When I was small, a cherished summer event was to be invited to afternoon tea at the Misses Banks’ home just down the hill from Grandpa and Grandma’s house on Solly Road in Summerland. In the pictures from my memories, the house is surrounded by great tall trees—cottonwoods, as I recall them. The house itself is a two-story Victorian home, and features a lovely shaded porch on the side facing up the hill toward the Summerland hospital. On this porch are comfortable chairs and a small table or two, perfectly suited for slightly informal afternoon conversational soirees.
We called the two elderly ladies who lived here, the Banks sisters, Auntie Violet and Auntie Muriel. Auntie Muriel taught grade one in Summerland for many years, and Auntie Violet kept up the house. In the summertime, they sometimes had a “big girl” come and stay with them—I suppose she was a niece or other relative. She was probably only four or five years older than I, but she certainly seemed “big” to me, and I was a little in awe of her.
I don’t know how often we actually went to the Misses Banks for tea; it may have been only a couple times, or it may have been more, but those visits have created their own little niche in my memory, in the half-century or more since.
Grandma, Mommy and I would dress nicely, in dresses of course, as was the accepted style of those times, and the older ladies, at least, wore little straw hats that matched their dresses in colour. Some of the hats had little flowers or lace as pretty but modest decorations. The ladies would wear pumps, and I would wear my pretty white church shoes. Most of the ladies would also wear white gloves. We would make sure our fingernails were clean, and our hair done neatly; if we had been invited the previous day, my hair would have been put up in “rags” overnight to ensure I had pretty ringlets, or at least gentle curls as my hair never would hold ringlets for more than a few minutes. All dressed up in lady-like style, we would walk down the road to the Misses’ Banks house, and be invited up onto the porch, where we would be seated on porch furniture; my childhood memory suggests to me that the chairs were wicker style, some seating one, some seating two or three, and all with pretty, flower-patterned cushions.
This was a ladies-only event, and often a number of women from the neighborhood would be there, and occasionally a few daughters. I do remember that it was important to sit in a lady-like manner, and to remember that children should be quiet, not chattering, and not running about or wiggling too much. Of course, we were all quite good at behaving appropriately, as from birth we were taken to church every Sunday—for Sunday School, morning service, and evening service; and often for other church events during the week, and we learned quickly to sit respectfully and quietly.
The Misses Banks, assisted by their niece, would soon bring out trays laden with little squares of cakes and slices of loaves. I wished I, too, was big enough to help serve. There would be a pretty teapot and dainty china teacups, and I loved watching the ladies as they picked up their teacups and sipped from them. Some of the ladies would have their little finger lifted delicately as they sipped, and as a young child I thought that was so elegant. For the children there was a large glass pitcher with home-made lemonade. I was entranced by the slices of real lemon and the ice cubes floating in the water, and the large drops on condensation on the outside of the pitcher. We were served our lemonade in real glasses—no cheap plastic; after all, we were “ladies!” I remember holding my glass of lemonade carefully, trying to sip politely in the same way as did the big girl and the ladies.
We were also served the little cakes and slices, laid neatly on small china plates. We certainly did not get up and help ourselves; we waited patiently until the tray was brought around, and we children took only one slice at a time, unless we were told we could take an extra. If there were only one or two slices left of a particular type, we would politely leave them for someone else to enjoy. I remember thinking that last rule was a bit unfair, because there would always be a tray left with an enticing display of one or two each of the different types of treats—and I suspected, with a trace of envy, that the big girl would get to eat them after we left.
I enjoyed sitting and listening to the ladies as they chatted. I have no recollection of what their conversation was about, although I am sure it would not have involved “gossip.” While it was perfectly acceptable to discuss “polite and respectful” events in people’s lives, there were unspoken but clear understandings about what was not acceptable. We were never to speak of things that were considered “scandalous,” which covered a lot of territory. It was a much more civil time, and of course these afternoon-tea sorts of events, in which young girls were included, were a time to learn and practice good manners, courtesy, and lady-likeness. No doubt there was discussion of gardening, of church-related or community functions and activities, of important family events like births and weddings, and so on. But always the conversation was polite.
I can still hear the voices as a kind of murmur, rippling like the waters of a cool little shaded brook, interspersed with moments of gentle laughter and good humour. From time to time, the ladies would turn to us children and ask one or another of us a direct question, drawing us into the conversation. I loved those moments, when I would be included in the “grown-up” conversation; I felt honoured and important, and did my best to answer as a lady. The big-girl niece was included more often in the conversation than we little ones were, which caused some small jealousy on my part, and so I was especially gratified when I had the opportunity to show that I could be as grown-up, proper, and well-spoken as she. I expect my dear grandma, who was always doing her best to teach me lady-like manners and attitudes, might have been rather horrified if she’d realized my well-hidden outlook.
Finally, the afternoon tea would be over, gracious thanks and good-byes said, and off we’d go, walking back up the hill to grandma’s house, my young-lady mind filing away memories to be held onto, and someday passed on to my own children and grandchildren.