Ma sits at the kitchen table, with the aluminum legs, that tips to one side if you lean on it. In the too small kitchen where roaches hide she sips from the dainty cup with the gold rim and pink roses. The cups her daughters wash but never use until we broke one, then another. Ma’s lips had been pressed tight as she moved the cups to a higher shelf and forbade us to touch them. Even then it seemed not so much anger but hurt. She worked so hard and we somehow always managed to take away what little she had.
I’d been watching her my entire life. Eight long years of peering at her from doorways and corners analyzing her morning routine. One almost cup. Black. Instant. Maxwell House or Taster’s Choice. She had a preference but sometimes…well, sometimes she stomached the one on sale at the A&P. I became braver, moved in closer and watched her prepare the potion—the smallest teaspoonful of grinds, a splash of boiled water, a quick stir. She always let it sit for a few minutes. She’d leave it on the table, go to the bedroom put on her slip. Then come back take a sip. Go to the bathroom comb her hair. Return for another sip. Only weekends did she sit at the table gazing through me to some other place and time. And always, when she was done there remained a little coffee in the bottom of the cup.
Once I snuck a taste. Shocked by it’s bitterness, I ran to the bathroom and rinsed my mouth out. The taste clung to my tongue like a punishment. I felt sad for Ma. “It’s an acquired taste,” she told me one Saturday morning when I asked if she liked it.
“Then why do you drink it?” I couldn’t tell her I knew how horrible it was. She sighed. Pressed her lips into a thin line. I knew what was coming next. “Why don’t you go clean up the bathroom and that filthy bedroom of yours like I told you instead of looking in my face.”
Ma stopped drinking coffee long after I had moved miles away with all my irksome questions still unanswered. Retired. She didn’t need it anymore. She’s gone now. I miss her, terribly.
I don’t drink coffee. The smell of it brewing and even the roasted beans turn my stomach. And not until now did I make the connection.