My daughter was named after her great-great aunt, whom we affectionately referred to as “Auntie Choot.” She was given this name by her 3-year-old nephew who thought she resembled a little chick or “chook,” but he couldn’t quite pronounce “chook” so for the next six decades or so, Edith Stephens was simply called Auntie Choot. She didn't mind.
Auntie Choot was a firecracker of a woman. Standing at a proud 4’ 11”, she told us stories of riding her horse to school as a young girl in the South Island of New Zealand. During one visit, I noticed she had a large bruise on her forehead. When I asked her what had happened, she laughed and said “It was so silly of me. I locked myself out of the house, so I went around to the back and climbed in the bathroom window. I slipped on the floor and banged my head.” At that time, she was 95 years old.
Her house was stuffed full of old paintings, furniture, and bits and pieces of china. I especially remember all the cups of tea. Auntie Choot, like most Kiwis, loved her tea and averaged a good 5 to 6 cups a day. Tea was always brewed and served from a teapot into a dainty cup and saucer.
“It tastes better in a beautiful cup,” she would say.
Like the tea, Auntie Choot always made a big deal of the little things. It was how she chose to respond to a difficult life. Her husband was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and she stayed with him through the good days and the bad days. Her only daughter married a verbally and physically abusive alcoholic, and then died unexpectedly herself. Diagnosed with a heart condition, Auntie Choot had to sleep sitting up for the last 30 years of her life. No one could ever say she had an easy life. That’s what made her spirit so remarkable. She clung to her Catholic faith and to beauty as two sure signs of better things to come.
After she passed away at the age of 103, her possessions were divided among the family. My mother, who was like a second daughter to her, received quite a few items, including several sets of teacups and saucers. These were particularly special to us, since we knew they had been used by Auntie Choot herself.
As my own daughter grew up, I would occasionally take a couple of these teacups out and have a cuppa with her, telling her stories about her great-great aunt. Although they never met, I wanted my daughter to know all about the wonderful woman she was named after.
Time goes by and previous generations seem to slip further away. Yet God is good and he sometimes reminds us that we are not as separated as we might think. My daughter, now a young adult, recently finished a Master of Music degree, with a concentration in Music Composition. As the final requirement for her degree, she had to present an hour of original music, performed live in front of an audience. Accordingly, she spent weeks working on this recital.
She wrote the music, found the instrumentalists (a pianist, a violinist, a clarinetist, and a cellist), and practiced her own parts on the bass clarinet. She coordinated with a dance/choreographer major to perform a solo routine. She found two opera majors to sing the words to one song, and a videographer and an actress to produce a short film for another. She wrote the program notes for her recital, detailing how she had been inspired by the poetry of Shel Silverstein to produce music that told a story, that tried to move listeners beyond the incessantly noisy landscape of today. Finally, she asked her dad and me if we could organize a small reception following the recital, to thank all those who had helped her and give the audience a chance to talk to the performers. Of course, we agreed.
There was a full house the night of the recital, packed with some family and friends but mostly undergraduates from the university. I, like the rest of the audience, had not seen or heard any of the works before, just bits and pieces here and there as my daughter was practicing. The music began and it was simply a wonderful hour. We noticed especially that the 18 and 19-year-olds were not on their phones. They were listening intently, captivated by the dancing, drawn in by the passionate singing of the opera singers, watching the instrumentalists expertly whizzing through notes.
The final piece of the evening featured a short video. Imagine my surprise as the film unfolded, reminding the viewer of our need to seek beauty in everyday life. But the last scene of the film brought tears to my eyes. There, on the big screen, was one of Auntie Choot’s cup and saucers. The shot showed a long stream of hot tea being slowly poured into the cup. The actress raised the cup to her face, closed her eyes and drew in a long breath. Then she took a sip, smiled and turned her face to the sun as the screen faded to black.
At the reception afterwards, the young audience gathered around the artists, chatting and asking them questions. I was busy handing out food and drinks when I heard a young woman exclaim, “Look! The cup and saucer!”
Unbeknownst to me, my husband had seen Auntie Choot’s cup and saucer sitting on the table at home and had grabbed it at the last second, thinking it would add a nice touch to the table decor at the reception. The students gathered around it, looking at it as though it was a rare, precious thing.
My mother, standing nearby, noticed, and said, “Auntie Choot would be so happy. Beauty was always her path to seeing God. These things were so important to her, and now all of these young people can share that, too.”
My daughter wandered over. “Edie!” I said. “You used one of Auntie Choot’s teacups!”
She looked at me with surprise and said, “Of course, Mom. Everything tastes better in a beautiful cup.”
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