People take their coffee one million different ways—with milk or half-and-half, with sugar or without (or perhaps with Sweet-n-Low like my Nanny Ruth). But iced tea? It’s either sweet or unsweet, and that’s all there is to it. Not only that, but I imagine you could judge your latitude in America by the default tea offering at local diners. The sweet/unsweet distinction seems to serve as an informal demarcation between north and south. I was born and raised in Florida, but my parents had both relocated as young adults from Michigan and New York, and they brought their penchant for unsweet tea with them. My in-laws, however, hail from the south, and for them, sweet tea is the only way.
When Evan and I got married, we took seriously the unity candle metaphor, that we were joining and blending our two families to create something new, a melding or melting together of sorts. And yet, there are still some preferences from our families of origins to which we hold tight, and our tea preferences among them.
Unsweet for me, sweet for him, ’til death do us part, amen.
My mom hosted my bridal shower, and as I puttered around the kitchen helping her set up, she asked me to fill up the drink dispensers. I filled one with water and one with iced tea, and I asked, “Did you get some sweet tea for Evan’s side of the family?”
“I was just going to set out some sugar,” she replied, and I laughed.
“Nope. They won’t do it.”
I once would have made the same assumption, but a year or so with the Cornetts taught me that true sweet tea lovers never just dump some sugar into tea that’s already been made. It’s just not the same; the sugar must be added while the water is still hot and the tea still brewing, so as to dissolve completely. I sent my sister to Publix.
When the party was underway, I stood in the drink line not far from Evan’s cousin, Savannah. She filled her cup from the jug of sweet tea and said, “Whoa! That’s a lot of unsweet. I wonder why they did it that way.” It was incomprehensible that any family might do it differently.
There is a blending that happens when snow-white sugar is added to the deep reddish-brown tea, still hot from the boiling water. I lift the tea bags from the pot, pushing them against the sides to squeeze out all the tannic goodness. I set the used bags aside, and because this batch is for Evan, I fish out a measuring cup from the drawer to my left. I plunge it into the bag of sugar and lift it back out again, letting the excess fall off the sides. I pour it into the pot and begin to stir, feeling the heavy weight of the sugar drag through the liquid, slowly, slowly, until it’s gone. Dissolved completely, there’s no separating the tea from the sugar anymore. I won’t drink it this way, but my husband likes it sweet.
I know the blending of families is not quite as smooth and seamless as the brewing of a pot of iced tea. Decades of habits and preferences can make for awkwardness when two families begin butting up against one another. By the time Evan and I decided to get married, we knew each other well enough to know what we were getting into. It was one another’s families that we really needed to grow acquainted with.
Evan and his two older brothers were all married within one year, changing the structure of the family dramatically and rapidly. But my sisters-in-law had both been around the family for much, much longer, having dated Evan’s brothers for years by the time I arrived on the scene. I was unsure of myself in their company, as though they had long-ago woven themselves into the fabric of the family, and I was a loose thread. As Evan and I dated, I knew we were walking toward marriage perhaps just as quickly as everyone else, but without the benefit of years of family history and connection. I was desperate to find my place as a daughter, to figure out how my personality melded with everyone else and to make up for the time I had not yet been given.
During this time, my in-laws gathered everyone to their home for a family dinner, and while waiting for the meal to be served, I walked to the kitchen to pour myself a drink. I grabbed a plastic cup and wrote my name with a Sharpie. I turned to the drinks on the counter. Sitting there, amongst the gallon-sized jugs water and the sweet tea, was one half-gallon jug. It didn’t have my name on it, but I knew perfectly well it was meant for me. Unsweet tea.
There are a million ways to welcome: a paper invitation, a text message with a date and time, an open front door, an extra seat at the table. But there is also this: making space for the preferences and desires of another, choosing to recognize someone’s differences and acknowledge them as worthy of a place at the table. Iced tea is just a beverage, and it hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. And yet, I carry it with me, because the sight of the tea on the counter allowed me to take a deep breath, to walk a bit more assuredly into the future I saw as Evan’s wife and a member of the Cornett family.
My oldest child has only just turned five, and it will still be many years before I will have the opportunity to welcome a potential son or daughter-in-law to my table. Even still, I carry that small moment from nine years ago close to my heart: a sweating jug of unsweet tea on the kitchen counter, and a feeling of welcome and acceptance I needed at that moment.
We mothers all wear so many hats: psychologist and chef, nurse and mediator, chauffeur and teacher. But here is another, one we can wear with hope: welcomer, puller-upper of chairs, server of tea.
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Lindsey is a writer, reader, and mom who is slowly learning to trade perfectionism for freedom. A Florida-to-Michigan transplant, her faith and sense of purpose are shifting as she experiences seasons in the world and in her own life. Lindsey is also the co-founder of The Drafting Desk, a newsletter for anyone trying to pursue grace instead of perfection. You can find her on Instagram @lindseycornett.