Stories: Mate and Memories

Write a short story that is set in Argentina in 1932, in which a teacup plays a crucial role.

As the family gathered around the small table, pulling in chairs from other rooms and squeezing to fit everyone in, Theresa – the youngest adult at the table- carefully arranged the tea. On the table before her was a bag of loose-leaf tea, a kettle of hot water and a bottle of cold, and a small gourd holding a bombilla. As the cebador, Theresa was responsible for brewing a perfect cup of mate to share with the family, and while she would normally shy away from such responsibility, today she welcomed it. The ritual of filling the gourd with yerba, carefully shaking the yerba to settle the leaves, inserting the bombilla, pouring in cold water, then adding hot water from the kettle – the motions soothed Theresa even as they formed a cup of tea. Theresa drank the first cup of mate she brewed, to check for temperature and taste, then added more hot water and passed the gourd to her right. Her grandfather accepted the gourd and stared at its contents for a moment before looking up to address the people at the table. The rest of the family had been idly chatting and exchanging gossip as Theresa prepared the tea; now, they fell silent as the old man prepared to speak. Theresa’s grandfather grasped the gourd tightly with age-spotted hands, then suddenly he smiled.

“Marta was everything that was good in me, everything about me that was worth being. She was my wildest dream come true, and I’ll miss her for the rest of my life. But I will not mourn her, because she is where she belongs, in Heaven.” He drank the tea in one strong pull on the bombilla and returned the gourd to Theresa with a nod. “Good mate, granddaughter.”

Theresa replenished the gourd with water from the kettle; the next to drink was her grandmother. She accepted the gourd with one hand, and clutched her husband’s wrist with the other. “My Marta was a fighter. She fought her way out of my womb, she fought her father when he moved us from Santa Fe to Buenos Aires, she fought to keep her family safe and healthy.” She drank from the gourd, then wiped her eyes and smiled at Theresa. “She fights, even now. You’ll feel her, all your life, right beside you, fighting away your fears.” She finished the mate, and Theresa felt her eyes sting with unshed tears as she refilled the gourd.

In unspoken agreement, turn by turn, each family member took the gourd, drank the mate, and shared a story about Marta. They relived fond stories about her as a sister, a cousin, a playmate – stories that often featured her obstinacy, her kindness, and her sense of humor. Together, they wept over their loss as they drank her tea.

Finally, the gourd reached Theresa’s father who sat at her left. Her father was a large man, a construction worker kept busy laying down one of the country’s many new roads until his wife suddenly became ill. His hands, weatherbeaten from working in all conditions, calloused from the constant drilling and hammering, were gentle as they laid damp cloths across Marta’s forehead and held her when she began having convulsions. He spoon-fed her broth from a bowl that looked like a child’s toy in his hands. When he closed her eyes, his hands had been strong and steady; now, as they cradled the gourd, his hands trembled uncontrollably.

“Your grandfather called her a dream,” he said to his daughter, “and she was. How else can you explain it? We met at their wedding” – he motioned across the table to Theresa’s aunt and uncle, who smiled at the memory – “and when I saw your mother, I thought I was dreaming.” He took a sip of mate, then laughed. “She was wearing an orange skirt, and she was dancing, and to me, she moved like a wildfire. She saw me watching her, eventually, and she came to me. There I was, this giant clodhopper sitting on a bench and trying not to spill my wine, and there she was, the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen – dancing toward me. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe it when she asked me to dance. I couldn’t believe it when she agreed to marry me.” He took another sip from the gourd, then looked at the tea things arranged before Theresa.

To be continued.


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