The strongest smell of my childhood is coffee. Our home was seeped in coffee. My mother's percolator gurgled gently all day. My parents drank endless cups of coffee. Anyone who came over drank coffee. Bridge parties, Welcome Wagon, church friends, Mrs. Natti from next door with her thick smoke and raspy voice. All these cups I smelled perched on the red vinyl-and-metal kitchen chairs or sitting halfway up the staircase.
My parents' skin smelled of coffee. All grown-ups drank coffee. My mother and father each took a splash of milk in theirs. Coffee breath, coffee grounds in the plants for fertilizer, coffee in the thermos for long car trips. My mother spilling coffee on her lap while my father drove, both helpless. What to do but keep driving, stained in coffee.
And then in college, suddenly, I am a Coffee Drinker. The transition to independence happens as quickly as a heavy white cafeteria cup and one pull of the coffee urn's lever. I, too, take only a splash of milk in mine.
Late nights we study with the endless pot of coffee at the local all-night restaurant until we all shake with caffeine and exhaustion. Our breath is bitter, our teeth coated with sludge. Still, we persist.
After college there is coffee on the front porch and coffee after dinner. We buy mugs everywhere we go: Don't Mess with Texas, Cafe Du Monde, Disneyworld. We buy a grinder and beans and pretend to be coffee connoisseurs. We buy handfuls of chocolate-covered espresso beans, revelling in this bit of luxury. At dinners out, we turn our coffee cups right side up. Yes, please, more coffee.
There is graduate school, in which he drinks pot after pot, and now coffee pours from his skin like sweat. I drink my two cups each morning, a splash of milk. And then there is an abrupt stop: I am pregnant. I will eat healthy, sleep well, and exercise. But plagued by headaches, I add back in just one morning cup. Just one, until the baby is born and I am back to two, until the next baby and the next.
Those babies were seeped in the smell of coffee, warm and brown. It is natural that by 14 that the oldest begins claiming his own morning cup, and the middle one surprises us by making the morning pot now and then. Now we say things in the evenings we didn't used to understand: "Is it decaf?" and "No, thank you, or I won't be able to sleep."
But in the mornings we are grateful. Two cups of coffee, a newspaper, a clean smooth table. A smell that is as familiar as the bump on my finger or the curve of his smile, a smell that is my childhood, my coming-of-age, and my children.
( Check out Sunday Scribblings for more coffee thoughts.)