Lingering at the breakfast table, an hour or two of chores already completed, my grandfather folded away the newspaper before turning to smile at the small, barefoot disturbance running into his kitchen.
“Are you done, Grandpa?” Glancing toward the oversized cup resting next to its saucer on the table, he said, “No, not quite. Do you want a turn?” Without waiting for a reply, he pushed back his chair as I hopped from one foot to the other, filled to the brim with impatience.
Carrying his cup to the stove and refilling it with coffee from the dented aluminum pot simmering on the back burner, he turned and eased into his chair before carefully pouring a portion of the dark, fragrant liquid into the saucer.
Accepting the saucer from his hand, I tentatively rippled the muddy, steaming pond with my breath. If the coffee remained too hot for drinking, I would continue, breathing across the bowl until my lips no longer burned and I was able to sip. Then, my child’s share taken, I handed the saucer to my grandfather. “Perfect,” he’d say with a smile, finishing the cooled coffee in the saucer. Refilling it from the cup, he drank again: pouring and filling and drinking until the last of the coffee was gone.
Later, I learned a phrase that described this way of taking coffee: ‘saucered and blowed.’ However old or widespread the custom, it perfectly described our custom and our comfort: a ritual as much a part of our mornings as the reading of the obituaries.
His coffee gone, Grandpa always reached again for the newspaper, unfolding it carefully as he looked over his glasses at me and said, “Let’s see if we’re still here.”
Always, we were the lucky ones. Mrs. Gasparovich had departed after taking a tumble and dying of her injuries, and the nice Andersen boy who came through the war without a scratch had been killed in a tractor accident. Mr. Flanagan, who lived two blocks over and worked in the mines, died of lung problems related to the coal dust, and eighty-nine year old Sadie, famous for her cookies, simply had faded away. They were gone, all of them: but still we endured.
“Well, Sunshine,” Grandpa would say, refolding the paper a third time as he prepared to get back to his chores, “We’re not goners yet.” He always grinned, and I’d smile right back. It was a new day, waiting to be lived.
My grandfather’s sanguine approach to obituaries, so typical of the time, made it easy for me to view death with a certain bemused acceptance. I tended to think of death much as I thought of the ne’er-do-well neighbor who’d moved away to Nebraska. I didn’t expect him to show up on our doorstep, asking to move into the back bedroom, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.
That was the way death arrived in our town – unannounced, unexpected and often unremarkable. No axe murderers or arsonists roamed our streets. 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, while others died of scarlet fever, pneumonia or undiagnosed illnesses that surely were cancer. Tuberculosis and polio thrived, and smallpox scars were familiar.
After the war and during my childhood, things began to improve. The mines became safer. Pencillin became more widely available, and polio vaccine arrived. 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, its sound became ordinary and ubiquitous, part of the cacophony of modern life.
By the time my grandfather’s death knell sounded, life was changing. Rituals I 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 for the mysteries they contained. Anticipating 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 of Acadiana on narrow, water-lapped roads — Grand Cailliou, Little Cailliou, Montegut — my traveling companion exclaimed at the herons and egrets fishing the bayous, and admired the great, unnamed grasses reaching to the sky.
As 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. When the grasses parted, roiling and crackling, flailed by some tremendous unseen force, we caught only a glimpse of the slapping tail half-concealed by thick, heavy shadows, or the ripples it sent streaming over the bayou.
Stunned at first into silence, my friend finally spoke. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “Was that an alligator?” Probably, it was. Or 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. Eventually, 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, or a third, or a tenth, hardly matters. What matters is finishing the coffee, folding the paper, and rising again from the table or ground to affirm the wonderous, incomprehensible truth: we’re still here.
Despite our ability to engage in every sort of foolishness, our obituaries aren’t yet written, and the world is waiting. As Grandpa liked to remind me, every day is new: filled with beauty and challenges. We’re certainly free to insulate ourselves in the service of an illusory safety, just as we’re free to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear or swept away by rising tides of irrational hysteria. But we’re also free to claim a different freedom: the freedom to rise, to stand, and to live.
127 thoughts on “To Rise, to Stand, and to Live”
You really do live in a different world! I was enthralled reading about your experience and that of Mary Oliver’s. Our dangers in NZ arise from the physical environment and not from animals although our native falcon will dive-bomb if someone wanders near their nest. Hope it’s ok I’ve shared a link on twitter and fb. Thanks Linda!
Your distinction between the physical environment and animals intrigues me. What kind of dangers would you think of as coming from the physical environment? My hunch is that you might be thinking of things like drought or hurricanes, but I’m not sure. I’m glad you enjoyed the post; thanks for the share.
Rivers are really dangerous and we have lots. If we get a lot of rain, the rivers rise very rapidly. People out hiking get killed trying to cross. We’ve lots of very steep terrain and slipping/falling are real dangers. Our weather changes *very* rapidly and people get caught out, in the outdoors, with not enough food, clothing, shelter. They think they’re going for a ‘day walk’ but the weather changes and they get cold, hungry, wet, disorientated and hypothermic. They may not have adequate footwear. Fatal if they’re not found in time. Those of us used to the bush prepare carefully but even so, things can still go very wrong. Avalanches are another (seasonal) danger.
Your rivers and flash flooding sound very much like our Texas hill country. More than a few people have met the same sorts of fate in that part of the state, particularly vacationers who don’t understand why there are signs at dry crossings that warn, “Road May Flood.” Locals talk about being “watered in” — stuck in their hilltop homes, not able to go anywhere until the water recedes. No avalanches here, though!
The world makes cynics out of us, whether we want it to or not. The whispering grass conceals snakes. The tranquil waters conceals alligators. The world is indeed beautiful, but it is full of hidden dangers; the trick is to be wary while you appreciate the beauty. As my daddy always told me, “Watch out for those traps, booby.”
I sure would have liked your dad. That’s the sort of thing mine would have said; he was as given to wordplay as yours. As for those snakes in the grass and so on, they can lead to simple (and appropriate) caution as well as cynicism: that wariness you mentioned. Just because I once stepped on a coiled snake hidden in the grass doesn’t mean I always stay out of the grass, but I do keep boots and a stick around for occasional use.
(Gulp!) Your story, and Mary’s, are just too graphic to hear right before bed. But I’ve done it.
I hope you slept well anyway, Gretchen. When one of these experiences comes my way, I often remember a remark Einstein made to mathematics professor Oscar Veblen in May 1921, at Princeton: “God is subtle, but He is not malicious.”
Great quote. I didn’t have any sleep disturbance, and had forgotten all about the scariness by morning!
Sunlight’s good for chasing away shadows and scariness!
Yes, it beho(o)ves us to stay firm footed when it comes to life beckoning us to the fear of the fatal, the lure of the negative. My dad used to say, no matter how hard things sometimes were ‘het komt wel goed’, it will come good.
He would then just roll his ciggy and happily blow away a cloud or two.
Nice one, Linda. Thank you.
Now, that gave me a smile. It will come good, indeed. As for beckonings to fear, that’s become big business for the media, social and otherwise. Cloned Chicken Littles are abroad in the land, clucking for clicks. Especially in their case, laughter and/or benign neglect are reasonable responses.
A beautiful post, Linda, and poem by Mary Oliver. I think I would have liked your grandfather. I never knew either of mine, long gone by the time I was born.
Grandparents are such a gift. My mother’s mother died when Mom was sixteen, and her father while I was in grade school, so I never had the chance to know them. On the other hand, we visited my dad’s parents nearly every Sunday, since they lived only thirty miles away. And every summer, one of my treats was a two-week visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s house; obviously, those memories linger.
Love this post Linda. … to rise, stand, and live. Amen.
Good things come in threes, they say, and I’d say that’s one fine trio: even if the rising’s a little slow and creaky, and we can’t stand as long as we’d like. No matter. We’re still living.
ps: my own comment just brought this poem to mind. Do you know it?
I love your memories of the newspaper and coffee rituals with your grandfather. My neighbour, who is of an older generation, tells me that she only gets the newspaper so she can check she’s not in it (the obits). Sometimes I think of death as the alligator waiting to catch me unawares. Other times, I think it will be orderly and wait until the coffee is finished and the paper folded. Either way, it seems best to make peace with everyday, which I often forget to do.
The newspapers I grew up with offered so much: not only the obituaries, but all the news about who was visiting from out of town, which kids were raising stock for the county fair, and who would be speaking at the next Ladies Club Luncheon. We took three newspapers: one for state and national news, and two for more local information. We were informed! Of course, in those days multiple newspapers served another purpose. They always were saved and bundled for paper drives: a war effort that continued after WWII and turned into fund-raisers for various groups.
Your two images of death remind me of the “how would you want to die” conversations that pop up every now and then. My friends and I indulge in those from time to time, but when it’s all over, we’re usually in agreement that however it comes, we’d prefer it not be soon.
I still save newspapers when I get them. I always manage to give them a second life.
A beautiful story stemming from a heart-warming memory from which you have given us insightful reflections. I used to read the obituaries, but I don’t bother with newspapers now. Three of my schoolmasters had appeared in The (London) Times
Over the years, it’s seemed to me that well-written obituaries have slowly disappeared. Reading obituaries used to be interesting; even ones written for people I’d never met — or heard of, for that matter — were worth the time. We used to clip some from the papers, too, especially if we’d known the person, like your schoolmasters. Finding them years later, in a trunk or scrapbook, always brought back memories.
A moment of true vision! And as a result, I will value my own little world a bit more as I rise up from my desk and go out into it.
I think we all need occasional reminders to do just that. I hope you found a treasure or two in your day!
Butterflies and a hedgehog – haven’t seen on of those in the garden for a long time! :)
I sipped coffee from a cup, not a saucer, as I read this story. The coffee was good, but your story is much better.
What a kind thing to say — thank you. There’s nothing better than the combination of a good cup of coffee and a good story; I’m glad you enjoyed this one.
I’m glad you enjoyed it; I certainly enjoyed the memories that came as I was writing.
Another well woven tapestry of a story Linda. You left me with memories… Memories of learning to drink coffee saucered then blowed
It’s always fun to see how widespread certain customs are. This one eventually turned into an idiom; you might enjoy some of the details in this little article.
As always, your writing is poetry as prose. Thank you.
Every morning I wake up and recite (as it appears on my computer wallpaper), “I woke up this morning, and that’s more than some people did…the rest is up to me.”
I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I like your bit of wisdom. Apparently I’m awake now, so let’s see what I can do with the rest of the day.
I’m thinking you must know all of Mary Oliver’s poetry, as you so often find a poem that rides along on your train of thought. Conveying a similar message is Robert Frost’s “Out, Out—,” the ending of which is:
“No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
Your post’s ending shows less a resigned continuing than a heartened one. And that in turn reminds me of yet another ending, often quoted, the one from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:
“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Perhaps that was whispering to you when you wrote about “the freedom to rise, to stand, and to live.”
I’m not certain, but I think this might have been the first Mary Oliver poem I encountered. I do know that I found it while searching for information about allligators. I wasn’t familiar with the Frost poem. When I read it in its entirety, it felt far more frightening to me than Oliver’s: perhaps because I’ve known woodworkers who lost fingers to their saws despite surviving, and so many details — the sound of the saw, the smell of the wood, the call to supper — were absolutely familiar.
I love that Tennyson passage. As far as I’m concerned, it never can be quoted too often. It’s one that’s aged well as poetry, and it certainly has begun to resonate more deeply for me as I’ve aged. “That which we are, we are” can be read as resignation, but it also can be read as a particular kind of acceptance.
I feel lucky that the death-gator has been near so few times. My earliest memory of death in the family was at age 5. A great uncle died. Mom took me with her to his house that morning. Odd how clearly I remember the scene and not much else.
Memories like that are strange They’re more like snapshots than videos, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the ones that linger. I have a few myself, and despite their vividness, they often arise with no sense of what came before or after. Sometimes I wish I knew more about the context, but they’re still interesting to ‘look at.’
Snapshots does describe them well. Sometimes snapshots appear when I’m doing something totally unrelated. They can be quite vivid.
Sometimes fear is warranted. Sometimes it is not. The trick is to know the difference and act accordingly. My father, his two brothers, and their mother all smoked cigarettes. All died too young of lung cancer. (My father was 54.) In their cases, a little fear followed by action—quitting!—would have been a good thing.
Your comment about fear — sometimes warranted, sometimes not — reminded me of the question I sometimes ask myself: “Is this a problem, or is it a fact of life?” If it’s a problem, action might be warranted, but if not? It might be just fine to move on down the road and not worry about it.
So many times, as with the cigarette smokers we’ve both known, it’s the old conflict between knowledge and will that’s lurking around. When someone’s unwilling to change, for whatever reason, more information often doesn’t move the needle.
I enjoyed reading this with my morning cup of coffee.
Thanks, Jason ~ I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.
Coffee mug in hand I read this thinking about how you’ve touched on something profound, about how much change I’ve absorbed in my life. Who am I because of it? I like your line: ” the gift: to see the world as it really is.” I feel I may have forgotten that truth lately. Thank you for reminding me.
Every now and then, just for grins, I spend some time delving into online ‘news’ sources and listening to a variety of radio programs: right, left, and indecipherable. I’m usually left with a deeper appreciation for the world I live in every day: a world that’s far less chaotic, nasty, and combative that what’s portrayed in the media, and far less influenced by what corporate ‘influencers’ would like me to think.
The relationship between constancy and change is interesting. I’ve lived a number of different lives over the years, and I sometimes think, “If I’d been then who I am now, things would have been different.” But past experiences made me who I am today; without them, I might be a very different person, doing very different things. It’s fun to think about.
Ah, Linda, how I loved your memories of the morning coffee ritual with your granddad! We lived too far away from all my grandparents for that kind of memory, but I take joy in knowing you were able to share what I was not. Grandparents offer kids a wealth of experiences and potential memories (I see that first-hand with Domer). As for the gator, well, I’m glad he didn’t get you!!
I’m not sure our current mania for naming generations is healthy: Boomers, Millennials, Gen X, Gen Whatever. Increasingly, it seems to be turning into a way of separating people from one another. In the days when I shared coffee with my grandfather, families might span as many as four or even five generations, but it was the family that came first, not the demographic categories.
Beyond that, for the most part old people were honored. I’m certainly glad I had the chance to be around my grandparents and their friends and learn from them. I wish you’d had the same experience, but sometimes we can’t choose. At least I could share my experience with you!
I’m glad to read your obituary wasn’t precipitated by an alligator, which sounds like a dreadful way to die. Maybe no more so than a long lingering death from a painful disease but no fun regardless. Our lives have changed indeed. I remember my parents reading the obituaries every day and that seemed so odd to me. Now I look at them too, more like once a week (FB seems to announce all the deaths of friends and their families). I look for colleagues from the past and others from our town. And I see more and more familiar names.
I love the story of the coffee. Maybe I would like coffee if I’d started as a child! Right now give me my decaf tea and caff-free coke or Coke Zero and I’m a happy camper. (I’m still missing my Tab!)
Death by alligator would make for a great obituary, however unpleasant the death. On the other hand, the single death by alligator I know about in these parts involved a drunken guy who went swimming in the middle of the night despite the sign saying, “Beware of the alligator! No Swimming!” That’s been several years ago.
Believe it or not, the CDC keeps records of such things, and I thought this was interesting: “Venomous injuries, largely from contact with hornets, wasps, and bees accounted for an average of over 56 fatalities per year, compared to an average of about 1 fatality per year from alligator attacks.”
I don’t drink nearly as much coffee as I used to, but a certain coffee ritual developed once Dixie Rose came to live with me. Every morning, I’d have my first cup while I brushed her. We had great conversations, but I don’t think she was as wise as Grandpa.
I wonder if that’s because alligators are perhaps easier to see or stay away from (unless you are a swimmer on a drunken binge). You know areas to stay away from and what to look for and being rather large, might make more noise as they approach through grasses. With bees, there are a zillion of them everywhere. A friend saw a hole in her yard and kicked in stuff to fill it only to find it was an underground bees nest. I’ve been stung as I brushed against a bush in a pot on a sidewalk. Seems like the law of numbers!
Great memories, Linda. As a Detroit boy, I missed some of the country charms but did have experience with those who came face to face with the mortality of our kind. Not too many accidents, but disease took its toll. The lesson to rise, to stand, to live was the same. Thanks for this.
No matter the conditions that give rise to the lesson, it’s the lesson that’s most important. Like many of the lessons life offers, this one gets learned and re-learned time and again.
Somehow I missed knowing, or had forgotten, that Detroit was in your background. Say ‘Detroit’ to me and it’s not cars that spring to mind, but Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. That was good music.
Also, Bob Seger, Kid Rock, and a whole host of Motown artists. 😁
What a poignant and well told story. My grandparents were all dead before my third birthday and when I read stories like this, about how they helped form your minds I can’t help but be wistful.
Coincidentally, the only photo I have of me with my grandparents was taken on my third birthday. I know, because the cake’s in front of me, and I can count the candles. I wish I had more photos, but we weren’t a photo taking family: at least, when I was growing up. It’s odd that I have far more photos of my great-grandparents than of my grandparents. Today, I have questions I never thought to ask in past decades, but there’s no one left to provide answers. That makes me a little wistful, too.
Your writing is beautiful, Linda!
Thank you, Becky — I’m glad you enjoy these little vignettes.
Definitely one of my favorite of your entries. So apropos to the lives the governments–local, state, and national–would have us live were it not for a spark of reason and a trumpet of independence that still resonates in some of us. The metaphor you draw, born out of a startling and stunning personal experience–such a contrast to the veil of safety Nature sometimes presents-is perfect and your description superb.
Here is south central rural Montana, we recently weed-whacked a host of beautiful plants. Their tendrils and leaves, some full of much-needed color during this dry and desiccated landscape-were perfect hiding places for the rattlesnakes that come down to the river on our property. Between bear spray and rattlesnake duty, I do soak up the sound of the river, the rustling of the aspen leaves, and the tutting of the little micro-birds.
What I also took away from your post is the lovely pace that your grandfather set, a pace that has been obliterated by technology.
Cheers and love!
When I think about him now, my grandfather seems a perfect example of the sort of person Mark Twain might have been thinking of when he said, ““Obscurity and a competence—that is the life that is best worth living.” By certain measures, Grandpa was obscure, but he was competent in so many ways. As the government becomes ever more authoritarian, and the corporations ever more intrusive, his kind of obscurity and competence seems worth cultivating — at least, until it’s time to join in crying, “Aux Barricades!”
As for that slow pace? Both he and Grandma had a slow-paced introduction to this country: they arrived by ship from Sweden in the early 1900s. They never talked about it, and I didn’t know that part of their history until I was an adult. I would have loved to hear those stories.
What a wonderful piece of prose; able to evoke both nostalgia and awe! I have to concur that it is indeed a gift to see the world the way it really is. I might even venture a grace. I pray fervently that I’ve had momentary glimpses of sight before death arrives for me.
Your mention of momentary glimpses of sight brought to mind a passage from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where she writes about the experience of seeing “the tree with the lights in it.” That’s part of an entire chapter on what it means “to see” — the whole book is worth a read, but that chapter is marvelous. (There are a few typos in the entry, but you can figure them out.)
That memory of your grandfather’s coffee ritual and the “Let’s see if we’re still here” evoked those same kind of memories of my grandparents. When I was a child, I was blessed that my grandparents lived with us until they passed from this life to the next. My grandparents and parents were the kind of folks who continued on continuing on no matter what happened. Yes, we’re still here and we need to stop giving in to fear. Like you so wisely wrote, we need to exercise our freedom “to rise, to stand, and to live.”
Do you remember the Curtis Mayfield song “Keep On Keepin’ On”? It’s just another way of expressing the approach to life your parents and grandparents — and mine — practiced. Thanks to them, we developed our own variations on their strengths, and we’ve profited by it. It’s a shame that so many today are being schooled in fear and denied the challenges that would make them stronger, but if we can’t change the world, at least we can affect those in our own real worlds.
Sure do remember that song. And yes to everything you said in your comment!
What a fantastic read, I did enjoy this. Delighted you escaped the alligators jaws.xxx
Believe me, I’m glad I escaped those jaws, too. Of course, there are other threats, natural and metaphorical, that are lurking in the underbrush, but I’m willing to take my chances with those.
You were in good company, that’s how Washington, Jefferson, all those folks drank their tea and coffee.
When I went looking for a history of the practice, I found this neat tidbit:
“A story about George Washington has been repeated many times… He is said to have observed that the US Senate should serve as a saucer to cool impassioned legislation coming from the House. This is the earliest example of the tale that I can find:
“Why,” asked Washington, “did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer, before drinking ?” “To cool it,” answered Jefferson, “my throat is not made of brass.” “Even so,” said Washington, “we pour our legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.”
I wonder what our current leaders would think of a suggestion that they use the technique?
That’s a great anecdote. I don’t know about using that technique for current politicians, maybe drop a couple horse tranquilizers in that saucer, that might fall under the old saying, may as well “save your breath to cool your porridge.”
Beautifully penned, Linda. Your grandfather was a wise man.
That he was, Eliza. I’m lucky that he raised my father to be the same sort of person. He may have been the quietest person I’ve ever known, but he always had time for a chat.
That’s a wonderful story, Linda, and beautifully told. Your relationship with your grandfather must have been very special.
I’ve written much more about my grandmother, but both of them were involved in shaping me. I do count it a blessing that I grew up in a time when even imperfect families were capable of some very creative nurturing.
I’m glad for you, Linda. Thank goodness for grandparents!
you and I are both rich. (rich memories from childhood with our grandparents)
Isn’t that the truth? Best of all, I not only have some great memories, I still have many of Grandma’s recipes — including the one for cherry cobbler that I adapt for dewberries and peaches.
Love, love. love!
Lovely lovely! I’ve had times in my life where I had a scare (usually medical), but after my first flush of relief and “new lease on life” I seem to fall back into routine fairly quickly. Perhaps I should read that Oliver poem every morning!
On the other hand, routine has a lot going for it; not every minute of life can – or should – be lived with such intensity. I’ve always appreciated the liturgical calendar’s designation for the weeks between Pentecost and the beginning of Advent: Ordinary time. It’s easy to celebrate the extraordinary, but learning to appreciate the ordinary has its own rewards.
What beautiful writing here – even more so than usual! The alligator part of the story caught me unawares (appropriately!), but the morning paper and its small-town news were so familiar. My parents still plow through the obits every day, and I still subscribe to the little local paper in the town we left 4 years ago (the paper was long called “The Doings,” which I loved!) and read it cover to cover once a week to keep up with both deaths and all the tiny bits of life it covers.
One of the great losses of our move into a digital age is the small town newspaper. In past years, every time I went to Kerrville, the first thing I did was pick up a copy of the paper. Now, it’s greatly reduced in size and published less frequently, and many things that made it such interesting reading (those personals!) have slowly disappeared.
While the convenience of online reading and daily email updates can’t be denied, there’s something about an actual newspaper that I’ll always prefer: right down to the smudged ink. Besides, when you clip an obituary from a real newspaper, you never need batteries or internet access to read it again.
I LOVE that cup!
Those oversized cups were called ‘mush cups.’ They were great for coffee, but people often crumbled corn bread or crackers into them, and then added milk to create a ‘mush.’ For some reason, that sort of thing always tasted better in one of these cups than in a bowl.
A wonderful essay, thank you.
You’re welcome, Friko. I’m happy you enjoyed it, and even more pleased to see you seem to have survived all those ‘complexities’ you recently were writing about!
“Saucered and blowed.”
Who knew there was a term for it?! I vividly remember my Mom and Dad pouring a cup of strong coffee from a percolator with a glass top, then pouring a bit into a saucer, blowing just as you described and sipping. I didn’t partake for some reason and only started drinking the stuff at age 26.
Technically, I had my first cup at age 18, but I only got it to keep my hands warm while I was working for the Central of Georgia Railway on a day that began at 15 degrees (F). That was a shock to my native Floridian blood system!
Turns out Gini’s Dad drank coffee the same way.
I love Mary Oliver’s poem!
More than a few times, I have found myself between an alligator and the water. NOT a good place to be!
I have fallen many times, literally and figuratively, and found myself facing something dangerous. The aforementioned ‘gators as well as snakes, a rabid coyote, angry hornets, skunks. Through all these encounters, I highly prefer the challenges from Mother Nature as opposed to facing the snakes and skunks lurking in the shadows of man-made jungles.
Falling is easy. Rising is becoming more of a challenge as I age, but more urgent it seems. Unless I rise, I cannot stand. Standing is the only way to see my way forward. Moving forward is the only way to live.
Rise. Stand. Live.
(And sip coffee from a saucer after I blow it.)
Thank you, Linda, for making this day better.
And there it is: the wisdom of the ages in one small paragraph: “Unless I rise, I cannot stand. Standing is the only way to see my way forward. Moving forward is the only way to live.” When I was a kid, my parents would wake me with a simpler and more familiar way of saying the same thing: “Rise and shine!” Rising alone wasn’t enough; I could rise and still be grumpy or resentful, but I’ve never known ‘shining’ and ‘grumpy’ to coexist.
As for the coffee, what would be the point of saucering and blowing a Grande, Quad, Nonfat, One-Pump, No-Whip, Mocha? I’m told you can even designate your preferred temperature at some of “those” establishments now, but what’s the pleasure in that? Clearly, the willingness to wait for anything — even cooled coffee — is in decline.
Not only that, given the prevalence of styrofoam, paper, and those cute little protective sleeves, you can’t even warm your hands on a modern cuppa!
My love of coffee began in Germany where I was stationed while in the Air Force. Gini and were wandering around our “new” home town and became transfixed outside the window of the local cafe. Tortes, rolls and kuchen – oh, my! They lured us inside. We had pastry. We had coffee. Hooked for life. Inside, the patrons sipped coffee and paged through (gasp!) newspapers. Leisurely, comfortable, satisfying. Today I prepare coffee by grinding whole freshly roasted beans, drip some into a container, pour into a heavy ceramic cup and peruse the computer screen’s latest offering of The Task At Hand.
Funny how we can grow up separated by so much distance, yet certain things are still the same.
The obits were the first thing my grandparents turned to, after a quick glance at the front page. As a child, I couldn’t comprehend why they didn’t immediately turn to the funnies. Now, I know and I’m reminded of that famous remark by George Burns: ” I get up every morning and read the obituary column. If my name’s not there, I eat breakfast.”
Those swamp pictures look just like Sparkleberry Swamp, where Dad used to go fishing or just birdwatching his jonboat.
More and more often, I think it’s generation rather than geography that makes the biggest difference. It isn’t just changes in technology that are obvious; attitudes and behavior have changed in significant ways, too, and not all those changes are positive. The good news is that in most ways we’re free to continue on as we always have: smiling at people, folding the paper and the laundry, and making sure to help out a neighbor.
This will amuse you. I’m listening to the news on a radio station out of Beaumont, and they’re discussing the big news: a move to ten-digit dialing. Apparently they’ve been getting along without an area code to this point; I didn’t realize anyone in the country still was dialing only seven numbers.
I love the name ‘Sparkleberry Swamp.’ I found this neat article that explains a bit about the tree that’s the source of the name. The flowers are pretty. It sure looks like a great place to spend some time.
That was just beautiful! Yes, every day is a gift and death is going to get all of us sooner or later. And I think having the ability to face that fact squarely makes it easier for us to truly live. Your grandfather was a wise man…
Of course, it’s worth remembering that after Grandpa read the obituaries, he folded the paper and put it aside. Both are necessary for living: acknowledging the reality of death, but not obsessing over it or allowing it to poison our joy. That can be a neat trick sometimes, but it’s possible.
Ah, you helped pull up lovely memories of my Grandma Scott’s Danish afternoon tea! Grandma had a positive attitude, asked the best questions, and was full of mischief! You also reminded me of how interesting and well-written obituaries used to be. I rarely look at obits anymore.
I would have loved your Grandpa. Grandparents are so important. This was a lovely read, Linda.
My grandmother was Swedish, and while we didn’t have an afternoon tea, we had what was called ‘a little lunch’ in late afternoon. It usually was around 4 or so, when the men would be coming in from the mines or the fields: no tiny cucumber sandwiches on that table!
Both of my grandparents taught lessons, but each had their own way of doing so. I certainly regret not having the opportunity to ask them about events and experiences in their lives that I learned about only after their deaths. I suppose that’s a common experience for us all; there’s always a surprising fact or two that surfaces after the time for questions has passed.
Your coffee tale reminded me of my dad’s practice of taking a sugar cube, soaking one end of it in his coffee while I watched the coffee mysteriously fill the cube. It was then gifted me… and it is no surprise that I love coffee now! But never with sugar, oddly enough. As for the alligator fright, when we were in Australia there were sometimes crocodile safe lines drawn, beyond which you journeyed with great risk. Yes, we do need to engage risk as a part of life but there is no point in engaging foolish risk. I guess we all have different definitions of “foolish” though!
I remember sugar cubes being around when I was a kid, but the only time I remember consuming one was the day it came with the addition of polio vaccine. I remember lining up at the school, and the great excitement of it all. We’d lived with closed swimming pools, Easter Seal campaigns, and pictures of iron lungs so long that the thought of being freed from all that was nearly unbelievable.
My impression is that crocodiles are more of an active threat than alligators. Around here, we’re more likely to be surprised by a gator than threatened by them. Even in Florida, it seems that pets are more at risk than humans. On the other hand, it wasn’t so very long ago that one of our major freeways was briefly shut down when a big alligator went wandering and decided to cross the road in his search for a better pond. We may not always see them, but they’re around!
What a GORGEOUS and thought-provoking post. I absolutely adore your grandfather and your memories of him. What a wise, sweet, and loving man. You’re a lucky one, to not only remember his ways, but to have learned from them.
I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. My grandparents were quiet people, and quite reserved, but not distant. They were more than willing to spend time with their grandchildren, and they shaped us in significant ways. As the years pass, I become more and more aware of just how significant my time with them was.
And the love they gave you. You encouraged me (from your writing) to invite my 8-year-old grandson over for the day today, despite being tired, and the day being humid and hot and misty. We had such a good time drawing, creating spells (he’s really into Harry Potter), playing tic tac toe and baking snickerdoodles. May the memories bring him a smile when he’s our age. <3
Lovely story and leaves you thinking… how many times in our lives do we get the awakening to look at the world anew. Lucky us. *beautiful poem
If we’re really lucky, we manage to look at the world anew every morning — although that’s not always possible when we’re tired, facing a too-full day, or otherwise distracted. Still, it’s a worthy goal; maybe that’s why Grandpa took his minute to check things out, coffee in hand!
Such beautiful thoughts. And it was indeed thoughtful. I guess there is something to learn here for all of us!
It’s always a time to learn something new, or to re-learn old, but forgotten, lessons. Thank you for reading and commenting; I appreciate it.
Rise to the challenges, stand for simple truths, and live to read the obituary of others, if the thought of obituaries crosses my mind. A Facebook friend reports to me. Generally we are left with thoughts of a reunion someday. We’ll be closer then than we are now.. And our fine wine will be from golden challises not styrofoam cups. Why does my spellcheck underline styrofoam?
Ah! Here we are at the weekend, and time to get caught up! You know it’s summer in Texas when people get excited over weather forecasts that predict highs of 89 rather than 95. Days spent working in that leave me a little drained.
“Rise, stand, live” is good advice in every circumstance I can think of. It may not be the Holy Trinity, but it’s a useful trinity: one that more people should heed. I laughed at your spellchecker. I don’t use one, but now and then gmail will flag a word on my phone. I just tried ‘styrofoam,’ and it seems to be acceptable there. Maybe my spellchecker needs to be checked!
My happy memories of a grandparent of of the smells and sights of my grandmother’s pantry and kitchen. The pantry was large and well stocked, the kitchen very simple and bare. She was a memorable cook.
I haven’t had any encounters with alligators, but the closest I’ve come to the other side was getting whacked by a wave while swimming in the ocean. The wave brought me to shore, but I was stunned and couldn’t get up as the next wave came in. A nearby swimmer helped me to my feet. Quite a memory…
Say ‘grandmother’ and ‘pantry’ to me, and the visuals are right there, ready to be explored. Most of the home-canned goods were in the fruit cellar, but the pantry was filled with delights: staples like coffee and flour, glass jars filled with homemade cookies, and so on. I suspect you see much the same thing.
Even here on the Gulf Coast, where waves are neither so large nor dramatic as on Pacific and Atlantic beaches, they can be tricky. Our problem isn’t so much the size of waves (unless a hurricane is coming) but the rip tides. Every year a few people are caught by them and drown. Caught in one, the advice is to swim parallel to the shore until you escape the pull, but that’s easier said than done, especially when panic sets in. Even the pull of an outgoing wave can be substantial — as you learned.
How lucky to have that time with your grandfather when you were young. Enjoyed reading how death became a part of the living experience for you at an early age as it was for me. Alertness whenever we’re in the wild is always wise though I never was in an area where alligators were creatures of which I should be aware. There were lots of other creatures but those of the very silent variety could always be a concern. Fatal dangers for me came more from the two-legged human variety.
My gosh. I’ve been fighting the heat at work, and there’s a possibility it’s baked my brain. My apologies for such a late response, Joared.
I was lucky to have some time with one set of grandparents. My mother’s mother died when Mom was sixteen, and although I spent some time iwth my paternal grandfather (who enjoyed trains as much as I did), it was my dad’s parents who really shaped me. Something that’s occurred to me only this week is how literally quiet their life was. When Grandma was shelling peas or Grandpa was in his workshop, there never was a television or radio on: no audio book played, and no podcast. There was conversation, or thinking, and it may be that my love of solitary — quiet — work on boats has its roots all the way back to childhood.
Clearly, silence has two sides to it. It can contain threats, but it also can be a balm. Being aware of that may be the best protection.
So beautifully written, and such sage messages.
Thank you, Emma: for visiting, and for commenting. I’m pleased you enjoyed the memories, and the wisdom that was passed on to me.
What a wonderful allegory your memory of time with your grandfather is for experiencing life as it comes, day by day. And, of course, Mary Oliver has a verse for most everything that comes our way. I envy those memories as I have none really. My paternal grandparents died early on before I could acquire memories and my maternal grandparents were cold individuals. Consider yourself fortunate.
As you know, I have never encountered an alligator, but your description of the mystery and thrill of whomever was in that grass resonated with so many other unknowns. Wondering if one just missed seeing a coyote or bobcat rustling just ahead but never seen. Once while hiking in the Quabbin I heard a splashing to my left and stood still. A red fox soaked to the skin came out from between the trees, having swum across a small pond, and ambled on leaving a lasting memory.
I do read the obituaries daily and rejoice at not seeing my name there.
“So many other unknowns” is exactly right. Even when we “know” a threat is lurking around (think snakes) we often go our merry way, convinced we’ll never encounter one. The day I stepped on a big, fat snake curled in deep grasses wiped that supposition out of my mind: perhaps forever.
I suspect you see tracks as often as I do, and probably are better at identifying them. There’s a lot of activity going on out there, all the time. I always smile when I find piles of broken crab or crawfish shells. If I look around, the raccoon prints aren’t far away.
Of course, life’s like that generally. The media blare away about the extraordinary, but under the surface, there’s a lot going on, and most of it that’s important involves grandparents, kids, teachers, friends. We pay attention to social media ‘influencers,’ and ignore the very ones whose influence we most need.
Our society has really developed a weakness for the others, the more successful, the more beautiful, the wealthier, etc. Why are the Kardashians (they have become the universal example for this type of question) more popular than science researchers or land managers? Boggles the mind. Folks just want everything digested for them.
I read a John Marshall biography and marveled at one passage where the locals all crowded the court building and spilled outdoors to hear his opinion read for a case before the court. Never happen today. Who needs to be influenced by some person on YouTube or some political pundit with an axe to grind? Why are we encouraging media folks to come up with more ridiculous claims to acquire popularity and “hits” numbers? And even worse, why do so many believe them? Beats me. As I just mentioned…I am increasing becoming a curmudgeon.
I recognize some tracks. I am better with poop. LOL
What a beautiful post.
I got a real sense of grandad and you rising,standing and living as you shared your coffee whilst reading the obituaries.
I only knew my mother’s father as my maternal grandmother died when mum was 8 years old and I only saw him every year when visiting our Irish homestead when on holiday.
Dad was 17 years older than mum and I never met my paternal grandparents.
I think these relationships are so special.
Thank you for sharing.
Powerful post and the saucer and blowed was a cool couture phrase
– and side note / it seems obituaries rarely state the cause of death?
I remember skimming some in 1991 (seriously remember the afternoon and where I was near TGI Friday’s ) and then other times –
In fact – I read a few this week
But it seems the cause of death
Is often left out
I’m not sure about this, but it seems to me that when I was a kid, the cause of death would be given if it was an accident, but otherwise there was a genteel “after a long illness” or some such. I just looked at the obituaries in my home town paper, and there never is a cause of death offered. Sometimes it’s possible to make an assumption, particularly when the family asks for any donations to be given to a specific, disease-related organization (cancer, lung disease, and so on) but otherwise there seems to have been a shift.
Hi – thanks for the reply – and in some of the into to psych classes I taught a few years ago – students had to write their obituary – in fact – as a young girl I remember when my mother went back to school and would share with us kids what some of her assignments were – and I remember her being a little fascinated and creeped out when she had to write her own obit – fast forward a couple of decades and in some classes that assignment came up –
And what made me think of it was because the instructions always say for the activity the cause of death should be “natural causes” and ripe old age…. then students can focus more on the “dash” idea – that line between their birth year and the day their life expires.
it helps see the bigger picture of their life which can help in many ways! Other objectives with the assignment too as it falls under life span development and we talk about erikson’s stages etc
Sometimes a few students would not be able to do it (because it can be SO heavy for some folks to even talk about death let alone write about their own) so we offer them to do a mock one –
Lastly – while we are on this topic – I usually lighten up the mood with some humorous obit examples
Show them one of the character Walter white (breaking bad) – found one of a lady who passed right before the election in 2016 and someone wrote that faces with the choice of voting for Hilary or Trump our beloved decided to depart from this world!
Another one has a young teen who liked rootbeer and bacon and then the ones where children tell it like it is – Mary was a terrible mother and left trouble in her wake.
I’ve been rolling this post around in my mind, thinking about what aspect of it drew me. Given all the spin in today, that last line of seeing the world as it really is turns out to be the rare gift.
I’ve pondered this possibility occasionally: that those who complain about ‘reality,’ or those who are certain that reality always is mean, ugly, or death-dealing, simply aren’t seeing the wholeness of life. Context matters, and seeing contemporary events against the horizon of eternity can make quite a difference.
Thank you ~ I’m glad you enjoyed it.
This piece is filled with rich rhythm of life. As we move from childhood to adulthood, we learn and appreciate many timely lessons. Your time with your grandfather takes me back to my own pairs of grandparents. They taught me more than I probably let on at the time.
What a blessing — to be able to enjoy and learn from two sets of grandparents. And your experience reminds me of my own: at the time, I didn’t realize how much I was learning from them. It was only years later that I began to appreciate all I’d been given.
Being 65 with ten grandchildren, now its my turn to give back.
Lovely. I had a scary experience when I was in junior high. I went camping with a friend’s family. We were at a pond. She and I were playing in the water under the dock. I dove under and my hair got caught in wire. It was murky and I know no one could see me. I panicked and then calmed. I ripped the hairs out and surfaced. All I said to my friend was, “I don’t want to play under the dock any more. Let’s do something else.”
Like a crab or a swallowtail, you were smart enough to give up part of your body to save the rest! I’ve had a couple of experiences of going into the water from a dock, and the memory of opening my eyes and seeing an underwater barnacle-covered piling lingers. I’d like to say it’s made me reliably cautious, but of course that’s not true. I do try to pay attention, though — and I don’t try to step directly from the dock to the shore any more. Those ramps are there for a reason.
Thanks so much! Family stories usually are the best stories; I’m glad you enjoyed this one!