Along the edges of the window I can see a clear blue sky, light hitting green leaves at a low angle. But in here, a pre-dawn gray leaves the details of the room blurred. Lazy Sunday vibes float in from our quiet street. The mornings are growing colder and the open windows fill the room with a crisp breeze. It’s the season of homemade, from-scratch, and preparation for the dark months of winter. But before the sky turns slate gray and threatens snow, we get lazy, chilled Sunday mornings. Mornings like this put one in a reflective mood and demand a ritual. So I pull a sweater over my thin t-shirt, wrinkled with sleep, and set about making masala chai.
I fill the old but well cared for mug with water and milk, then pour the mixture into the small pot. The mug is large and heavy, a two-hander that doubles as a bowl. It is in pristine condition — no chipped paint, no broken handle. The pattern of brown, white and mint blue has not even begun to fade, and every letter of every word can still be read perfectly. But the mug’s still-new quality is an illusion. It was the first thing I bought when at age 17 I began planning to move out of my childhood home. Ever since finding it on the clearance rack of a Starbucks off I-80, I’ve never misplaced or forgotten this mug. I drag it from place to place, from year to year like a reminder of where I started, a small piece of the open sky.
As the burner heats, I mix in an approximation of enough spices. The ginger and cardamom, cinnamon and cloves hit my nose in a burst of autumnal scents. No candle has ever smelled so sweet. The spicy smell takes me to the kitchen of my best friend’s parents’ house. Tucked back in the woods, it was full of love and laughter and delicious seasonal smells. As a teenager, their house was what I aspired to one day calling home — the smells, the warmth, the sense of escaping. Stirring the pot memories waft up at me, of listening to her parents’ stories and sleeping on the floor of the living room and waiting up to see if her older brother would let us listen to music in his room. Ten years have passed, but cardamom still pulls me back to 16.
Next comes the black tea — a tablespoon or so added to the pot. Then stir, stir, stir until the pale white has turned a shade of almost khaki brown. In the kitchen shadows the tea begins to look like white stone in the rain, the off-color light taupe of Rue Rivoli on a March afternoon. Opening leaves flutter from top to bottom, as if caught in October bluster on a gravel road. A chill blows in the window and makes me shiver, like a sudden wind cutting through a sunny day in Chicago. I shrug away these ghosts as I reach for the strainer.
The mug is hot in my hands as I carefully sit on the couch, the warmth just this side of painful on my open palms. The steam is thick with the earthy smells of tea and spices. My early attempts at making masala chai were conducted with tea bags and pots of milk, resulting in slightly-flavored scalded milk which I drank eagerly and told myself was close enough. In Kenya, I drank sweetened chai every morning and realized quickly that my messes were not close at all. Sipping carefully at the still-too-hot masala chai, I smile back at the things I wanted but made too difficult. A breeze blows in the window, swirling the cardamom scented air around my head. A ray of sunlight finally streams through the window, and I’m here now.
About the Author
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. Her interests include travel, international politics, film, and tattoos. More of her work can be seen here.