a story from Buddha in a Teacup
“Can you tell me,” asks Sweeney, handing the teapot to McDougall, “what this is worth?”
McDougall, a portly man with a gray handlebar moustache, takes the little pearly white teapot in his big fleshy hands and nods slowly. “Baleek,” he says quietly. “Irish porcelain. Late eighteen hundreds. Extremely rare. I’ll have to examine her with a magnifying glass, but if this is the original glaze, and she’s flawless, I’d say she’s worth ten thousand dollars. Possibly more. And I’ll tell you right now, I want her.”
Sweeney, a slender man with brown hair turning gray, had hoped to get thirty or forty dollars for the old thing. Desperate for money, he had finally done what he’d been avoiding for three years. He’d gone through the two boxes of stuff left to him by his mother. In the first of the boxes he found only memorabilia—pictures and letters. But the second box contained the teapot, six matching cups and saucers, and a matching sugar bowl and creamer.
“That much?” he says, trying not to show too much astonishment at McDougall’s estimate of the teapot’s worth. “And what if I had the matching cups and saucers and things?”
McDougall gazes thoughtfully at Sweeney, his right eyebrow rising dramatically. “Six cups and saucers?”
“Yes,” says Sweeney, holding his breath. “And a sugar bowl and creamer.”
McDougall carefully sets the teapot down on the table between them. “A complete set of this Baleek, circa 1870, in excellent condition, would be worth at least fifty thousand dollars, and possibly a great deal more.”
“Why so much?” asks Sweeney, staggered by the sum.
“Well, first of all we’re talking about extremely rare and fragile ceramics that are nearly a hundred and fifty years old. A complete, original set outside of a museum is virtually unheard of in this day and age.” He pauses. “Handles intact?”
“Yes,” says Sweeney, turning to go. “I’ll be back with them in twenty minutes.”
“No, no, no!” cries McDougall, emphatically shaking his head. “I will bring my padded carrying case and come with you.”
“Excuse the mess,” says Sweeney, unlocking the door to his apartment.
“I’m used to messes,” says McDougall, following Sweeney into the cramped little room. “In the mud lie the nuggets.”
The place smells sour, the sink full of dirty dishes, clothes strewn about the floor, the squalid bed unmade. On a rickety table by the only window, six cups on six saucers surround a sugar bowl and creamer, each piece the same pearly white as the teapot. McDougall reverently approaches this still life, his eyes wide with wonder. When he is satisfied that the pieces are immaculate, he turns to Sweeney and says, “I will be happy to write you a check for fifty thousand dollars.”
“And I will be happy to accept it,” says Sweeney, his tired eyes filling with tears.
When the rare and delicate tea set is safely packed away, the padded case closed and locked, McDougall says, “Now, if you don’t mind, could you tell me what you know about the set and where your mother got it?”
“I don’t know anything about it except that my mother’s mother was British, so maybe it was hers.”
“You don’t remember your mother using it?”
“No,” says Sweeney, his voice full of disdain, “but then I don’t remember much of anything about her.”
“When did she die?”
“Three years ago.”
“You were her only heir?”
He nods. “She didn’t leave me anything except a box of photographs and the tea things.”
“Would it be a terrible imposition if I looked through those photographs?”
“No, not at all.” Sweeney hands him a well-worn cardboard box. “In fact, you can have them if you want.”
McDougall takes the box from him. “Have you looked at these?”
“No,” says Sweeney, shaking his head. “My mother hated me. She used to call me her big mistake. These wouldn’t mean anything to me. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to get to the bank before it closes.”
With the Baleek safely installed in his vault, McDougall makes a strong pot of black tea and sits down to examine the photographic legacy of Sweeney’s mother. There are hundreds of photos, and on the back of each is a note to Sweeney. The largest picture is of Sweeney as a boy of seven or eight having a tea party with his mother. They are using the Baleek set. On the back of the photograph Sweeney’s mother has written
Here we are acting out the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Alice in Wonderland. That’s my mother’s old Baleek tea set, which she got from her mother who got it as a wedding gift in 1872. Amazing none of the pieces ever broke or even chipped a little. In fact, you and I had many tea parties with this set, remember? You even had tea parties with your friends Raymond and Cecily, but nothing ever broke. Proof of angels, if you ask me.
You know, Dearie, I wish I could have left you buckets of money, but all I have is this tea set. I hope it brings you joy. Perhaps someday you’ll pass it along to someone who will appreciate it as much as we did.
I love you very much.