Lingering at the breakfast table, an hour or two of chores already completed, he folds away the newspaper before turning to smile at the small, barefoot disturbance running into his kitchen.
“Are you done, Grandpa?” Glancing toward the over-sized cup resting on the table next to its deep, broad saucer he says, “No, not quite. Do you want a turn?” Not waiting for a reply, he pushes back his chair as I hop from one foot to the other, filled to the brim with impatience.
Carrying his cup to the stove, he fills it with coffee from the dented aluminum pot that’s been keeping on the back burner, then turns to ease into his chair. Carefully, he pours some of the dark, fragrant liquid into the saucer and hands it to me.
Gently at first, then more confidently, I ripple the muddy, steaming pond with my breath. Daring to take a sip, I find the coffee still too hot for drinking so I continue on, breathing across the bowl until a second sip or a third no longer burns my lips. Only then do I hand the saucer to my grandfather. “Perfect,” he says with another smile, sipping the cooled coffee from the saucer. Refilling it from the cup he drinks again, pouring and filling and drinking until the last of the coffee is gone.
Saucered and blowed we call this way of taking our coffee, if we call it anything at all. Is it an Old Country custom? Perhaps. Without a doubt it’s our custom, our comfort, a ritual as much a part of our mornings as the reading of the obituaries.
The coffee gone, Grandpa reaches again for the newspaper, unfolds it carefully, looks at me over his glasses and says, “Let’s see if we’re still here.” As it happens, we are. Mrs. Gasparovich isn’t here any longer, having taken a tumble and died of her injuries, and that nice Andersen boy who came through the war without a scratch has been killed in a tractor accident. Mr. Flanagan, who lived two blocks over and worked at the Black Diamond Mine, has died of lung problems related to the coal dust. They’re gone now, all of them, but we’re still here.
“Well, Sunshine,” Grandpa says, refolding the paper for a third time, ready to get back to his chores, “we’re not goners yet.” He grins, and I smile right back. It’s a new day, waiting to be lived.
Such a sanguine approach to obituaries made it easy for me to view Death with a certain bemused acceptance, much as I did the ne’er-do-well neighbor who’d moved away to Nebraska. I really didn’t expect him to show up on the doorstep, asking to move into our back bedroom, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.
That was the way Death arrived in our town – unannounced, unexpected and unremarkable. No axe murderers or arsonists for us. We had slate falls in coal mines and accidents on farms. Now and then a child was thrown from a horse, or a hitchhiker hit by a car. Measles killed some. Others died of scarlet fever, pneumonia or undiagnosed illnesses that surely were cancer. Tuberculosis and polio thrived. As a child, my mother survived smallpox. Some of her classmates weren’t so fortunate.
After the war and during my childhood, things began to improve. The mines became safer. Pencillin was invented, and polio vaccine. Measles became rare, while the number of old folks increased. Over time, even the ringing of the telephone lost its ability to evoke anxiety. Long considered a death knell, it became ordinary and ubiquitous, part of the great cacophony of modern life.
By the time my grandfather’s death knell sounded, life was changing. Rituals I had cherished as a child began giving way to the less delightful routines of adulthood. Constrained by schedules, pressured by obligations, I carried my coffee in saucerless styrofoam and rarely took time to browse the obituaries. Death still wandered the back roads, but I paid him little mind. I was on the highways of life, and I had places to go.
Still, the pull of the back roads remained strong, both for the solace they offered and the mysteries they contained. Preparing for a first foray into the bayous and swamps of southeast Louisiana, I hardly appreciated the depth of those mysteries – how easily beauty conceals the threats of the world or how quickly the distracted and inattentive can be shown the error of their ways.
As we threaded our way through the steaming landscape on narrow, water-lapped roads whose very names – Grand Cailliou, Little Cailliou, Montegut – evoked a sense of mystery, my traveling companion pointed to herons and egrets fishing the bayous and the great, unnamed grasses reaching to the sky.
When the late afternoon sunlight began painting the grasses and birds with a deepening glow, we stopped to walk the narrow, vegetation-choked bank in search of vantage points for a photo. It was then that the grasses parted, roiling and crackling, flailed by some tremendous unseen force. Stunned into silence, we caught only a glimpse of a slapping tail, thick, heavy shadows, ripples streaming out toward the middle of the bayou.
“Oh, Lord,” said my friend. “Was that an alligator?” Probably it was. Perhaps it wasn’t. At the time, it hardly mattered. We backed away from the bayou with pounding hearts and trembling hands, sharply aware of being terribly alone in the midst of a world we barely understood.
Laughing about the experience some months later, I said we’d been street-smart but bayou-stupid. More months passed, and I discovered Mary Oliver had turned to poetry to express similar feelings about her own sweet foolishness with an alligator.
I knelt down
at the edge of the water
and if the white birds standing
in the tops of the trees whistled any warning
I didn’t understand,
I drank up to the very moment it came
crashing toward me,
its tail flailing
like a bundle of swords,
slashing the grass,
and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth
and rimmed with teeth–
and that’s how I almost died
in beautiful Florida.
But I didn’t.
I leaped aside, and fell,
and it streamed past me, crushing everything in its path
as it swept down to the water
and threw itself in,
and, in the end,
this isn’t a poem about foolishness
but about how I rose from the ground and saw the world as if for the second time,
the way it really is…
And that, of course, is the gift – to see the world as it really is. If it takes a second time, a third time or a tenth hardly matters. We finish the coffee, we fold the paper, we rise from the table or the ground and discover the wonderous, unspeakable truth: we’re still here.
Despite our ability to engage in every sort of foolishness, our obituaries aren’t yet written, and the world’s waiting. As Grandpa said, we’re not goners yet – and every day is a new day, waiting to be lived.