Every year the ladies of St. Columba’s Chapel in Middletown, RI hold an English Garden Party and Devonshire Tea. Attendees typically include St. Columba’s parishioners and Middletown Residents. It is such a tight knit community that one would be surprised to learn that a mother-daughter team who neither belong to St. Columba’s or live in Middletown have been crashing since 2005. One might be more surprised to learn that in June 2009, this tenacious duo enlisted another mother-daughter pair. Together, these big-hatted bandits caused the “Great Plate Scandal of 2009”— this is that tale.
June 2009: Middletown, Rhode Island
Steph has talked about the infamous Middleton, RI English Garden Party held the second Saturday of every June since I first met her. So when I realized that Mom had the day off from being a dignified professor, I insisted we take up the Jones’ offer to join them in the festivities. Spirits were high as Mrs. Jones, Steph, Mom and I arrived adorned with the largest hats we could find in Mrs. Jones’ extensive collection.
St. Columba’s in Middletown, RI
Now St. Columba’s Chapel in Middletown, Rhode Island is the type of quaint church that makes you stop and double check that you haven’t accidently driven to England. Luckily the sun was shining brightly, a telling sign that you are not in fact in the UK, so the confusion was very brief. The Garden Party was in full swing with piles of books at the old book fair, the llamas weren’t spitting, and the dancers were frolicking about the Garden path with rolling pins in their hands. Being seasoned professionals, the Jones’ headed straight for the Afternoon tea area to sign up for the 3 o’clock tea service. Our 2:30 arrival meant that we had a good forty minutes before our tea, so being the patient people we are, we wandered over to the Silent Auction tent that was conveniently located next to the Tea Hall. That was done unintentionally of course or not because we wanted to be the first in line for the clotted cream.
As we wandered through sailing lessons, polo match tickets and gift baskets, I noticed my mom looking at a small collection of Wedgewood plates. Now, my mother and I recently acquired a strong interest in Wedgewood plates after we managed to break my aunt’s forty-year old collection. Suffice to say, any patterned plate represented our chance at plate salvation. Curious, I looked at the plate in my mother’s hand and saw a tall tower building that vaguely resembled the main hall on my college campus. This was not particularly shocking since my college is frequently tops the “Dorms Like Palaces” college lists, and bares a uncanny resemblance to Hogwarts. However, when my mom picks up the next plate, I am overcome with indescribable shock. No, these plates don’t just feature buildings that look like my college, these plates feature buildings that are my college. Somehow, forty miles from home and four hundred miles away from my college while attending a random Afternoon tea with my roommate from Study Abroad, I had found Wedgewood Plates featuring Bryn Mawr College. From that moment on, I knew that I needed to have them. And nothing could stop me.
It’s probably a good time to inform you that while describing the afternoon tea to my mother, I neglected to mention that it was not just a Tea—but full Garden Party with a book fair, petting zoo etc. To be fair, no reasonable human being can be expected to think rationally in the face of devouring clotted cream. As a result, my mother came equipped with $20 bucks for the tea and an assortment of credit cards. Not having any cash at a cash only silent auction might have stopped a lesser man. However we were a group of four strong independent women. Mrs. Jones, who you may recall had been to the Garden Party before and was well versed in the procedure had came prepared. Wasting no time, she recognized the need for the plates and immediately offered up her checkbook. We jotted my name down and a generous $15 increase on the last bidding—confident that this would scare the other two bidders, and walked away heads and hats held high.
All was going according to plan until Steph and I, with ten minutes to tea time, decided to check on my bid. To my horror, not only had someone topped my bid, they upped the ante by another $15 dollars. This would not do. Angrily I pressed deep on my pen and scribbled my name down. Again, Steph and I walked away, but not too far. I had to find out who this mysterious bidder was. Only ten seconds after we had cleared the area, a woman in pink darted out to the table and signed her name.
This was war. Sure, we only had three minutes to teatime. Sure, the auction was scheduled to finish at the same time as our tea. And sure I might have to choose between scones and plates. But then I realized that I am Aheli-Freakin-Purkayastha and I will have both. I had the best team with me, and we would together find a way to do it all. We huddled around the Weekend in Nantucket table, and devised a plan. Since it was three, we would head inside, enjoy our tea and then at 3:45 Steph and I would head back to my plates and up the pink lady’s bid. Armed with the plan and knowledge that my bid was the last one, our fearless foursome retreated to the tea and the comfort of mini-cucumber cakes. And the tea was as glorious as expected. The mini-cucumber sandwiches were mini and very cucumber. The scones out-sconed themselves. It was made all the more special with the thought of getting the plates at the end.
The Tea Menu
It was all great until I felt the tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw, Henrietta* one of my former classmates. “Aheli, it’s so good to see you. I saw your name on the bidding sheet for the Bryn Mawr plates and I couldn’t believe it. I had to come find you. ” After exchanging the usual pleasantries, she told me the story of her connection to the plates. Apparently the Lady in Pink was a friend of Henrietta’s family. She found the Bryn Mawr plates in her attic and was going to give them to Henrietta for her graduation. Unfortunately, Henrietta’s mom told the friend to put them in the auction so they could raise money for the church, that Henrietta has been attending and singing for since she was a child. Since no one from Bryn Mawr would be there, they could raise money and Henrietta would get the plates. All was going to plan until I entered the picture. When the lady realized that I was in it to win it, she quickly started bidding on her own plates to help out Henrietta. She then gave me a big hug and apologized for having to dash off so quickly to help the elderly ladies clean up the tea service.
A sinking feeling appeared in my stomach. Henrietta is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. She is a talented Varsity Athlete, was a student mentor, and genuinely good person. Moreover, Bryn Mawr is a prestigious all-womens’ college that stresses mutual respect and integrity. Four years of believing a cherishing this Four years of believing and cherishing this motto, and decreeing it to prospective students, I wish I could tell you that I did the honorable thing and back down.
Those plates were mine, and Steph and I bolted almost immediately after the Henrietta encounter to secure those plates- ten minutes earlier than our plan. As expected the lady in pink had used our thirty-minute recess to bid again.
We then did what any self-respecting 20 somethings in giant hats would do. We moved a couple feet away from the plates, and then used our giant hats to block off the only route to the plates. I knew that the Lady in Pink wouldn’t dare pass us.
Standing in front of a lovely oil painting, Steph and I put my expensive History of Art degree to work as a I evaluated the way the “thing is splatted on the thingymajig” to which Steph astutely pointed out “You mean the paint and canvas?”
Maybe not a shining moment for my degree, but a highly effective strategy. Steph and I stood there admiring the “thingymajig “until five seconds, four seconds, three seconds, two seconds and the auction was over. Hats fluffed, heads held high, we strutted over to the winner’s circle. Claiming my victory, we shocked the auctioneer, bursar, and the whole St. Columba’s parish as Mrs. Jones went up to pay on my behalf. Joy was everywhere. Except for the Lady in Pink, she was silent.
The Moms Laughing (Pre-Victory)
Enjoying the Tea