Warmth, oh-so-close to the chill

Posted Jan. 21, 2010, at 8:45 p.m.

“When life gives you January, make tea.” This was my mantra as I made a second pot of tea yesterday afternoon. Tea, according to the packaging mine comes in, is “the last affordable luxury.” I couldn’t agree more. I find that I depend on hot liquid in the colder months of the year, be it tea, coffee or soup — the mugs make comforting hand-warmers. I had forgotten how difficult winter could be when it isn’t bathed in constant sunlight.

Yesterday was not just a gray January afternoon — it was also bill-paying day. Nothing makes me feel more condemned to adulthood quite like bill-paying day; as with signing leases, I have to fight the urge to immediately disavow allegations of my maturity. “I can’t even keep track of my car keys,” I resisted telling my last landlord-to-be. “You really want to trust me with a house?” (Less risk of losing that, I suppose). I remind myself that, in the global scheme of things, most women my age are already raising several children. Then I line up my stamps, envelopes and budget book, put on another sweater, and pour yet another mug of tea.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that women were like tea: You never saw the extent of what they were capable of until they were in hot water. I take the more direct approach, figuring that I’ll never know the extent of my capability unless I have at least two or three mugs of the stuff in my stomach. If nothing else, waiting for the kettle to boil keeps me from simply up and running off to South America whenever that presents itself to me as the obvious solution to midwinter tedium.

The day was not meant to be all tea-drinking, bill-paying, gray January though. I had received word that a special package was coming my way. My college friend Dave was giving away some of his record collection, and one album — to be delivered by his stepsister, who also lives in Baltimore — was meant for me.

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The sun had just set when I wrapped myself up in my outdoor gear. Locking the door of my narrow apartment, I set off down the streets, a 20-minute walk to the square where we were to meet.

The last time I had listened to this particular record, it was another January afternoon, this one in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. My last winter in college, it was marked by a great deal of time spent writing papers, elbow to elbow with the friends now scattered around the world — and, yes, drinking huge quantities of hot, caffeinated beverages. It was January, after all.

The record changed hands with little external fanfare, and Dave’s stepsister went on her way. My internal fanfare, though, was booming as I stood on the darkening sidewalk, the album cover dimly lit by the fading afternoon light. I knew I held more than just a 12-inch piece of vinyl; I held an afternoon of college memories in my hands.

I turned to walk back home.

The residential streets of the city stir at dusk, even in January, when most prefer to stay indoors. People are coming home from work, pulling rumpled letters from creaky mail slots, bringing in their recycling bins and taking out their dogs. The heat is turned up a degree or two, and the smells of dinners cooking waft toward the street. A burst of laughter erupts from the open door of a neighborhood pub as a man steps out for a smoke. Cats, waking up from their daytime naps, peer out from the windows, their tails stirring the curtains.

A few blocks from my home, I passed an old woman setting a mug and a plate down on the front stoop of an equally old man’s apartment. While I was bundled up to the ears, scarf wrapped around my face, she was wearing what looked like a nightgown, housecoat and slippers, her bare calves spotted with age.

“Oh, wow,” the old man said, opening his door and leaning toward the front stoop offerings. “Soup, and fresh rolls, and candy … bless you. … Where is your jacket?”

“In the house,” she replied, nodding to her own door, her voice no-nonsense and businesslike. “There’s more soup if you want it. Just pound on the wall.”

“Thank you, thank you,” he said, his head bobbing his beard into his chest to emphasize each word. The woman climbed back up the steps into her own apartment, her bare ankles disappearing into her house.

Back home, I settled into my chair at the tiny table that passes for my dining room, kitchen and desk. Squeezed between my refrigerator and oven, I resolved to bake something that night while I listened to my record, just to take off the chill.

And make more tea. It’s always a good idea to make more tea.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. E-mail her at meg@margaret-adams.com

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