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First cup of coffee marked bittersweet moment

[11/14/04]

“Sittin in the kitchen a house in Macon

Loretta’s singing on the radio

Smell of coffee, eggs and bacon

Car wheels on a gravel road.”

Lucinda Williams

“Car Wheels On a Gravel Road,” 1998

I never drank a cup of my grandmother’s coffee. I did occasionally drink a few sips from her cup to remind myself that, in spite of its lovely milk chocolate color courtesy of 2 heaping tablespoons of Cremora it did not taste anything at all like my glass of Nestle’s Quik.

In my adult life, there are only two household chores I truly enjoy: Washing dishes and making coffee.

Days at my grandmother’s house started in the kitchen before usually before light. My first perch so that I would be underfoot was on the counter between the stove and the sink while my grandmother made breakfast.

Though the style would vary, there were always eggs; though the type would vary, there was always meat; there was always bread, usually biscuits, and there was usually a pot of grits going, too. For me, there was chocolate milk and depending on the day of the week orange juice. And, of course, there was always, always coffee.

I would help measure the coffee into the basket of the avocado green percolator that shared my spot. My attention would alternate between dipping glasses and plates into the Palmolive bubbles and listening to the gurgles and groans of the coffeemaker, waiting to see the brown liquid boil up into the glass knob signalling it was ready to drink.

My grandfather drank his coffee black out of a heavy white diner mug with a flared rim. My grandmother had hers in a heavy white diner cup with a brown stripe around a curved rim.

Coffee was part of their morning ritual, and I remember the good smell that would permeate the house winter or summer, but I don’t really remember much about the way my grandmother’s coffee tasted.

I wasn’t interested in coffee maybe because my mother does not drink coffee; it was not part of the daily ritual in my childhood. Most days my father would buy a coffee in which he put enough sugar to kill a goat on his way to work.

So, I was almost 20 years old before I drank my first cup of coffee.

My coffee-free mother was the one on watch in my grandmother’s hospital room where she was struggling with what turned out to be the first of several bouts with the congestive heart failure that eventually killed her.

I was sent back to the motel with my coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking aunts and cousins. We ended up in the almost empty motel restaurant in late afternoon. They needed coffee.

Even though I was almost 20, and I was living away from home at school, and even though I looked and sounded like a grown-up, I was still a child. And I was scared to death scared OF Death I saw lurking around my grandma.

I wanted desperately to not be a child because I thought if I were really grown-up, I wouldn’t feel so helpless. I wanted to hang with the big girls.

So, I ordered a coffee.

When it got there, though, I was at a complete loss as I watched my kinswomen expertly mix in their assorted creams and assorted sweeteners.

Someone at the table asked me how I took it. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to drink it black, I confessed: “I don’t know how I like it. This is my first cup of coffee.”

“Bless your heart,” my Aunt Audrey said, in all genuineness, and they proceeded to doctor my coffee with cream and sugar to make it palatable.

Someone said I’d have to figure out how I liked it best.

It was still a few more years before I jumped onto the coffee bandwagon. My grandmother was gone by then.

I can give up booze, cigarettes and fatty foods, but don’t ask me to give up my coffee.

I take it black.

I like the really good stuff organic beans ground just before I brew them but lately budget concerns have forced me to the giant cans of generic-brand French roast.

I drink it black, and I like it on the strong side I think thick is the best word. Not many people can hang with my coffee.

I never knew my coffee was particularly strong until my father stopped by my place on a Saturday morning. I had a fresh pot, and I poured him a cup.

He took a big slug and his eyes got really big.

“That’s grandma coffee.”

Sonya Kimbrell is features editor of The Vicksburg Post. E-mail her at skimbrell@vicksburgpost.com.