Out For Coffee


“Coffee. Mama coffee. Hot. Burn baby,” my toddler says to me while pointing at my plain white mug. “Mama’s coffee,” I respond with a smile. He often  pretends to drink coffee from his older sister’s pink Barbie mugs. My almost-two-year-old associates me with hugs, kisses, cuddles, and coffee. This is not a surprise really, because I always seem to have a cup of coffee in my hands. Coffee is an intimate part of our daily life, a constant presence. Drinking this beverage is my ritual to get through the day. Coffee offers me some comfort, no matter what the day might bring.

I read a couple of  years ago that the appeal of coffee might not be caffeine, but rather the warm mug. Psychologically, the warmth comforts us; the caffeine emerges as an added bonus. When I read the study, I was drinking a cup of coffee, the fingers of my left hand wrapped around my ceramic mug as I read the article on my laptop. Scroll with the right hand. Clutch my coffee with my left hand. My need for the sensation of warmth is the reason I despise travel mugs. Their cool exterior tricks me into believing my drink is also cool. I burn my tongue. The travel mug deceives me while the ceramic mug holds truth.

In turmoil and chaos, I turn to a cup of joe. I would grab a coffee when my classes didn’t turn out like I wanted them to, when a meeting zapped my brain, when my children decided that tantrums are the truest form of expression, when bad news arrives, or when I felt like I failed at yet another task. Coffee emerged as the balm for all that ails me. There could be worse cures to life’s discomforts, indignities, and sufferings. I sip my coffee as I make it through another day.

Every morning, even in the oppressive Florida summer, I drink hot coffee. My routine hardly falters. I chug a cold Coke Zero as I wait for the coffee to brew. Cold caffeine wakes me up a little and prepares me for the hum of our mornings. Two children who need to be fed. Lunches that need to be made. Dogs and cat that whine and meow as they await their food. After the children and pets settle, I clutch the mug in both hands, in spite of the heat. For a short moment, I’m at peace. My fingers try to pull away when the heat is too much, but I refuse to let go. I breathe in the rich smell of the transubstantiated beans. I commune with my coffee before I take the first sip. The need for caffeine and comfort often overwhelms me. I take gulps, not sips. I finish one cup and move onto another. Occasionally I get caught up in the hustle of our mornings, and my coffee cools before my first sip. Some days, I can’t bear the bitter taste of it. It feels wrong in my mouth. I spit it out. I put down the mug to seek caffeine in its cold, artificially sweet form.

I always return to coffee.

I grew up in a family of coffee drinkers. The coffee pot was a central component of my childhood. It percolated, hissed, and sputtered. I would watch as the small drips filled the glass pot. I learned pretty quickly to dodge adults with hot cups of coffee. The steaming liquid left red, raised burns on careless hands that bumped cups.

My (step)dad is a dedicated coffee drinker. The first thing he does in the mornings is turn on the coffee pot. He carries a thermos of coffee blended with instant creamer to work. His coffee pot is a workhorse that brews several pots all day long. He drinks coffee from early morning until he goes to bed. He’s burned through more coffee pots than I can count. Cheap coffee pots don’t last long if you run them all damn day. They burn up. You replace them with the newer model. It lasts as long as it lasts.

The same could be said of people.

My earliest memory of coffee involves my maternal grandfather, Pa. Every time I pour a cup, I think of him. He died when I was 11. Almost 24 years later, coffee reminds me of him. Drinking coffee is the ritual I learned from him. He’s to blame for my coffee habit, since he introduced me to the beverage. I must have been five or six. Looking back my age is fuzzy, but the man and the coffee are achingly clear. Pa was a man who understood the powerful allure of coffee, and cigarettes. He drank a lot of coffee, though he eventually started to hide his cigarette smoking. I can still see him: white t-shirt tucked into his jeans, belt, gray hair slicked to the side, and wire-framed glasses.

Seven years ago, I thought I saw him in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was at my favorite diner, The Owl, and Pa strolled in. My breath caught as I watched him join a middle-aged woman for lunch. He’s alive, I thought. Maybe he didn’t die in that hospital in Dothan, Alabama. For a strange moment, I now knew a different truth than I had lived with for so many years: He must have faked his death. I was sure of it. If he had been part of such an elaborate plot, I quickly decided that I wouldn’t judge him for it. He was alive, which was all that really mattered. He was alive, yet I knew he couldn’t be. I looked down at my green chile cheeseburger overcome by my naive hope and a loss that still hurts. This was simple and uncanny resemblance, not loved one lost. I blinked to hide my tears and ate my burger.

Loss kicks us in the teeth when we least expect it to. Grief sticks with us. It clings to us, even as we try to move on. I found myself craving coffee, so I had a cup.

Pa’s coffee pot worked hard all day, turning tap water into scalding black liquid. I wonder if he burned through coffee pots too. He probably did. Pa and I had a ritual for sharing coffee together, which eventually included my middle sister too. Ritual is my word for it now; I’m unsure how my five-year-old self would have described it. What were these shared moments to her? Was she as excited? What made it memorable to her? Why is this what I remember about my grandfather and not something else? At 34, I have no real answers.

Our ritual, as the best rituals are, was simple. We would go to the kitchen. I headed to the table to sit. He went to the counter where the coffee pot sat crowded by the sink. My grandparents had these white cups and saucers emblazoned with bright red strawberries. I remember them being fragile. I’m not sure they actually were, but he insisted my clumsy fingers treat them as such. At the counter, my strawberry cup sat firmly on its saucer as he poured a little coffee and added mostly  milk and sugar. We sat together at the table. I like to think that I drank my sweet coffee-flavored milk as he drank his coffee in silence. Perhaps, it was a quiet moment. I live for the quiet moments and the pockets of silence. Yet, if I was anything like my six-year-old daughter, it is more likely that I chatted constantly about anything I could imagine. She chats and chitters; silence appears as an enemy she seeks to defeat through an overflowing of words. I must have filled in the quiet too.

More than a year ago, when the toddler was still a baby, I was drinking coffee during his nap time. My daughter was at preschool, so my house was remarkably quiet as I sat in my office with my hand clutched around a mug. I found myself thinking of strawberry mugs and saucers. I wondered if there were any left.

After my grandmother died in 2012, my grandparents’ house was abandoned. I wasn’t sure if my mother, my aunts, or my uncle recovered this particular set of dishes from what was left of the house. I was suddenly desperate to know that someone in our family still had them. I had to find out what happened to the artifacts of our ritual. I hoped that I could find just one mug and saucer. There had to be something left, so that I could know that what I remembered was real.

I imagined finding a cup and saucer, which I would place in my home where I could see them every day. They would sit on my desk crowded by the books I want to read, my daughter’s art, and my Dear Sugar poster. I would tell my daughter about my grandfather and our shared love of coffee. They would become a part of my home, a memory becoming tangible. He would be with me, even though he wasn’t.

I started obsessing over the strawberry mug. I realized that I have nothing left of him. Nothing at all. How did that happen? How did I let this happen? If I could just have one, I would be comforted, right? Even a chipped mug or a broken saucer would help me get over the grief I still carried with me. Wasn’t there some artifact that I could touch or hold? I vaguely remember having one of his white t-shirts that smelled faintly of cigarette smoke, but I have no idea where it ended up. All I have left are fuzzy memories and co-dependency on coffee. That can’t be all.

My obsession turned to action. I worked up the courage to ask my mom about the mug and saucer. “Do you remember Grandma and Pa’s strawberry dishes?” I asked, trying way too hard to be nonchalant. The answer will not bother me, I told myself before I even asked her. Yes, she explained, there were some at her house. I was overjoyed. The next question rushed out of me, “What about the cups and saucers?” “Oh no, baby, we don’t have any of those left,” she said with a sad smile. I smiled back and thanked her for letting me know.

It was just a stupid cup and saucer anyway, I told myself. I am a complete fucking liar. My grief walloped me again, as it is apt to do.

My Pa was gone. The objects of our ritual were too, but it took me a long time to realize that the ritual remained. I still drink coffee; I think of him every time I take a sip. I think of him when I use one of his favorite profanities to express my own outrage. I think of his methodical process to make coffee for his granddaughter, and those moments we shared together.

More importantly, I think of him because I have passed our ritual on to my children. On a whim, I started taking my daughter out for coffee a few years ago. She, of course, was too small for coffee, so she drank milk and eventually hot chocolate. Our coffee dates allowed us to spend time together, just the two of us, to talk and to be quiet. I wanted us to have time where we ignored the world and stepped out of ordinary time together. I drank brewed coffee and watched her transition from toddler to big girl to preschooler to Kindergartner to first grader. I listened to what she wants to tell me.

I took my son for coffee for the first time a few weeks ago. He’s too little for coffee, so he had a cookie and milk. I drank brewed coffee and wondered what his transitions will bring. He chattered at me about the cookie. He pointed to my coffee and said, “Mama coffee.” Yes, I nodded, Mama’s coffee. I took a gulp and remembered my grandfather before me. I tell my kids about him soon. I’m finally ready.

Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.