Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saturday Musings, 28 January 2012

Good morning,

In an ironic twist of universal humor, my local paper carried an article on the newly identified benefits of caffeine this morning, which I spied shortly after discovering that we are out of real coffee. I gazed at the offending bag of decaffeinated beans that my otherwise wonderful husband insists on buying, and poured his oatmeal into the boiling water, resisting less noble intentions. An hour or so later, dog fed, husband off to tennis, number two son still sleeping, I am at Dunn Brothers Coffee -- not mine, my lovely shop in Kansas with its marvelous fireplace; I could not rationalize such a drive. I've come to the one nearer my home with rowdy music playing overhead and chairs shoved up against the fake mantle. But their coffee emits its welcome fragrance from a mug by my computer, and I am saved.

I've never disputed the benefits of coffee. Many of my life's most poignant moments involve the steaming liquid: my first cup after a self-imposed abstention, following the birth of my child; a hot Americano spilled on my shoes at my first coffee date with my husband; the noise of the percolator on many a morning-after.

I became a coffee drinker as a senior in high school. My weekend job involved serving as the unit secretary for 3South, the acute ward of St. Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital in north St. Louis County. At the time, the hospital occupied an imposing turreted edifice, and 3S housed the patients whose condition warranted the most intense security. Sister Kenneth Anne, our head nurse, would ask me to pour the scalding liquid from the 20-cup urn into a paper cup and bring it to her. It's us or them, she'd caution. We've got to stay alert. Before many weekends had passed, I found myself addicted to the murky sludge.

Sister Kenneth Anne resigned a year after I started working at St. Vincent's. I had not realized that nuns could quit their jobs, but apparently the order allowed them to do so. I can't take this any more, she told me, on her last day. The bad coffee is killing my stomach. She glanced out the open top half of the locked Dutch door. Not to mention the crazy people.

I poured myself another cup of coffee.

I never saw my parents without a cup or mug of coffee near their elbows. My father hovered over the stove while the coffee brewed on the electric burner, the smoke from his Camel straight circling his weary head. I skittered around him in such moments; he never felt well in the morning, and the bent of his body increased on days when his disposition particularly suffered from his antics of the previous evening. But once the coffee finished perking and he poured his first cup, the Irish twinkle returned to his eyes, and the thin edge of his razor wit mellowed.

My parents drank coffee at all times of the day or night. Before breakfast, with meals, in the evenings in their twin arm chairs, my mother knitting or crocheting and barely minding the noise of the television while my father worked the crossword puzzle and smoked. The images which I now recall come from the later years of their marriage; I have no such pleasant memories of our early history. But even in the most tumultuous days, coffee stood on the stove. Eight O'Clock coffee ground in a machine at Bettendorf-Rapps; Maxwell House in 5-lb cans, the fragrance of which filled the kitchen just as soon as the can opener started around its rim. This was not coffee-shop fare, but a staple nonetheless.

When I was a child, my mother drank her coffee from Melamine cups on matching saucers. The honored child carried it from the kitchen to wherever she sat, and it did not matter if a little spilled because she could tip it back into the cup. She rewarded our slow trudge from the kitchen with a kiss on our cheek, and my skin still sings, fifty years later, with the thrill of that brand. I have one of those cups: small, dark green, smooth. I serve myself fat-free ice cream in it, and feel nostalgic.

My mothers' parents used heavy ceramic mugs, but my father's mother served coffee in china, from a matching pitcher into which the coffee was poured in the kitchen, for service in the dining room, on white linen. I preferred to eat at Nana and Grandpa's house, on a Formica table, where the coffee steamed in heavy mugs and someone would let me dip a piece of bread into their coffee to eat for my dessert. If I tightly close my eyes and hold myself very still, I remember further back, to my great-grandmother's home, and a heavy wooden table. I would sit in my great-grandfather's lap and knock for him while they played pinochle, drank strong coffee, and smoked endless cigarettes. I used to know what that sharp rap on the table signified in the game, but that knowledge has sunk into the pleasant morass of all the useless information that I acquired before the age of five.

Coffee figures in the more tense moments of my life as well as the pleasant times. I had a foreshadowing of my brother's death two decades before it actually occurred, standing in my mother's kitchen, watching him hunch over the electric coffee-maker with a cigarette in his hand. Ten years later, he and I spiked the coffee at the family gathering following my grandfather's funeral. I've made a pot of coffee at every tense vigil that I have ever kept, from the storm during which my brother Kevin had a terrible accident to the vacuum of pain surrounding my mother's death, to the morning after the last fight I had with my second husband, just before our final parting.

I did not read the article in today's paper. I did not need a scientist to warn me that coffee makes my heart pound and raises my blood pressure, and I do not need a scientist to cheerfully tell me that coffee has positive side effects. I like coffee. I take it straight, strong and unadulterated. I always have, and I always will. I extend a cup to friend and stranger alike; I proudly sport a Dunn Brother's Coffee sticker on my American-made car. My addiction to coffee does not disturb me, unless, like this morning, I cannot appease it.

It's ten o'clock, and the music has mellowed. The coffee in my heavy mug has grown a bit cold, but I'll drink that last inch anyway, and maybe another. When I feel adequately fortified for the morning, I'll buy a bag of beans, and go back home.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Happy 35th birthday to my niece Lisa Corley Davis, born 01/29/77. I love you more than words can tell.

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.