Tea with Mrs. Roosevelt, Bennett College, May 1954
(Ruthie Mae’s Perspective)
Grace C. Ocasio
I: Months Before the Tea
I hear she is fond of garden parties,
but I don’t think she will come here.
Why should she?
Former First Lady,
I’m sure she has far better things to do
other than to visit us young women,
not quite in full bloom.
I prep for her presence,
hanker to ease into an armchair
placed beside her own in the parlor––
the belle singled out to lob small talk into her ears.
The wind of my words sweeping over
lilacs destined to garnish the tray laden
with goodies dear only to tea drinkers.
II: One Hour Before the Tea
Twelve of us, mostly sophomores and juniors,
will swirl tea with Mrs. Roosevelt.
We line up, like coke bottles
on a conveyor belt,
before Dr. Jones who inspects us,
eyes zigzagging across our buttons,
handbags, hairdos, and pumps.
III: Onset of the Tea
She’s here––in a rose-colored dress
with a flowered hat
perched on her head.
And, of course, the toothy grin
she unveils magnifies her face.
Now is my chance to squeeze
my gloved hand into hers.
How to pitch my query to her
on what it means to live in Hyde Park,
that town that beckons to me like a footbridge to Tibet?
When she climbs atop the dais and chirrs her words,
Girls, it’s such a lovely, lovely spring day
for you to join me in front of these gorgeous magnolias,
I don’t know whether to shrink back
into my white wicker chair––or gambol across the lawn.
We set our tongues still as prize ribbons,
creased lips pursed for her next pronouncement
that we will devour like peach ice cream.
She says, Well, these watercress salmon sandwiches
are simply delightful, and I love this calico teapot––
and girls, our tea wouldn’t be the same
without this jug of milk.
I can’t calculate the difference
between drinking tea with milk
or drinking tea with cream.
And I can’t fathom the art
of preparing lemons––
whether to cut them into wedges or slices.
But I know that this woman who sings
her vowels, telling us she knew French
before she knew English, is an ally.
IV: Midway Through Mrs. Roosevelt’s Speech
What I notice is the predominance of yellow tulips,
freshly cut, protruding from a calico vase
that looks as delicate as a ficus leaf.
Just as my eyes peruse the plush lawn, smooth as sand,
she whispers, Girls, don’t be afraid to defy the mantras
of your time. The world will come at you
with an endless supply of nonsense.
She cranks up her voice, rouses us––
Your calling is to advocate for your right
to dress up your mind in knowledge that you,
in turn, will pass on to your children, who will pass on
to their children so that at least a couple of generations
will be equipped to paint and sculpt our culture
into magnificent frescoes and marble reliefs.
As her words whisk the air, I glance at my classmates,
hands tucked into laps, hair either coiffed into curls
swept up into ponytails with short fringes
or pressed into shoulder-length pageboys.
V: Seconds Before the Partaking of Tea
My tongue longs to taste the coolness of watercress,
but the breath of this woman––piping a tune that sways
nearby oaks––sustains me in spite of my hunger.
My eyes cram in as much of her profile as they can––
the incline of her nose, the mound of her chin.
I manage to attract her gaze.
Her eyes speak only to me: Young woman,
go paddle your canoe. Don’t let the river
sweep you downstream until your arms are able
to propel you there.
My eyes shift down to her hands,
witness how frail they appear, gather
that they’ve been pampered far more than my own.
And when she bends down, pauses to sample her tea,
she reminds me of Mother, how Mother raises her cup
to her lips, and I muse that Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit
has helped me to see that I’m just like her,
that the small flares of my life will matter
to a wilder version of me.
And when I meet her, my daughter,
I will tell her to never sit perfectly straight in a chair
but to slouch every now and then,
tell her to turn her body toward back alleys,
tunnels, and turnstiles––New York City-style.
Grace C. Ocasio: "My poetry manuscript, Family Reunion, received honorable mention in the Quercus Review Press Fall 2017 Book Award Contest. A Pushcart Prize Nominee, I placed as a finalist in the 2016 Aesthetica Creative Writing Award in Poetry. I am also a recipient of the 2014 North Carolina Arts Council Regional Artist Project Grant. My first full-length collection, The Speed of Our Lives, was published by BlazeVOX Books in 2014. I have published poetry in Rattle, Court Green, The Chaffin Journal, and many other journals. She is a member of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective."