Our first date was in November 1998, almost 15 years ago. I don’t feel any different than I did that day. I am still painfully and terribly in love. I know him better now, but I still feel like the 19-year-old starry-eyed Virginia girl in love with the 18-year-old Italian/Iranian ringlet-ed boy.
We fell in love in a nursing home when we were about 14 years old. Who can say that? Just a handful of people in the whole world? Our private school was located inside a wing of a working nursing home. We had pull-cords in the bathrooms and, if you were lucky, your locker was a kitchen cabinet. If you weren’t, it was a bathroom counter. We spent a little time in the cedar-closet darkroom, too. Ahem.
Our first date wasn’t until we had gone to college, 440 miles apart. When he came home for his first school break, we went on a date. I like our first date story better than anyone else’s. We went to Ruth’s Tea Room.
Ruth’s Tea Room (or tear room, as he says) was just a tiny little place inside an old woman’s house in Winchester, VA. I guess only locals knew about it. There wasn’t even any sign out front by the time we came around. Remember, there was no internet to speak of in 1998 – at least not for me. And not one that would spread the word about such an establishment. She served cakes and tea and homemade lemonade with sugar around the rim of the glass. She probably served meals, too, but we were always too poor to buy much. I remember the dim lighting. I remember the jukebox – with a lot of Duke Ellington and Tina Turner and… hmm, maybe not any white singers at all! I remember, above all else, the velvet red wallpaper. I remember his black eyes staring at me.
I had been to Ruth’s Tea Room with my best friend, Sarah, many times. We were just poor punk/goth/hippie kids who dressed from the thrift store. (Don’t let the private schooling fool you- I was sent there by a well-meaning relative.) The proprietor, whom I wrongly assumed was Ruth, was old and kind and Southern and genteel. She seemed to welcome us teens. Who, in their right minds, provides a place for teens to go, late at night, and somehow convinces them to use manners and be quiet? Miss Vivian did. I just learned her name today, through an internet search.
My man had never been there until the night of our first date. We were seated by Miss Vivian, in the tiny room with only 5 tables. There was another couple in there too. They were much older than my parents. The man looked at me and said, “That’s the courtin’ table you’re sittin’ at! When you gonna marry her, boy?!” I don’t have a good memory, but that moment is locked into my brain forever. The man went on to say that he and his wife sat there for their first date and that they had been married for a long time now. He also said something along the lines of “She’s got that just-made-love-glow about her” … about me… which, by the way, was only an “IN-love glow”, I swear. We married in 2002, only 4 years later, after we had both graduated college. We adopted our first son in 2010 and gave birth to two more sons in 2012. We just celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary and have now been together for 15 years. He is my everything.
Ruth’s Tea Room was the most romantic place on earth. It was in an old lady’s somewhat musty house, in the worst possible part of Winchester, with a boy I had met in a nursing home. It was the last first date of my life.
Me & Him, circa 1998
I have recently learned that Ruth’s Tea Room, located at 128 E. Cecil Street, in Winchester VA, was demolished in 2008. The entire block was razed. It is heartbreaking. I knew that it was a place nearing the end of its life in 1998, but it’s hard to accept that, even 15 years later, it’s really gone. A piece of history is gone. The Tea Room could have been in operation since 1915 (a 1990 article said it had been in operation for 75 years at that point). Also, the house itself was a piece of history, as it was first owned by the first freed slave in Winchester.
Information about the place was suprisingly hard to find during an internet search. I did (somehow not surprisingly) find an entire webpage dedicated to the songs on the juke box at Ruth’s Tea Room: http://ruthstearoom.tumblr.com/.
I found the photo of the front of the house on a website called “Vanished Winchester”, whose name itself is heartbreaking. https://picasaweb.google.com/102987560620552891770/VanishedWinchester#5343528834821207522
I found a facebook page called, “In Loving Memory of Ruth’s Tea Room”. I was moved to read the names of the members, which included names I haven’t seen since my middle-school yearbook. That page has 233 members! It is also where I found a picture of Miss Vivian, who I had thought was Ruth all these years. She is actually Ruth’s daughter. Seeing her face brought back some memories for me.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the facebook page:
- “High school would not have been the same without this place and Vivian.”
- “There hasn’t been and there will never be a place as wonderful as Ruth’s Tea Room. You always made all us regulars feel so welcome, like we were part of your family. I will forever hold onto wonderful memories of you, Zeus, the red velvet wallpaper, smells of herbal tea mixed with clove cigarettes and the warm home-like atmosphere that was so welcoming to all. I truly miss this incredible place.”
- “Three generations of my family loved Ruth.”
- “Orange spice and cigarettes in a room that was lit entirely by old Christmas lights and candles.”
- “As a high school teacher now, I realize the service that she provided to us was phenomenal….nobody wants teenagers as their main patrons…people hate teenagers….but she didn’t judge us and our gothic ways, she lovingly served us, allowed us to be ourselves and occasionally told us not to curse.”
- “Sex, drugs, and Ruth’s Tea Room. That’s really all I remember from high school.”
The only history I could find was an old newspaper article written in 1990 by Joe Bageant, whose name I recognized immediately. He authored a book I own called “Deer Hunting with Jesus”, which is about povery and politics, as framed by Winchester, VA, which is Bageant’s hometown. I was surprised to see that he wrote about Ruth’s Tea Room, too!
He wrote, in his article about the Tea Room, “If he had a first name, I never knew it. Everyone just called him Mr. Boyd, and that’s probably the way he wanted it. Whatever the case, Mr. Boyd looked like the old picture on the Uncle Ben’s Rice box. A gentleman of color, he operated Ruth’s Tea Room in my hometown when I was a kid. The place was named after Mr. Boyd’s late wife, and it has been a fixture of that old Southern town for 75 years…. It is… all housed in the Boyds’ small two-story home inherited from the first free slave in our town, Virginius Boyd. Anyway, when I was growing up near the tea room in the late 1950s, Mr. Boyd and his daughter, Vivian, ran the place with soothing dignity. “