Here’s To You, Mr. Martinson

~By Sarah Pascarella

I’ve been drinking coffee since the ripe old age of eight. My first taste was purely an accident.

One Saturday morning, my mother had gotten up from eating breakfast to refill her cup. She returned to the table, coffee pot in hand, a twinkle of mischief in her eye. Before adding to her mug, she pretended to pour a bit of coffee in my sisters’ and my milk glasses. The absurdity of it–toddlers drinking coffee!–caused my youngest sister, then just two, to giggle uncontrollably. While my sisters’ glasses remained empty, my mother, distracted by toddler giggles, must have tipped the pot just so that when she got to my glass, a long arc of coffee splashed in.

The laughing stopped. The coffee swirled together with the remaining milk in my glass, the brown and white of the two drinks dancing together before uniting in a pleasing beige tone. The effect looked and smelled delicious.

I looked up at my mom, who still held the coffee pot poised in mid-air, her eyes wide and surprised. “Oops,” she said.

“Can I still drink it?” I asked.

Mom topped off her own mug, then returned to the kitchen to place the pot back on the burner. “Why not?” she called over her shoulder. “It’ll be like a cafe au lait.”

I took a sip and liked it. Really liked it, in fact–so much so that I asked for another cup.

“I think that’s enough for now,” Mom had replied.

I remember looking longingly at the coffee pot, knowing it wouldn’t make sense to press the issue. My mother had little patience for pleading or whining–in fact, those tactics usually backfired on my sisters and me, and could make something desired even more forbidden. No, in this case, I would have to time things just right.

When I was growing up, my father and uncle had a small weekend moving business, rustling up a few clients each week to move furniture, homes, apartments, and the like. As such, the girls (my mother, aunt, sisters, cousins, and me) would spend every Saturday together, then we’d all have a big dinner together once the men returned home after their moving gigs were complete. Dad would get up early, to get a good start on whatever moves he and my uncle had scheduled for the day, so typically Mom ate Saturday-morning breakfast with just me and my sisters.

The following Saturday, one week after my accidental coffee tasting, I tried again. I waited until my sisters had toddled off to watch cartoons, until Mom and I were alone at the breakfast table. I then turned to her with big, imploring eyes.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“I was wondering … if I could maybe have a cup of coffee.”

My mom pondered this for just a moment. There were many reasons for her to refuse my request–the old adages of coffee stunting growth (while her daughter was still a growing girl), staining the teeth, promoting addiction/dependence, all those sound warnings (not to mention the possibly-not-desirable effects of caffeine on an already-chatty kid). She used to come home from the library with arms full of childrearing/development books, each with big glossy photographs and to-the-point titles like “Your Eight-Year-Old,” tomes that surely would have discouraged parents from offering any sustenance that was not of the utmost nutritive value. I could almost see her mentally scrolling through their pages, heeding their warnings, as I waited her response.

But then–I could see her eyes softening, just a little. Despite her better judgment, I think she may have just wanted some company over her weekend morning coffee.

“I think that would be okay,” she said, a little hesitant. “But just one cup.”

“Okay,” I replied, trying not to show how thrilled I was.

This time, I got a proper cup and saucer. Mom took her coffee black, but since I had liked it with milk the previous week, she poured a little bit in, just enough to change its color.

“Take a sip and see if you like it that way,” Mom said.

I lifted the cup to my lips. The taste was strong and bitter, not what I had remembered at all. I must have grimaced, as Mom suggested a bit of sugar.

I spooned a small amount in, giving it a good stir to make sure it dissolved, and tasted it again. It was delicious, like coffee ice cream, but warm; but unlike ice cream, where the cold sometimes made my teeth ache and sinuses pinch, the hot temperature of the coffee made the flavors dance across my tongue. It was even better than my “au lait” of the previous week. This was what I hoped for; this was something I could get very used to.

And so my love affair with coffee started with a regularly scheduled Saturday morning cup with Mom, never more than just one, never more frequent than once a week. We always had Martinson’s coffee, in the red can, brewed first for our old campground-take-anywhere drip coffee maker that rested on a oven burner, the flame turned to low. We later upgraded to more sophisticated coffee makers, with timers and settings and burners that stayed hot. After Martinson’s started disappearing from our grocery store shelves, we switched to Yuban, then Eight O’Clock coffee–even whole beans that we ground ourselves. I liked all of them, and even as an adult have yet to become loyal to just one coffee brand. When it comes to a big old mug of coffee, I am an equal opportunity taster.

As for my childhood coffee dates, my weekly ritual went on for a few years, until my father got a new job and no longer needed the second weekend gig. Once he was back for our weekend breakfasts, I felt different about my Saturday coffee, about having a cup with everyone present. It seemed odd to sit with my parents, as a kid, and have a cup of coffee. It had been something just for my mother and me to share for those few years, and I didn’t want to have it any other way.

I started having an occasional cup once I got to high school, but it wasn’t until college that I started drinking coffee every morning. And even though my whole family (sisters now included) takes it black, I still drink it with milk and one sugar, watching the hot and cold swirl, just as I did all those years ago.

One Comment Add yours

  1. snowmadd says:

    Ah, the old wive’s tale of coffee stunting your growth. Every summer of my youth, my grandmother typically started my brother’s and my days with a cup of milk mixed with a heavy dash of joe. I remember being about four the first time I tasted what would later become my favorite addiction. And I do recall many a naysayer touting that we would be forever stunted because of it. He is now 6’4″ and I am a towering 5’7″. Take that lousy urban legends!

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