Thursday, October 02, 2008

A View of A Little Bit of Sugar

In my old, worn out pantry, next to the boxes of Gevalia coffee I've had for at least two years and still haven't finished, is an even older amber colored plastic jar.


It's dusty, sticky and hasn't been opened in years. Inside it holds a plastic bag - I think it held coffee filters or some other food item that I can't remember. The bag is crammed full of packets of Equal and Sweet & Low pilfered long ago from restaurant tables, purchased from grocery stores, brought home from hospital cafeterias and office kitchens. I don't know if the contents of the packets can safely be consumed, or even if the lid of the jar will come off. Anyone who sees the jar would either toss it out, or pitch the contents and give the jar a good scrubbing in a hot water & bleach mixture in order to use the jar for something else. Anyone except me. That jar is priceless and will remain sticky, sealed, untampered and in my pantry. It's one of the last items I have that my grandmother used on a daily basis.

The jar originally held powdered coffee creamer. When it ran out, my grandmother washed the jar and began keeping packets of artificial sweetener in it. Whenever we went somewhere that served coffee, she'd put a packet or two in her cup and put several more packets in her purse, which she always called her "pocketbook." Once we got home, those packets would go right into the container. It never seemed to run low.

My grandmother was the one who taught me how to drink coffee and eat toast. Every morning, she'd have breakfast at the kitchen table. She made toast so dark, it was almost burnt. She'd spread on a generous smear of margarine (which she called butter or "Oleo"), and she'd boil water in an old saucepan that didn't have a handle (why have a handle when you can use an oven mitt) for her instant coffee - always Taster's Choice, regular. She'd scoop one heaping tablespoon into her cup, then one teaspoon of sugar and creamer. Then, she'd sit at the table sipping her coffee, dunking her toast into her cup then taking a bite. One hand would hold the toast, the other usually had a pen in it as she worked on the crossword puzzle in the paper. There was always an ashtray nearby with a lit, unfiltered Pall Mall cigarette that she smoked while she worked on the puzzle. There were also at least two dog eared, well worn crossword puzzle dictionaries nearby to help her with the particularly tough clues. One day, I don't remember how or why it came to be, she made me a cup of coffee and two pieces of toast, just like hers. This became our daily ritual as I got ready for school in the morning, on Sundays before going to church, during the summer when it was easier to linger over a cup and not worry about the time.

We'd sit and talk about all sorts of things - school, church, how to be a lady, current events, what she was making for dinner that night. Sometimes, she did all the talking and I listened - especially when she talked about what it was like for her growing up in Alabama, or how she worked as a cook at an Italian restaurant and how she wanted me to study hard so I didn't have to do the same. Sometimes I did all the talking and she listened - especially when I'd tell her about what I'd learned in school the day before, or what I wanted to be when I grew up. Sometimes neither of us talked. She worked on her puzzles, or nodded off to sleep at the table, or paid the monthly bills. I watched her every move as I ate my toast, dipping it into my coffee just like she did.

Over time, I became a teenager who was too cool for old fashioned things like instant coffee and dunking my toast. She grew older and her health began to suffer. The sugar had long been traded in for sacchrine because of heart problems and blood sugar issues, her crossword puzzles and dictionaries put aside because of her failing eyesight. She moved slower because of arthritis and circulation problems - eventually becoming so bad that she soon needed a wheelchair. We didn't talk as often - sometimes we argued more than we talked. Whatever the exchange, it was always heartfelt, warm, and full of love.

I can't remember the last time we sat down to have coffee and toast at the kitchen table. I can't remember when she stopped collecting packets of Equal or boiling water in that old saucepan with no handle for instant coffee. What I do remember is her wisdom. Her strength in the face of adversity and illness. Her ability to make you laugh when you felt as though you'd never be able to feel joy ever again. The way she'd listen to you, take your hand and say, "Baby, everything is going to be alright." The way she'd smile as she cooked because the food she made was filled the love she felt for anyone she invited into her home.

When I look at that old, sticky, sealed jar full of sugar substitute, decades old and stashed away in my pantry, I hear her saying, "Come here and give Dear some sugar," turning her cheek toward me, and smiling in a way that showed off her dimples. She's been gone since 1991. Today would've been her 94th birthday. If she were here, I'd make her a cup of instant coffee with water boiled in an old saucepan on the stove, light up one of her Pall Mall cigarettes, spread the crossword puzzle and her dictionaries out on the kitchen table, and make her some dark toast smeared with Oleo. We wouldn't say anything to each other - we wouldn't have to. We'd just dip the toast in our coffee, take a bite and enjoy each other's company sitting at the kitchen table.

Happy birthday, Dear. Here's a little sugar from me to you.

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