It is just a tea or coffee cup marked Staffordshire Tableware, England on the bottom. It is an off-white color and has a grey rim at its lip. A crack runs from one edge of the rim into one of the four Blue Tits embossed on either side. It is just an ordinary kitchen cup, but like so many items that are saved during a lifetime, it is more than it appears.
It was during the summer of 1999, and I was working at St. Peter’s College, Oxford as the Dean of a summer program for American high school students. The program office was in Staircase 4, and the scout for that staircase was named Hilda. Each morning when I opened the office before the busy day began, she would bring me coffee or tea in the Blue Tit cup, and we would chat for a bit before her day and mine began.
Over that summer, Hilda told me some of her life as we shared our morning ritual. In the summer of 1999, she was getting up in years, but still managed to keep our rooms and Staircase 4 clean. You would hear her singing or humming softly as she swept, emptied dust bins, and changed linens. She wore her scout’s apron and frock proudly, but I was surprised to see her attire one afternoon walking to the coach stop after her day’s labor. She was dressed in what I think of as “Sunday clothes”, and when I, the next morning, commented on how nice she looked, she said, “Now, there is no need to wear one’s work clothing to and fro, is there!” Knowing I was bested by this older, plump woman with short, blond-white hair, I drank my coffee and listened. Oh, and what a story Hilda told over the weeks of that summer.
Hilda was a German, but she met and married an English soldier stationed in Germany after World War II, and came with him to England after his post-War tour in Germany. She shared that she was not the only German female who had done this. She and “my soldier” as she called him, settled outside of Oxford and shared life. When I met her, her husband had been dead some years, but a son lived in London. Fascinated by her story, I listened each morning over tea or coffee-sometimes she would brew me one and then other times the other. She would say a few things about the times of “that awful Hitler” and how he destroyed her beloved country, as her eyes filled, looking away from me. She did not know it, but becoming a refugee made her, in the words of V.S Naipaul, one of “The flotsam of Europe not long after the end of the terrible war….” But when she shared about meeting her English soldier, their courtship, marriage, and move to England, she beamed.
The Blue Tit cup sits on a shelf in my library. Sometimes I take it down and blow the dust out of it, careful of the crack. And think of Hilda. I learned much about the War and Germany from Hilda, but I learned more about living. However, someday, as it is with a life’s accumulation, the Blue Tit cup will sit on a rickety table at an estate sale. Someone will pick it up and upon turning it, notice the crack, but decide that it is worth the low price and take it home to use as a holder of pencils or such.
In the fine, short novel, A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr writes of Tom Birkin, the main character, being given a Sara van Fleet rose by Alice Keach, the woman he loves. The novel continues, “I [Birkin] still have it. Pressed in a book. Someday after a sale, a stranger will find it there and wonder why.”
Indeed! A Sara van Fleet rose or Blue Tit cup is often more than it appears, and a stranger can only wonder what or why.