Starting an artful tea tradition

Day trip: Two mothers and two daughters visit museums in D.C., with tea to top it off.

May 27, 2001|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,Sun Staff

"Would you like an adventure now," he said casually to John, "or would you like to have your tea first?"

--"Peter Pan," by J.M. Barrie, 1904

Kids, snacks and adventures got together long before Never-Never Land. But sitting down to tea -- once daily ritual for turn-of-the-century families -- is about as foreign today as Peter's playland. We 21st-century families tend toward the expedient afternoon snack to fill empty stomachs between lunch and dinner: Yogurt squeezed out of a tube or fries gobbled out of a cardboard carton.

That makes the idea of afternoon tea, with its cheery camaraderie and leisurely pace, something of an adventure in itself.

Tea teams up nicely with wandering through museums, riding a carousel or playing hide-and-seek among sculptures. It's the fancy icing on a trip into the city.

In more contemporary literary terms, think "Eloise" -- the mischief-making young resident of New York's Plaza Hotel. And think introduction to elegance for your kids, without having to contend with cleaning the family silver service.

An easy and fairly inexpensive trip is a short hop to Washington. You can have tea and museums and fun on the National Mall for less than $50, if you take along a few snacks to tide little appetites over.

This time of year, flowers are blooming, kites are flying and you just can't run out of things to do. Nine of the Smithsonian Institution's 16 museums are on the Mall and offer something to satisfy any curiosity. And most of them are free.

On a recent visit, my daughter, Julia, and her friend Jenna, both kindergartners, wanted to see the first ladies' fancy dresses and Dorothy's ruby slippers at the National Museum of American History.

Jenna's mom, Kate, and I took the girls into the history museum, and straight up to the second floor to the first ladies' exhibit. They flitted off, in their own pretty dresses, like a couple of butterflies, lighting beside the photos of the first ladies, scooting along to the party gowns, rounding a corner to see fans and jewels and doubling back to the dresses.

Kate and I took a few minutes to get into the girls' groove. After all, in a museum, it's easy to be tempted to read -- and possibly share -- information.

But 5-year-olds are surface feeders, taking in as much as they can, often as fast as they can. While the beads, bustles and flowing fabrics of gowns from Dolley Madison to Hillary Clinton prompted ooohs and aaaaahs, the much-awaited dresses were soon left behind for what waited in the next room of this colorful candy shop.

The first ladies faded into a winding exhibit tracing the role of women in early 20th-century America. The girls stopped briefly at a scene from a tenement, as we explained that the children sitting at the kitchen table were working into the night with their mother, making paper flowers to sell.

Around the corner, the suffragettes' plight was a little puzzling to them. We offered: "Girls, can you believe some people used to think women weren't smart enough to vote?"

They stared in disbelief. (A sign, perhaps, of their forebears' success.)

When the explanations grew too wearisome, they would grab us by the hands, pulling us along: "Come on! Come on!"

Up the steps, down the escalators, through the winding halls, touching, pointing, wondering. We offered a little direction but tried to let them lead the way. On the third floor, we discovered Dorothy's ruby slippers tucked in the popular culture corner. But the most exciting find was across the hallway in The Dolls' House, home to Mr. and Mrs. Doll and their children. Created and donated many decades ago by artist Faith Bradford, the nearly two dozen rooms, depicting turn-of-the-century life, are filled with delicate rugs, window curtains and drapes made mostly by Bradford and her friends.

The girls strained on tiptoe to see the tiny books on the shelves, the lamps, hand towels and tiny china. "Pick me up, Mommy!" Julia implored, so she could see the upper floor of children's rooms.

When they'd had their fill of history, we went out into the sunny afternoon to work up their appetites anew. East of the history museum is the Arts and Industries Building, which didn't catch their eye -- but the carousel out front did. The four of us ($1.50 each) enjoyed a long, brisk ride before walking a bit further to the Hirshhorn sculpture museum. The girls played hide-and-seek among the sculptures circling the modern building.

With our reservation for tea drawing close, we headed back to the car. We'd seen a lot in less than three hours. The walk was just enough to work out most of their wiggles. And, now, they were starving.

On the drive to the hotel, we had time for a little (anti-Eloise) etiquette primer:

Girls, should you talk with your mouth full of scones?

Nooooooooo!

Should you burp as loudly as you just did here in the car?

Noooooo!

They dissolved into giggles.

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