Story and Photos By Bob Nesoff
People collect all kinds of crazy things. Some, almost like a fetish, collect needles, other collect sea shells. But their only purpose is to satisfy something within themselves. How about a collection of more than one million (that’s 1,000,000), a one with six zeroes following it, tags from tea bags?
But to what end? Is it fulfilling some empty need in a life?
Actually, this collection had a very serious educational purpose. Roseanne Ponchick, an elementary school teacher from the Northeast moved to California and taught there for two years; then back to teach in a school closer to her home for nearly five decades.
Her method of teaching was to be able to bring her young students into the subject and when one raised the question of what was a million, she had her work cut out for her.
A million what? How do you show students a million of anything? Toothpicks? Bottle tops? Dollars would have been great. But the question persisted and she finally came up with a solution. It needed to be something that could graphically illustrate the number. But it had to be small enough so that it didn’t overwhelm.
Well, that is, anything but her house, which today is a veritable museum of tea. A friend was invited in to see her “Museum.” It was a house that could easily have been a museum. Her collection of tea tags today reaches more than two million. But it didn’t stop there. Ponchick collects anything that could be connected to tea.
Ultimately, she was nicknamed “The Tea Lady,” a sobriquet she wears with pride. Collecting the tea tags was not a one-person job. Ponchick extended the learning process by involving her students, their parents, extended family and anyone who didn’t get out of the way fast enough.
The collection not only grew, but it began to take over her home on a quiet residential street. There she is know fondly as “The Tea Lady.” In the entrance to her home is a portrait made out of…you guessed it, tea tags. There is barely a flat space that does not have tea pots, boxes of tea and virtually anything relating to the little leaves that started a tradition in China and Japan. But with it all, her home is clean and neat. Nothing is piled up and everything sits neatly in place. There is even room to sit if you’d like. The living room, the kitchen, even the bathroom have items somehow connected to tea.
While she invites a visitor upstairs to her bedroom, there is no hint of any impropriety. It’s just to show the visitor the extended collection of tea pots, tea boxes and tea.
Roseanne Susan Ponchick has been written up in a variety of publications and she has copies of every article. Most are packed very neatly in cartons stored in her basement. Imagine for a moment, the last scene in the first Indiana Jones movie where the Ark of the Covenant is being wheeled into a government warehouse. There are rows and rows of documents stored on shelves. Her basement is not like that, except maybe it is. Like the rest of the house it is neat, clean and a storehouse of magazines, newspapers clips and years-worth of articles about her collection stored in cartons, and what started it.
She has a very educated palate when it comes to tea tasting. Invited by a friend to an event in Manhattan by Japanese government officials and tea farmers, to hear about production and sample some of the product. Tea is a staple drink in both Japan and China. In the United States it probably ranks second to coffee. The Japanese at the event waxed almost poetically about the product. But much of it fell flat on Ponchick.
The variety of tea and the uses it was put to, did not measure up. But that could have been a cultural difference. Americans like either hot or cold tea. The Japanese product fell somewhere in between.
Over the years as her fame spread, she had an ever-increasing list of invites to speak before organizations on how she started and where she is today. She’s appeared in New York, New Jersey and even as far as Port Jervis to speak at the Drew United Methodist Church. The invite was extended by a woman, one of hundreds who continue to send tea items.
Among the letters she has received, one came from children whose parents had passed away.
“That one touched me deeply,” she said. “It came with a collection of tea tags on a big metal ring and had been collected by the children’s parents. When the father passed away, the collection was kept by his daughter. She sent it to me with a beautiful letter. Receiving something like that is like getting a piece of gold.”
Ponchick’s dream is to see the establishment of a tea museum. The class where this all began is long gone. Some have gone on to college or jobs, some are married with families, but no matter what, they’ll never forget what a million looks like.