Coffee and tea
Published 1:01 am, Wednesday, November 18, 2009
My father drank tea and my mother drank coffee. Dad liked a nice mug of tea for breakfast and again at supper. Mom enjoyed her coffee in the morning and had another cup in the afternoon just before we got home from school.
Dad's breakfast tea was a hasty affair. He rose early to catch the bus to his job at Bullard's, a huge machine factory in Bridgeport. I remember seeing his knife and fork crossed neatly over his empty plate sticky with egg yolk. A wet tea bag rested on the same plate in a tiny pool of tannin. There was still a mouthful or two of tea left in the cup, but Dad was already halfway to work. My mother also filled a thermos with cold milk for him. He was an abstemious man with little appetite for food or drink. I don't think he ever enjoyed his meals all that much. He ate and drank just to keep himself going and fuel his prodigious energy.
Dad's tea drinking habit probably came from his mother's people. My grandmother Mal was a regular tea drinker, too. She boiled the water until the kettle whistle shrieked and then poured the steaming liquid into a cup with a tea bag. No milk and no sugar for her. The steeping tea was as dark as wine, and this was the sacrament of life in her small kitchen on Iranistan Avenue. I liked to watch Mal make tea. It was a beautiful and calming ritual. There was poetry in the old lady's movements. I sensed the economy of her life in the simple preparations that led to a successful brew. She would drink the red-hot mixture with steam rising off the cup with great relish.
My mother liked to sit with a cup of coffee after we were safely on the yellow bus heading for St. Theresa's. Of course, we only got to witness this part of Mom's morning routine when we were home sick from school. During a typical hectic morning she would first cook breakfast for Dad and then set out cereal for the rest of us. Next came the lineup where she'd check to see that we had our homework and papers and books. We were each handed a brown lunch bag with our names written on them. She counted heads as we marched out the front door to the bus stop. Then she washed the dishes, wiped down the table, turned on the radio and made a cup of coffee -- her first of the day.
I loved the smell of her morning coffee. It was intoxicatingly fragrant and seemed so inviting. But when she poured it into the cup it looked as dark as motor oil, and she drank it that way, usually with a slice of cantaloupe and melba toast for breakfast. I could see the pleasure Mom took in quietly sipping her coffee and pausing ever so slightly to savor the taste. She sat at the narrow end of the dining table looking towards the big picture window in the front room. She appeared to be lost in her thoughts, still as the coffee in her cup -- deep, rich and mysterious. On these rare days alone with Mom, I was surprised at how quiet the house became when the kids were all out of it. The morning sun poured through the windows and the kitchen made little rhythmic sounds -- the humming of the refrigerator, the ticking of the clock, the clunking of the radiators.
One day I asked Mom if I could have a sip of her coffee. "I don't think you'll like it the way I drink it, Barry." She poured a little in a glass for me and I swigged it down. Gosh, it was awful! My face registered its bitterness with a grimace and Mom laughed softly. I've never wanted coffee again since then. I still can't forget the memory of that first acrid taste. I fondly remember my sweet mother embraced by the aura and the aroma of coffee. There was a relaxing peacefulness in the little spiral of steam that rose from the cup in front of her. My father could never sit still for long, so these tranquil moments with Mother made a lasting impression on me.
Mom's last coffee of the day was in the middle of the afternoon. Perhaps she was fortifying herself for the return of her seven children, bouncing with pent-up energy from a long day at school. She drank this cup to accompany her one guilty pleasure of the day -- her favorite soap opera. Often we'd arrive home to find her standing at the ironing board, which was positioned just so she could see the television screen.
When my father came home from work he greeted Mom with a kiss, washed his hands and then sat down at the dinner table. Back in the 1950s, this was a working man's prerogative. He was a little grumpy from his day at the factory and also somewhat demanding. He didn't mind if dinner wasn't on the table yet, but it irritated him no end if his tea cup was empty. "Catherine, I work all day, and I don't like having to wait for my tea." Much to my delight Mother paid no attention to him. "If you haven't noticed, Bob, I'm doing three things at once right now." I marveled at this give-and-take of gender politics played out at our supper table. If he groused too long, my usually submissive mother would simply say, "If you're in that much of a hurry for your tea, Bob, then get up and get it yourself." Dad never talked back when Mom put him in his place. He accepted it quietly and without rancor.
The other thing that entertained us was that Dad called a tea bag a "tea ball." We were too young to remember when people used infusers to brew loose tea and we thought this was just one of the many words in the English language that Dad reinvented to suit himself. "Catherine, where is my tea ball?" When Dad wasn't in earshot, we used to repeat his famous line to each other and howl with laughter. The more exaggerated and pompous we made our voices sound, the more we laughed. Sometimes Dad would laugh right along with us to know that we enjoyed his foibles so much.
He really did seem to savor his last cup of tea of the day. He held his pinky in the air mimicking the comic Jackie Gleason mugging as he sipped booze from a cup, "Ooh, that's good stuff, Catherine." We all exhaled and dinner was now ready to begin on a happy note. Dad enjoyed his evening tea because his work was done and he was home for the night. Sometimes he finished up his tea watching Walter Cronkite and the news. Sometimes he might even have a cookie.
And so I witnessed the great love of my mother and father, a coffee and tea marriage. Children are fascinated with every hint of meaning about adult life and the mysteries of marriage and love. Mom couldn't stand tea and I can't ever recall my father with a cup of coffee. These struck me as fundamental differences in the alchemy of their relationship and the dynamic that kept them together for 53 years. In the course of their busy days which turned into busy years then busy decades, often there was only time for little sips of pleasure and relaxation.
In the faint haze of memory I remember the tea cup at one end of the table and the coffee cup at the other, each of them still warm with a bit of liquid left at the bottom. It was the warmth of life, the small but essential gestures of goodness that sustain ordinary people through the joys and sorrows of living. It occurs to me as I write this that Charlene is a coffee drinker and I am a tea man. I'd like to think that it bodes well for the marriage. We might get to 50 years ourselves.