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.