A Tete-a-Tete Over Tea and Cookies
(This post is written as a narrative to my daughters.)
I can never look at tea biscuits, or Kaak, the same way ever again without tears forming in my eyes.
I know what you’re thinking, like, really mom, they’re just cookies.
But that’s the thing, they’re not just cookies. Simply eyeing the cylindrical shaped sesame butter cookies transports me back to the humid summers of South Lebanon, in front of your great-grandparents old stone-brick house. Even back then they had no porch. We would sit on the cemented walkway on white plastic lawn chairs outside the door—probably the same ones you sit on today, in fact, when we visit.
We’d sit there in the late afternoons, always between 3:30 and 4:15, after your great-grandfather had prayed at the mosque and visited with his elderly friends. We liked to joke they had a secret old-man club. How nice it must be to have friends whom you are able to see daily and routinely for almost your whole life. After his death I was just as saddened for their loss as for mine; I knew their club wouldn’t be the same anymore.
Our afternoon tea was drank in small glass cups (no large cappucino style mugs here), though your great-grandfather’s was always the shortest one—cute, just like him. Since he refused to drink his tea in any other cup your great-grandmother had multiples of them hidden away, just in case one broke.
Sometimes I would watch him refill his cup three or four times and think, why doesn’t he just use a bigger cup?
And he always, always, had tea biscuits for us, so we could dip inside our tea. They bake the biscuits with the flavor of star-anise inside, and it always made my tea taste and smell like star-anise, a taste I’m not too fond of. But there was something about the mild sweetness of the biscuit that complimented the tea, and the way dipping it in the hot tea turned the biscuit the perfect amount of sogginess— not too mushy, but just soft enough to taste the sweetness.
He would always buy multiple bags at a time— a fact your great-grandmother was annoyed with. She would mumble under her breath that she didn’t need to collect bags of tea biscuits, and question why couldn’t they could just pick them up as needed. But he always wanted to make sure we didn’t have the opportunity to run out of them, so we didn’t have to go in search. He wanted to make sure it was already taken care of, just like everything else he felt he was responsible for.
This was our daily ritual for 2 months every summer that we spent in Lebanon. Those afternoon tea sessions may not seem like anything grand or spectacular compared to the touristy things we could have been doing. But exchanging conversation back and forth with your great-grandfather along with those tea biscuits is what built our bond, and how we got to know him. He would tell us about his day, the tailors job he couldn’t quite get himself to retire from, the people he saw in the city that day, tidbits about the news, all the while smiling and laughing with us in a way only he could: not only with his mouth but with his eyes, upturned and glistening with joy.
This is why I can never look at a tea biscuit without feeling sad or a tear forming. I don’t just see a cylindrical shaped cookie covered in toasted sesame-seeds. I see the shining, smiling eyes of an old man wearing a plaid button-down shirt, sitting across from me holding a too-small glass tea cup. And it makes me realize that I’ll never sit with him and wait for him to pass me a tea biscuit ever again.
You will never know him. You’ll hear stories about him over the years, countless times I’m sure. I wish more than anything that you could have gotten to know him. In fact, when you were toddlers and started dipping cookies in milk I would think how I couldn’t wait to take you to Lebanon and have Jido hand you a biscuit to dip in tea—for him, I would have gladly, happily, and honorably broken my ‘no-caffeine-for-you’ rule.
But alas that is a tradition we must continue on without him. I’ll pass you a tea-biscuit for your tea and tell you how this bonding ritual started, or have your grandmother pass you one, the way her father did for her, and for me. Tata even has the small tea cup he used to drink out of. She kept it is a treasured relic after he passed away. We’ll show it to you one day, and maybe you’ll lovingly be amused and wonder as I did why he liked using doll-sized tea cups. 🙂
And I’ll smile as with each bite I’m transported back to an old house in South Lebanon, sitting on a white plastic chair looking up at the adorable man sitting across from me, smiling at me with his shining eyes. And every time I’ll say two prayers: one so that his beautiful soul may rest in peace, and one in thanks that I got to spend all those summers with him where he built loving traditions for us that we now pass on to you.
(I pray that the beautiful souls of all your loved ones rest eternally in peace, and ask whoever is reading this to recite a similar prayer on behalf of my Grandfather.)