in her career she made and exhibited gorgeous, complex floral papercuts that rival Matisse’s abstracts. More details can be found in her obituary in the Guardian. More of her beautiful work can be seen in this home tour.
In the early eighties, before I was born, my mother was well-established in her social work career, and had divorced her first husband. She drove all over Canada, camping by herself, scandalizing locals by swimming in the frigid ocean whenever possible, because when you’re from the prairies you seize those opportunities. She took two trips to England, hiking around with a giant green backpack that spent my childhood stuffed in the back of a closet, unused. On a bus in the Midlands, she happened to bump into the aunt or uncle of someone she had grown up with – I’ve forgotten which, but the person recognized her as belonging to her giant, noisy, infamous family and tried out a couple of her sisters’ names before arriving correctly at hers. She visited Thomas Hardy’s cob and thatch cottage, a National Trust site, and I feel certain that that is where she saw the Albeck tea cosy, possibly nestled in a little cotton village with its neighbours, eyed its dimensions, and judged it appropriate for her Brown Betty. “Aw, carrying it around to bring home,” my sister texted me after I sent her too many hyperlinks.
Cross-referencing the open tabs in my browser, I realized that Matthew Rice, author of the Queen of the Tea Towel book, is Albeck’s son. Rice is married to none other than potter Emma Bridgewater…
…whose mug (given to me by the godmother of my youngest child, who is named for the pictured bird) I use for my afternoon tea.
When I lived in Denmark I learned that the Danes use hygge, cosiness, differently than might be inferred based on the plethora of cutesy books that are marketed in North America every November. Det var så hyggeligt, the daycare’s daily online writeup would say, It was so cosy, when my youngest had gone with her group on an outing to a windy beach or the daycare’s allotment. Hygge is about togetherness, not winter, though the unrelenting dark encourages people to congregate indoors with candles. It can be hyggeligt in a sunny backyard in July if you’re having a good time with other people. It’s the word I think of when I see these dumb objects together, proxies for the people who can’t be. The cosy is as clean as it can be. I hope it will do its job for another ten years.