The Kitchen Table

During the years when I was growing up at 30 Green Street, a young couple, Bill and Alice, lived diagonally across the street from us.  When I was in elementary school, I walked their cocker spaniel, Suzie, and when I got old enough, I answered their business phone when they went out to dinner.  I was their children’s first babysitter.  They held my wedding reception in their home. And on an almost daily basis, they had coffee at my parents’ kitchen table.

This was the way of life in the neighborhood where I was raised.  Neighbors spent almost as much time at each other’s homes as they did their own.  Everybody used the back door, and rarely rang a doorbell.  Instead, we gave a quick knock, cautiously opened the door and called, “Anybody home?”

In my neighborhood, we held impromptu pot luck dinners, pooling our salad, pasta and sauce, carrying chairs to each other’s homes to cram around the table.  We cooked out and played no-rules croquet games in each other’s yards during the summer.  We shoveled each other’s sidewalks during the winter.  When someone’s car broke down, men rolled up their sleeves to make repairs.  When someone died, women delivered casseroles and comfort.

At my parents’ house at 30 Green Street the coffee was hot and plentiful and everyone was welcome for a cup and a chat.  It always amazed me that people flocked to our old house. Its old plaster walls were riddled with crumbling holes and peeling wallpaper.  The furniture was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs.  The rugs were faded and threadbare.  And the kitchen table- the altar around which all people gathered- was rickety and small, with warped extenders that wouldn’t stay open unless a matchbook was wedged between the leaf and the support that held it up.

It was at the kitchen table that I struggled with algebra, kneaded bread, and learned to sew on buttons.  At the table I gave haircuts to my brothers and taught my sisters how to apply makeup.  At the end of the summer, my mother and I would can tomatoes from her garden, lining dozens of Ball jars on the kitchen table and listening for the lids to pop as they cooled.

I think my parents’ guiding belief was “if you brew it, they will come,” because our kitchen table was always surrounded by people sipping coffee.  On Saturday mornings, the lady who delivered eggs stopped for a quick cup and to update my parents on how the chickens were laying.  Tuesdays, Ernie the dry cleaner hung the clean wool suits in front of the cellar door and had a few slurps before trotting back to his truck.  Young mothers spooned sugar into their cups as they asked for my mother’s advice on potty training and temper tantrums.   Elderly neighbors sipped and shared small town gossip. The insurance man always drank two cups.  Father Kennedy, our priest from St. Patrick’s, usually had one.

One evening when I was nine, my father sat at the kitchen table with a man from the car dealership where he worked.  I had been sent to bed and was dawdling in the bathroom when I heard their voices through the metal grate between the bathroom floor and the kitchen below.  I got down on my knees to listen more closely and could see their steaming cups of coffee on the kitchen table.  The visitor’s voice cracked with emotion as he told Dad how sad he was since the death of his father.  My father’s voice was low and gentle, and reassuring.  I don’t remember the words he said, but I remember going to bed that night proud that my father was someone who could give solace to a broken heart.

If the kitchen table was the mecca for conversation, coffee was the vehicle by which it was served. When I was very young, my father would pour his own coffee, and then pour a small amount into my cup and fill the rest with milk. He would stir in a spoonful of sugar and we would sit and talk.  He did this with all of his children, encouraging us to share our opinions about school, sports and politics.  At the kitchen table there was no rank. Everyone’s ideas were welcome. Everyone had equal value.

The kitchen table was Switzerland- a place on neutral ground over which family arguments were solved. At the table, broken hearts were soothed and tears were dried.  At the table, my parents lectured me about my grades, my boyfriends, and my lapses in judgment.  One Sunday morning during my teen years, I sat at the kitchen table nursing a headache left by too much wine and not enough sleep.  My father entered the door, carrying a wine bottle I had hidden under the front steps and sternly declared, “Three o’clock in the morning is too late, and don’t ever leave your trash lying around like that again.”  Then he poured me a cup of coffee.  I never made either mistake again.

Last week I received word that Bill had passed on.  Sunday there will be a memorial service for him and I will again return to my old neighborhood.  I will hug his children and share their tears, because although we are adults, we are orphans.

And after the food and the embraces and the tears, I will walk very quietly by the house at 30 Green Street, because I am sure if I listen closely, I will hear laughter from the kitchen table.

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Good to the Last Drop

Coffee.  I even love the sound of the word.  Contrary to the “Cup of Tea with Momma G” title, I don’t often drink tea.  But hot coffee-now, that’s another story.

Every morning at 4:40, my automatic coffeemaker begins dripping its aromatic Columbian treasure to the waiting pot, so by the time my alarm rings at five, and I shuffle to the kitchen, several steaming cups are waiting for me.  I pour a mug and sip it while I check my email, waiting for the caffeine to awaken my groggy brain and inspire me to stretch the kinks from my stiff joints.

I have been drinking coffee almost as long as I remember.  My parents were huge coffee drinkers, and in the house where I was raised, there was rarely a moment when there wasn’t a pot of dark brown liquid on the stove.  My mother drank hers black, my father with milk and sugar.  I prefer mine with cream and sugar, but drink it black to save calories, except on Sundays, when I savor one large mug fixed just the way I like it.

When I was a child, a milestone of maturity was to be old enough to fix my dad’s coffee.   I think I was around seven when I reached this pinnacle of achievement.   It was a simple process, but one that required close attention.  My parents were smokers, so finding a match to light the gas burner was easy.  I would place the battered aluminum coffee pot over the flame and wait until the deep brown liquid neared the point of simmer.  Paying attention was crucial, because the line between heating coffee and boiling coffee is very thin.  One moment of distraction- the time it took to grab an oatmeal cookie from the pantry- and the swirling liquid would bubble, leaving it bitter and gray.   So I watched, and waited until the liquid just sizzled against the edge of the pot.  I’d carefully fill a mug and stir in just enough milk to change the color from mahogany to oak.   Then, just as carefully, I would stir in a rounded teaspoon of sugar, and then add the amount that my dad called “a little bit more” and stir it in.  I sampled a bit from the spoon, just to be sure it was right, and gingerly carried the mug to the living room where my father sat on his easy chair.  It was a ritual to be repeated countless times through the years.  When I was a teenager, aggravated at being asked to wait on my father, I never expected to miss the task, but now I would give almost anything to bring him just one more steaming cup.

In my parents’ house, coffee was the catalyst for conversation.  Whenever people entered the door, they were immediately offered a cup, for indeed, even during financial hardship, there was always coffee.  When I was a small child, my father introduced me to my first cup.  He filled a mug with milk and poured in a small amount of coffee, sweetened it with sugar, and invited me to sit with him and enjoy a cup and keep him company.  To me this was a monumental statement.  It meant that for the next ten minutes, I was like an adult- an equal, whose opinions and ideas carried equal weight as my father’s.  I felt grown up, affirmed, and valued.  From that day on, sharing a cup of coffee removed the walls that separate child from parent.  Sitting at the old kitchen table to slurp caffeine from a cup and follow the slurp with a satisfied “Ahhh” put us on the same side, even if just for a few moments.

In much the same fashion, I shared coffee with my children.  When Abby was a teenager, we began our own ritual of sharing coffee on the beach.  We would fill a large thermos with hot coffee, mix it with sugar and creamer, and sip it while the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean.   Like they had when I was a teenager, the barriers that separate kids from adults toppled the moment that thermos was opened. The scent of coffee mingling with the salt air opened the heart and relaxed the soul.

My dearest friend Sue and I formed our friendship over cups of coffee. We would brew a pot and sit in her kitchen or mine, our children playing in the next room.    When she moved to North Carolina, I thought my heart would break, but every once in awhile, the phone will ring and it will be Sue, asking me if I want to share a cup over the phone and catch up.  I always do. 

As much as I love my first cup of the day, I love to linger over a cup after dinner.  When the children were young, their father and I would make a fresh pot, sit on the deck and chat while the sun faded and the kids searched for grasshoppers in the tall grass by the shed.  I never quite understood how the same drink that woke us up in the morning helped us to relax at the end of the day, but it did. 

I grind my coffee at the grocery store and before I close the bag, I often stick my nose in the bag and inhale a few times.  I suppose it looks a bit ridiculous, but any true coffee lover knows that nothing beats the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans.   My favorite coffee house is my own apartment.  However, poured into a ceramic mug or a Styrofoam cup, in the car or on my front patio, served by a waitress or Juan Valdez himself, coffee will always be my beverage of choice.  Come to think of it, I could go for a cup right now.  How do you take yours?

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