Tea Ceremony

by Leslie Bedford

The room is silent. Our hostess, Sumiko, tucks the hem of her kimono under her bent knees. In front of her on the tatami are the utensils laid out for tea ceremony: a small ceramic tea bowl, a larger container for water; a lacquered tea canister, and a bamboo dipper, scoop and whisk.  Resting her left palm, fingers extended together, against her thigh, she reaches out with her right hand to ladle hot water from a large black pot into the tea bowl, swirling it briefly around before emptying it into the large container. Then, unfolding a red silk cloth from her obi, sash, she wipes the bowl two times. Once she has poured fresh water into the warmed bowl, she opens the lacquered canister to scoop out a measure of powdered tea and add it to the water.  Holding the bowl in one hand and the whisk in the other, and rhythmically tapping it on the rim of the bowl, she whips the tea into a green foam. Throughout, she holds herself still, her hands moving in choreographed, economical gestures, her eyes focused on each task.

It is our first tea ceremony and we are poorly prepared. But Sumiko, a long-time student of tea and other traditional arts, has promised to teach us what to do. We have taken off the house slippers she lent us to duck down into the entrance to the chashitsu, tearoom, positioning ourselves on the tatami, our legs folded under our thighs, our buttocks back against our feet. In front of us is the tokonoma; on this afternoon in early February, this alcove holds a tall white vase with a few artful branches of plum blossom and a hanging scroll with calligraphic Chinese characters brushed down its surface. Our hostess suggests we pause to admire it.

Sumiko nods to my husband to go first. She turns the bowl in both her hands until the more beautiful front side faces him and places it down on the tatami. He picks it up with both hands, turns the front away from himself and takes two or three short sips. Then she repeats the same series of steps and offers the bowl to me. The tea tastes very bitter.

The serene and silent flow of ritualized movements puts us in a meditative trance.  We are in a space without time or connection to everyday life. But this tranquil moment comes to an abrupt end with the appearance of two, small, lacquered dishes of cookies.  These are not the tasteless but exquisite sweets—perhaps tinted pink in subtle homage to the plum blossoms—we were expecting to accompany the tea. Instead, they are the lumpy, slightly burned, homemade chocolate chip cookies we’d made in the kitchen of the Catholic girls’ school up the hill from our apartment. We’d brought them as a hostess gift to Sumiko.  I gasp and then stifle an embarrassed giggle.

It would be some time before I learned that despite all its forbidding rules, tea ceremony is, at heart, simply about serving a guest a bowl of tea. The chocolate chip cookies belonged there as much as we did.

Leslie Bedford currently co-coordinates the Writing Workshop study group. Her professional life was spent working in, consulting to and teaching about museums.  This piece is part of a series called Tokyo Madeleine she wrote about the years she and her family spent living in Japan.


It’s Only Stuff

by Leslie Bedford

The flames exploded through the roof and into the sky. Feeding on the night air, they stretched up and out towards the neighboring trees. Standing stunned at the rear of the house, I could imagine the tall pines sending distress signals down through their roots and out to the more distant maples and birches. Beneath the largest pine, its two halves joined by wire and time, our granite Korean mountain god, half buried in needles, waited stoically to see what would happen.

Through the night came the caterwauling of fire trucks. They raced up our drive and parked on the front lawn. Firefighters—one woman—in heavy black slickers and red helmets jumped out. They dragged fat hoses through and around the house. Water was everywhere; great streams that soaked the fire and all it had touched.

Eventually it was over. The exhausted firefighters hauled in their hoses and equipment and headed home. The night was quiet again. The trees were safe. All that remained of the wing that had held a master bedroom, bath and basement were charred beams, piles of black ashes and smoke.

In the following days we scanned the mountain of ash looking for lost belongings. A copper bracelet, once coated with silver, poked out. A single sneaker. Sunglasses. A rip of blanket. We had rakes but little desire to stir up the smoke or dust.

A sparkle of blue caught my eye. It was the remnants of a dress I had worn in 1992 for the gala opening of my big exhibition: the night the highpoint of my career, the dress its metaphor. Picking it up, my hands registered its weight. Despite being a crumpled mess, grimy and melded grotesquely together by the fire, it felt the way my body remembered. How the fabric, encrusted with blue bugle beads, slid over my hips, how the neckline hugged my shoulders, and the way the back dipped down almost to my waist. The dress became a portal into weeks of recalling what was lost.

We met a couple at dinner. They also had experienced a house fire years before. But, she assured me, they quickly realized it was “only stuff.” Having just begun to fill out an exhaustive inventory of losses for the insurance company, I could only nod in feigned agreement.


Wooden bedstead, queen size mattress and box springs, two bedside tables, two reading lights.

Framed watercolor.

…..This hung for decades over Frank’s parents’ double bed in California. When his mother died in 2004, we brought it home and hung it next to the bed so we could see it more clearly.

I lie down, turning my head to look at the watercolor on the wall. A small adobe church surrounded by a wire and wooden fence, two scrubby trees in an overgrown yard of natural grasses, purple, blue, green, brown. A wash of sunlight across the front.

Only silence along the dusty mountain road between Taos and Santa Fe that we traveled years ago when the children were young. The painting’s glass reflects a stand of birches outside our bedroom window. I fall asleep.

Pine bureau, painted black, with three large drawers and two smaller ones.

…..In the dresser was a silky black T-shirt with Aqua Expeditions on the black. Purchased on board during a week-long cruise in 2012 along the Amazon with our daughter, her husband, our son and his serious girlfriend.

Exploring the river with guides in long canoes, pisco sours and gourmet meals. One day the women go out in their own boat and, after choosing which movie actress each liked best, act out a jungle adventure. Ben’s girlfriend, Jennifer, identifies with the star of Winter’s Bone because the bleak scenery and story recalls her Appalachian home. She confesses that before she left, one of her crazier relatives warned her we would throw her in the river to keep her from marrying our son. They become engaged soon after.

…..The bottom drawer held a handwoven rebozo in a red and black weave, particular to one of the villages in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Fading with time and sunshine, but still a treasured souvenir of many visits to Oaxaca and Los Baules, the textile shop on cobbled Macedonia Street. Somewhere is a photo of us at an outdoor restaurant celebrating Valentine’s Day. I am wearing my shawl and holding a red rose.

…..In one of the top drawers was an antique Navajo necklace. Silver and turquoise strung on leather. Squash blossom pattern. Purchased in Arizona c. 1912.

My mother-in-law wears this on special occasions, like her 90th birthday. We have a photo of her on her grandson’s arm, grinning into the camera. She is a short woman so the necklace hangs down almost to the waist of her powder blue dress. The piece had belonged to her grandfather. A lawyer in Wheeling, West Virginia, he used to visit the Southwest in the early 1900s and bought it, along with various baskets and rugs and other pieces of jewelry, from the Indians. When he died, the family discovered he hadn’t kept up his life insurance payments. His widow, Mabel, had to move in with her daughter in Los Angeles. They say she kept a big jug of sherry by her bedside–for “medicinal” reasons.

…..On top of the bureau was an inlaid wooden glove box from the l9th century. My art conservator brother restored it for us as a wedding gift and included the slides taken to document the process of replacing the inlay and gluing in a new blue velvet lining. Among its contents were two pairs of silver earrings, both purchased in 2000.

The Museum Group holds its fall meeting in Ottawa this year. My friend Leslie invites me over for brunch. Fresh strawberries crushed on a buttered baguette and café au lait. We visit her favorite jewelry store downtown and I buy two pairs of earrings. She chooses that time to tell me that her breast cancer has returned. And then she is gone. Like Nan and Janet and Jane and Claudine. All of them at age sixty-four.

In the big closet I stored all my summer clothes and many other things that needed safe keeping.

…..Dark blue chiffon and silk mother of the bride outfit.

The ceremony is in our backyard. There is a trellis made into an arch covered with vines and flowers. Behind it is the field and a distant view of Catamount. Folding chairs and two musicians under the trees. I walk from the porch on my son Ben’s arm. Frank comes out with our daughter. She is so beautiful. Everyone is smiling and smiling.

…..Gray, pleated, sleeveless dress with empire waist.

Jennifer’s mother calls to talk about what we would wear for the wedding. She says she had never bought a dress for herself. I want to race out and get her one, but she finds a beige outfit advertised in a magazine at a house she is cleaning. Beige and gray are the colors my new daughter- in- law chooses. Understated and elegant. Her brother brings a jug of genuine moonshine to the reception; I am caught on camera in my grey dress, taking a sip and making a grimace.

On the floor was a large, square, blue and white pillow from Pottery Barn, New York City

I place the pillow carefully on the floor in front of the picture window so I can see Catamount through the pines and maples. Their branches form a triangular opening, a window into the sky that helps frame my gaze and calm my mind. I settle onto my pillow. My hips and legs are stiff and sore, but gradually they start to relax. I listen to the silence, and then begin to focus on my breathing.

Each day something else comes to mind.


By the front door is a second stone figure, this one a Japanese Buddhist saint named Jizo, who still sports the white grosgrain neck ribbon he wore for our daughter’s wedding in 2011. He has been waiting patiently for us to remember and reflect and then return to the ordinary business of life.


Leslie Bedford has worked in, consulted to and taught about museums for many years. She has a doctorate in Museum Studies and a book on the art of museum exhibitions. An enthusiastic writer, she will be co-coordinating this fall’s Writing Workshop study group.