~~This essay previously appeared in Under the Sun (2008).
I learned to drink coffee by watching my mother. She used to sit on the corner counter in the kitchen every morning stirring and stirring it. She made instant—with milk and pills of Nutra Sweet that looked like aspirin. Her coffee was always the same color and always the same color as her cup—middle brown like toffee or caramel.
I didn’t drink coffee then, but the smell of it was the smell of morning for the first eight years of my life and still is, in the same way roasting turkey is the smell of Christmas presents. I used to wake up on those mornings and hurry across the kitchen tile, cold against my bare feet, and curl up in a ball on the little mat in front of the heater just below her feet. It would blow warm air against my face, and I would inhale deeply the scent of heating ducts and instant coffee in the time before my brother and sister woke up. I stayed silent and curled up, watching her feet swing above me in fuzzy blue slippers and hearing the sound of coffee stirring over the cycles of the heater.
The sound of those mornings is almost clearer than the smell. The spoon made light but firm chinking sounds against the ceramic cup, not too fast and not too slow. It’s the rhythm of coffee, a deeper sound than a spoon on china or glass. In fact, there’s no other sound like it in the world. I still have her cups for their sound and for their color—the color coffee should be. They are gracefully curved in the center, as if for the comfort of the hand that will hold them. The handle is a simple curve that highlights the mottling under the shiny glaze; it is dark at the joints and lighter across the smooth middle. The top of the rim is almost white, though still shiny, but the ring set into the bottom is white and unglazed. I love to run my fingers across that rough ring and up onto the smooth of the gently angled bottom. It reminds me of those mornings.
After she died, I would wake up from a dream where it was all a dream—her death, the days and weeks since. I would wake up knowing she was there, and I had lived a long nightmare in a single night. Running to the kitchen and to her for reassurance, I didn’t notice that my running footsteps echoed in the otherwise quiet house. When I got to the edge of the tile and looked across the kitchen to where she should have been, the kitchen was cold, empty, and smelled of dish detergent.
It was on those mornings that I started drinking coffee. Not yet tall enough to reach into the cabinets, I would pull a chair from the kitchen table and climb. If I stood on the butcher block, I could reach her Maxwell House Instant Coffee, pushed aside and back on the top shelf. If I stepped carefully around the sink, I could pull down one of her cups and sit it on the counter beside me. I even used her teapot for water, leaning over the stove to set it to boil. It took two hands to hold the hot finished product, which I judged ready by the color. It was bitter and heavy on my tongue, too thick from four spoonfuls of instant coffee doused with boiling water and drowned with whole milk.
Coffee became a standard part of my morning by the time I was in high school. Then, I was the driver, the morning organizer, standing at the counter with water microwaved to boiling and coffee in a small sack like a tea bag. Not quite instant but almost. If I leaned in very close, the aroma was almost the same. The steam from the brewing coffee would roll hot across my face, and with my eyes closed, I could almost imagine it was my mother’s coffee.
There was little ritual to my coffee in those days. It kept me awake for first period and made me alert for the drive to school. And I didn’t use her curved ceramic cups—just a lidded, plastic mug from which I once drank hot chocolate on a Circle Line boat tour of
. The green plastic handle was always cold to touch, no matter what was inside, and the green plastic liner allowed only dull thuds of the spoon when I stirred in the sugar—real sugar, granulated, which ended up all over the counter. I would drink half in hurried sips while pulling on jeans and a sweater or T-shirt, depending on the season. The other half stayed in the mug and was also drunk in hurried sips on the road, the cup just big enough to fit between my legs with one foot on the clutch, the other on the gas. New York
* * * * *
I never resorted to the other part of my mother’s morning ritual. After I was off the carpet and my siblings and I were putting on blue uniforms for school, cup of coffee number two was accompanied by beer number one. When the chink of the spoon stopped and she had taken the first swallow of coffee, the crisp, carbonated pop of the Miller Lite can came like a sigh. She turned the can up for a deep drink without even setting it on the counter, and once she did, it was time for another drink of coffee. And to me, this was normal. While eating oatmeal or Rice Krispies and chewing the Betty or Dino from the bottle of Flintstone’s vitamins, I watched my mother alternate her morning coffee with her daily beer. On days we weren’t at school, I could watch as beer took over completely by noon. After lunch, she would be through a six pack, and by the time she would have picked us up at school, only a few cans remained in the case of twelve. You couldn’t tell she was drunk; she was good at it. My 108-pound mother had eight to twelve beers everyday by 3 p.m. and drove 20 miles to the afternoon carpool line, made small talk with the other mothers as they snaked around the drive in front of the school. Then, at home again, the beer continued. She would cook fish sticks on Fridays during Lent, and my siblings and I drank milk with dinner while she had a beer—on a bad night, two. By 8 p.m., she had asked us if we had brushed our teeth and sent us to bed, but I know she kept drinking. When I couldn’t sleep or woke with nightmares, I went to my parents’ room. They would be watching “Dallas” or “Dynasty,” and my mother would have a beer—still cold and sweating—on the nightstand by her side of the bed.
We all saw this and we all knew, but I think my dad knew the least. He only saw it at night when he was home, usually not much before we went to bed. He drove us to school in the morning but would breeze through the living room fresh from the shower and ready to go. He never went to the kitchen; they kissed goodbye at the door. Maybe he smelled the beer on her breath but maybe he was used to it because it was part of her.
He didn’t see the afternoons where the alcohol finally got to her. She would either cry or yell and get out the brown leather belt she kept rolled in her purse. Sometimes anger first, then crying. My mother never hit me, but she hit my siblings often. Everyday, any day, with no cause. I stayed quiet and as far back as I could. If there was a corner of the dining room that seemed safe, that's where I would go. More often than anything, I stayed behind her, where she couldn't see me without turning around. She wouldn't turn around unless I made her. When the path was clear, I would run to my room biting my lips shut to breathe through my nose, which was quieter. I stayed on my toes so my steps wouldn't cause creaks or groans from the floor. I figured quiet would protect me.
I came out of my room when it was all over and the house was quieter than it was in the mornings when I woke up. My mother would be crying and hugging the belt to her chest, rocking in her rocking chair. I would count to a hundred, five hundred, a thousand and step with soundless feet on the carpet. Then, I would go to her in the bedroom and crawl up into her lap. She would hug me with the belt to her chest, squeezing so tight that I couldn’t speak and could barely breathe. I just waited with her tears falling in my hair. Eventually, she would talk, between and in the middle of sobs, saying she was sorry and she didn't know why she did this when it had been done to her, saying the beer made her do it, or wishing we could only be good all the time. I sat quiet, and instead of listening, I was wondering when my dad would come home, if I could make her feel better without making her mad, if she would make dinner or just be too sad and tired again.
On some nights, seeing me would only make her cry harder and she would shoo me away with choked sobs filling her mouth instead of words. Her hands waving me away were the only way I was sure. I would go back to my room, sit on the spring green carpet just behind the door and press myself down next to the crack. If I turned my face down into the carpet, I could hear everything—her sobs, sniffles, the barely-there sound of wiping tears away. These were the only sounds in our house. If I pressed my cheek to the carpet, I could watch the setting sunlight with my left eye and see when her feet moved, judge if that meant tissue or dinner or round two.
One night, after watching a long time from that spot on the carpet, the house was too dark for me to see anything, and I was afraid to turn on the light. With my stomach growling, I went to her again through the open door of the master bedroom and found her still crying, hunched in the rocking chair with her face in her hands, no longer rocking. When she looked up at me across the dark room, just enough pink light came in the window for me to see her face. She held her hands up like she would shrug but didn’t have the strength. Her eyes showed helplessness before her hands covered them to catch more tears. I had never seen my mother like that and, scared, returned to my post on the carpet because I didn’t know what to do.
That night, we ate cereal like it was breakfast. With a single light on above the kitchen table, I poured cereal in bowls and my sister, four years older, poured milk from the heavy gallon jug while my little brother watched the hall for movement. The three of us ate in a silent circle, stacking rinsed bowls in the sink when we turned the light off to head to the bathroom. We took turns washing off with a washcloth and soap at the sink, and still silent, we stood together and brushed our teeth. I don’t remember if I slept well that night or if we had the same cereal for breakfast. This sort of thing was as common as the morning beer and coffee in our house. Wasn’t everyone’s mother like that?
* * * * *
My mother said that she would stop drinking, had said it so many times I almost stopped listening. When she died, she was really trying to stop. We thought. She had taken to having a glass of ginger ale after her morning coffee instead of beer. She said the bubbles made her feel better.
But the summer after she died, we found beer cans hidden in the kitchen. Still full, they were inside a tall, brown, two-gallon pitcher, the kind Tupperware used to make.
I had climbed onto the counter top and reached onto the top shelf, still a little too high for me, so I stretched my arms out, extended up on my toes. The pitcher should have been light, easy to lift, and was the perfect size for the instant tea we wanted to relieve the August heat. Instead, when I picked up the weight too heavy for my arms, it tipped over. Full, warm cans of her beer made deep, metallic “chunks” on the counter, the floor, my head. My eyes teared with the pain, and dizzy, I fell on the floor in a knot of elbows and knees.
My sister lined them up in a row. Her voice was flat when she said, “Wait for Dad to see them.”
He saw them when he came home that night. “What is this?”
“We found them in the brown pitcher,” Stephanie answered.
“We were going to make iced tea, and they fell out,” I added. I didn’t want to tell him that they hit me in the head when they fell out or that I was bruised from the fall.
He didn’t say anything else, just scooped them up and dropped them into the trashcan. They crushed everything else down and thumped against the plastic bottom.
* * * * *
In piecing together my mother, I am always asking what I do and do not know, and I find myself asking again and again—why did she drink? I know pieces of her past from my father—she was abused by her father, lived in a family that lied about it. He also says that she wasn’t always like that, that she used to drink a little and handled it. She was my age when it started to get bad, when she drank enough to have it noticed, when my father got a nanny to help her with us. It was after my little brother was born; she wasn’t even thirty.
Silent photographs and my own fragmented memory can’t tell me anything. My mother kept no self-indulgent journal in her adult years. Perhaps she felt she had nothing to record, but she didn’t know that she would die at 34 leaving three small children to learn what it meant to grow up without a mother. Even if she did, she might have believed we wouldn’t care about her thoughts and reflections. But the things that would have seemed petty and everyday to her would be a wealth of knowledge to me, having already found or lost the clues she left behind—like those hidden beers. Instead, I seek the answers and my legacy in the only remnant of my mother I have: myself.
* * * * *
In my years in
, years like my mother’s just after her marriage and when she was living not far from where I live now, the rituals surrounding coffee and alcohol that began at her feet have continued their slow evolution. Living by myself, I started my day at the coffeemaker. I was no longer curled up on the carpet, and my counters did not have room for me to sit up high and swing my feet as she did. I compromised and stood waiting for the finished cup before sitting, enjoying, thinking, no longer rushing as I once did. This coffee and those mornings were closer to hers, but they were still a lonely act, displayed for and shared with no one. Washington, DC
Today, my morning ritual is long, slow, and populated. I wake to the scratch of my dog asking for his walk. Andrew takes him out, and I turn over into his pillow, still warm, to enjoy the new smell of morning. The warm sun tosses tree shadows across the bed, where I am secure and drowsy. When he comes home again, I am greeted with kisses from man and dog, who then proceed upstairs together. I hear the smooth creak of windows opening in good weather and the soft swish of curtains being pulled back in any season. After the coffee grinder makes its intermittent whir, I know it is safe to get up—coffee is on the way. In our upstairs living room, Andrew has splayed the morning paper across the couch, and I slide it aside to curl up on one side—my side. He tucks a blanket around my feet while the coffee is brewing and often lifts the little white dog to my lap. He won’t stay long, but I lean down to inhale his scent, listen to his heart beating, and feel him breathing. By the time I hear the spoon in my ceramic cup, he leaps to the floor to search for a warm spot of sunshine. I don’t miss the feel of stirring coffee because I feel his warm hands when he slides the mug into mine. I inhale deeply the rich scent of creamy sweet coffee as he slides his feet next to mine under the blanket.
“How’d you sleep?” he asks, wiggling his toes against me.
* * * * *
Some years ago, there were many nights where I found myself sitting with a tall mug of dark beer poured from a pitcher shared with friends around a table. This beer was darker than hers, slower to drink, and I was in a crowded bar talking about life with people I care about. I picked at nachos, gossiped, and laughed; I have never been an angry drunk. I told myself that I liked the slightly bitter taste of the amber beer on my tongue, that it is foamy and cold after a long day, that one could be relaxing but three or four was too many. I usually stopped at two.
Leaving the bar on nights like that, I would run through the English and Greek alphabets in my head, testing my sobriety, but I wonder now if I knew them too well to stumble. Is that the way my mother felt each day sliding into the car? Was she so used to her level of intoxication that she too believed she was fine? Everyone else did. Could I become her, that, ever? These were my fears when I turned the key each of those nights, just as they are now, and somehow, I always went back. I thought I could handle it.
I had rules then that drew lines and created barriers. I only drank socially, with food, little enough so I could still drive home. Once there, I found no beer in my fridge. I didn’t keep alcohol in my house; I would not drink alone. These are possible signs of alcoholism, and I consciously avoided them. Occasionally the barriers did break. Anything could trigger it if I wasn’t careful. It felt like a release, not to hold the gate closed anymore.
On one such night in my tiny studio, I drank beer left over from a party because it had been a long, hard day. I sat on my couch and thought of nothing but those cold bottles, dark brown and covered in mist, sitting in their cardboard container on the left side of my refrigerator. Those thoughts drowned out the evening news, and soon I found my heart beating faster and my mouth watering. I had spent all day fighting back senseless, frustrated tears, and in that moment, I gave in. The blue borders on the evening newscast were a blur, and I couldn’t even hear the anchor’s voice clearly as he described the latest murder across town. My blood pounded in my ears, and my feet found their way to the kitchen and the beer. Gripping the bottle in my left hand, I twisted the cap with my right and let my head tilt all the way back for a long drink. Half the bottle was gone when I turned to drop the cap in the trash in the corner. Something in my middle felt more stable now, and my feet seemed firmly rooted on the floor. Into beer two with no dinner, I was skimming the surface of life and felt free.
I thought I could be easily caught in this deception—answering phone calls, returning messages—but no one noticed. Maybe I sounded a little nervous and shy that night. Maybe they couldn’t tell the difference. How often could I do this? This was power—good power, and it was the power my mother had. I always admired her ability to answer the phone in a calm, friendly, sober voice after barely taking a breath from screaming at us in a slur. I used to listen, silent and amazed, as she changed gears in a blink. I thought that came with being a grown-up.
I became my mother with those drinks—thinking hard but not so hard to stay fully in reality. Fun and a bit funny, witty maybe and free. Isn’t this normal? It was every night for her. The worst part is that it felt so good—like all those social drinks but better. I am scared to have liked it that much.
And I am still scared, but now my house is not a closed unit, a place where I control everything. Losing control is dangerous, but I won’t, I don’t, I can’t. Or at least that is what I tell myself standing on the terracotta tile of my kitchen where the built-in, twelve-bottle wine rack requires a small stepladder to reach. I have to want one of those glossy, carefully tipped bottles of red or white enough to climb up there. Unfortunately, once I open a bottle and re-cork it to save the rest, it is eye-level, counter-height, waiting for me.
I would like to say that Andrew and I open the wine together over dinner, but that isn’t always true. I still won’t drink alone, but I will often have a glass after dinner while he has a bourbon. Sometimes two. The quick pop of the cork sliding out loosens a muscle between my shoulder blades, and as I watch the liquid swirl into the conical bottom of my wine glass, I hear what I know is the pour but always sounds more a forest stream or the peaceful role of a fountain. It whispers of relaxation. Or at least that is what I hear in its call. And that is when I know I am my mother’s daughter and ask again all the horrible questions about her turn, about the good, sober mother I didn’t know had ever existed, and what I am left with as a result. My craving confesses for me that I seek alcohol as my mother sought it: for comfort. Sometimes I fool myself into believing that it is all just the sensual experience—the taste, feel, smell of wine rather than cheap, domestic beer. But on the nights when I consider glass number three—or actually have it—I know how carefully I am walking a dangerous line and how short my mother’s fall must have been.
THE STORY BEHIND THE PIECE
This piece began near ten years ago in a creative nonfiction workshop while I was an MFA student at American University. Its first incarnation is not this one, but that first writing was drawn from scraps and notes and pieces written in various notebooks over many years. One section even came from my then-journal. I remember sitting down to type in pieces from my beloved green notebook, bought to differentiate the fiction from the non.
But the current version of this piece came in 2007at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. It was May and sunny, and I was writing every day in a place where writing is the work one goes to. A different life, to be sure, but in coming back to write about this for Redux, I realized that the present-tense of the essay, sent off to Under The Sun shortly after my return from the writer’s colony, is also a different life. For a nonfiction writer, it is strange and hard to greet the frozen moments of one’s history, crystallized in the voice and vision of a person you no longer are. That relationship is gone, that dog with the former significant other. I don’t want that life back; I left it willingly. However, it is strange to hear one’s own voice speaking in and for a self that is not you—or rather no longer you. This is the space where nonfiction rubs up against fiction: in the constructed self. Where is truth in this piece? Who is the woman who wrote it? And if she is not that woman, speaking in that voice, about that life, how can this piece still be “true”?
It’s a slippery term, to be sure, and I stand by this work because it was once true to me, was once a life a lived, and still holds truth that seems valuable beyond me. And perhaps coming back to it, seeing it again and not turning to it for revision, is also valuable to me.
ABOUT MONICA F. JACOBE
Monica F. Jacobe holds an MFA in creative writing, with a specialization in creative nonfiction, from American University and a Ph.D. in 20th-century American literature from The Catholic University of America. Having taught creative and academic writing for nearly a decade, she taught most recently in the writing program at Princeton University and is now Associate Director of the Institute for ESL and American Studies at The College of New Jersey. Monica has earned a number of fellowships to support her creative work, including from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Writers @ Work. “Pieces of Her” is drawn from a memoir manuscript that explores what it means to grow into womanhood without a female role model in twenty-first-century America. Other selections from it have appeared in Under the Sun, Del Sol Review, apt, Crosscut, The Ward Six Review, and R-KV-RY, among others. For more about Monica, please visit her website: http://www.monicafjacobe.com/.