The isolation has undone me. I am talking to the kettle.
It is a shiny new kettle, bright red, Le Creuset. It was marked down by Amazon’s warehouse, but I can find no flaw. As I wash that cheerful enameled surface and scrape off various stickers, I murmur, “Are you just old, darlin’? Is that why you were in the warehouse?”
The stickers are stubborn, maybe baked on and frozen by temperature extremes. How many trucks have carried my kettle, and how long has it languished on a shelf? More than most objects, a kettle is meant to be used.
The shape angles wide at the base—its style name was Zen, which helped win me over. I gush in hot water and swirl it around, promising to take better, more meditative care of this one than the predecessor I just scorched.
My mom had bought me the previous kettle years ago, insisting I needed its narrow spout to fill our hot water bottle. We were both addicted to that winter comfort, its rubbery rounded edges and sloshing softness so much cozier than a rectangle with a cord and dry electric heat. I was not, however, a fan of her kettle choice, a cold stainless steel that was a little lightweight, thin, for my taste. It refused to tolerate my absentmindedness.
Teakettles should be cozy and stalwart, with a reassuring heft and a bright splash of color. They also need a pleasant whistle, for the sake of people like me. They should not be yet another electrical appliance to plug into a power strip already bristling with connections. Some things must remain simple.
I resume our conversation, aware that I perhaps need to work in others’ company again, that I may be growing squirrelly. “All those soothing cups of tea you’ll make,” I say, meaning this as a pleasantry, an anticipation of oolong, Moroccan mint, double-spiced chai, Constant Comment. In my Irish family, though, strong tea was inseparable from emotional crisis, and my hand moves the dishtowel faster, nervous at the thought of all the unknown upset ahead. Grief and distress are far more likely to require this kettle’s services than an unexpected home birth.
I pull back, make myself think instead of gossip and good books and hot toddies for future colds. (The thought of a cold is almost prosaic, these days.) Whatever the occasion, putting the kettle on is a friendly act, a promise of conversation, strength, and quiet companionship. Coffee is a harsher stimulant, more transactional, offering energy and demanding performance. Tea takes its time—I hate myself when I microwave it, the very convenience reminding me that I am rushing my life away, so hooked on speed that I cannot wait a few minutes for a kettle to boil.
Three years ago, I drove for several hours through a torrential thunderstorm, got lost, and lost phone reception before finally reaching Paris, Missouri, the small town where the writer George Hodgman grew up. Hapless in the kitchen after years in Manhattan, George offered me tea (Lipton) and boiled the water in a little saucepan. I smiled and later included that detail in the profile. It seemed charming, a tiny bit of human ineptitude in an erudite former Vanity Fair and Simon & Schuster editor who knew all the literary celebs.
Two and a half years later, Hodgman killed himself. All I could think of was that saucepan. No longer charming, it now reminded me that he had been painfully alone for years—never cozy and snug, always a little on edge, even at home. For many reasons, he had never developed the knack of comforting himself—only the rest of us. We became friends after I wrote the profile, and I quickly came to treasure his wit, his sarcasm, his deep compassion. He recognized other people’s pain, yet no one could come close enough to soothe his.
How long had that been true? There was an essential aloneness about him, despite his ready warmth. He joked about becoming an eccentric, mad recluse in his old age (he was not yet sixty). George had moved home to care for his mother in her last days, and she was gone by the time I met him. I got a sense of her as funny, sharp-edged, eager for his help and his role as her audience, but hardly cozy. Not the sort to fetch somebody a hot water bottle unasked.
Kettles are fundamentally social, I realize. Left to my own devices, I probably would just microwave a mug. But a kettle boils enough water to share, one of those communal acts that keep us all sane. Even Scotland Yard detectives, if television is to be trusted, ask for a cuppa when they need to come into someone’s home and extract a bit of information. If anything will let down someone’s guard, it will be that ritual.
The Brits, with their chilly fog and chatty discourse, have always known the value of the kettle, as have the Japanese, the Chinese, the Turks. The first teakettles were bronze, forged in Mesopotamia 3500 years BCE, and they had decorative spouts, their practicality made beautiful. The English name “kettle” came later, taken from the Old Norse ketill, or cauldron. Women’s work, witchery and elemental. Fire heats water and keeps us alive—in this world and the next.
The northern Iroquois had a Feast of the Dead in which their bones, thought to enclose their souls and the stories of their lives, were retrieved from a temporary grave, scrubbed clean, and buried in a common grave along with small offerings, often kettles, made by their loved ones. The Hurons even called the ceremony “the kettle.”
I wish George could have been buried with a kettle. What I really wish is that he had a kettle when he was alive. Tea was probably too watered-down for him, but sympathy might have made a difference.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.