Friday, January 10, 2020

Coffee Cups and Mason Jars

Hey, boys, I think it's just us. 

So, I figure it this way: Young men, such as yourselves, don't want their parents' advice, especially from aged ones such as I; also, young men crave advice.  Clearly, the answer here is to give you some advice.


I'll start simply.  As you have no doubt noticed, everyone is walking around with water bottles and travel mugs these days.  It's cool, I get it, but, it hasn't always been like this.  In the sixties and seventies, when I was young, nobody carried a cup of coffee around or had a water bottle close by.  Yes, of course, people used canteens and such and there were buckets (literally buckets, with a ladle) of water at practices.  I remember seeing a farmer, Mr. Barnes, sitting under the shade of that one tree that always seemed to be in the middle of the field, and drinking water out of a Mason jar.  Folks used thermoses back in those days as well, usually full of strong, black coffee from the percolator and usually for a long car trip or a morning hunt or Spring planting.

I'll get back to those in a minute, but first a quick story.


We were walking, so it must have been when I was a freshman and Don was a sophomore.  We'd finished football practice - we were both on the Junior Varsity team - and, because we didn't have a ride, had walked to his house only a half-mile or so away.  He stopped to check on something in the garage, so I planned to knock and go on in as I usually did. 

The entrance that everyone used was off the back up a few steps and through a screen door into the kitchen.  I remember stopping on the little landing and looking in.  Mrs. M. was sitting at the Formica and chrome kitchen table, white green trimmed saucer in her hand sipping out of the matching cup.  She took a few sips and nestled the cup back into its little ring in the saucer but kept it in her hand, not setting it down.

Her gaze was towards the window above the big farm sink to my right.  She seemed still, calm, wistful somehow.  It may seem odd that I took the time to see her so, but here's the thing - I don't think I'd ever seen the woman sitting.  She was a busy housewife; five kids, mostly sporty boys, some grandparents lived there as well, as I recall.  She hung her laundry and cooked and made cookies and sandwiches and all that stuff.  I am only saying this to emphasize the fact that I don't think I'd even ever seen her still.

Looking back, I think that may be why I waited on that stoop, seeing her that way.  I didn't want to interrupt her reverie.  I heard Don coming my way, so I finally pushed open the screen door and walked on in.  I didn't startle her as I'd been afraid I might, she just looked my way and smiled in surprise that I wasn't her son.  She put down her cup and saucer after one last draining sip, she looked one last time out that window into the fading Autumn afternoon.

"Is everything alright, Mrs. M.?"

"Oh sure, Bill, I was just collecting my thoughts," she answered offhandedly.

Don burst into the kitchen laughing with an old hound behind him - he was a big, loud dude, Don, not the hound - and the dog's paws clicked and clacked on the linoleum floor and the stillness was gone.

She quickly got up and put her cup and saucer into the deep sink and asked if we'd like some sandwiches and set to work on them before we answered her.

"Collecting my thoughts."


Thermoses - you know, vacuum bottles, Thermos is a brand name - were lined with glass in those days so we treated them with respect.  There was a lid on the inner bottle which screwed on tight but there was also another lid which sort of half screwed half clicked onto the outer steel shell.  It was a cup.  One did not just glug out of them, you stopped what you were doing and carefully poured a few ounces into the lid and had that.  Sometimes, if you were in a car, the passenger did that for you, but, more often than not, you'd stop somewhere and have a cup or two, and collect your thoughts.

I can't remember where we were going but we were in a big-ass station wagon, me ensconced in the narrow storage well between the back seat and the reverse-facing back-back seat - I liked it there.  The windows were closed except for my Dad's "cozy wing" (look it up), which he used to ash the cigarettes he enjoyed while driving.  Maybe we were going to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving to see family friends, it occurs to me.  Dad lit a filtered Camel and asked my Mom for the last of the coffee.

I'd say we were well into the trip, my oldest brother, in front of me, was reading a cheap paperback science fiction novel and my other older brother was flopping about in the back-back seat trying to sleep.  I'd been watching the fields and barns and cows and power lines.  My mom grabbed the worn gray Thermos bottle off the long bench between them, clicked off the cup and unscrewed the lid.  She poured him a couple of sips, nearly upending the nearly empty bottle, and I remember the steam coming off the little stained stainless-steel cup.  The aroma of that dark black percolated Folgers mingled with the rich earthy smell of the Camel and I recall feeling good, safe, content.  My Mom asked Dad, as he passed back the cup if he was alright.

"I was just thinking, I guess," he said with a smile I could not see but somehow heard.

It was the same with Mr. Barnes in that field.  Down between his feet in a cardboard box, nestled into a wooden crate that was somehow affixed to the tractor, was his daily stash of jars.  They were in, of course, the box the jars had originally come in with little dividers, twelve I'd guess, and they were covered with a wet towel to keep them at least cool.  Of course, a man can't wrastle a tractor and a plow with one hand, so he had to stop and have his drink.

I was watching him from my perch in a tree we played in as boys, he was probably a football field away (a common measurement in the Midwest) and I couldn't really see his face but, it occurs to me now, I'll bet it held the same expression Mrs. M.'s had.  I could tell he was gazing into the distance; the field was plowed to where he was under that big tree, and he was looking towards the beige stubble of the unplowed half.  I'd guess, if one could have asked him what he was doing, he'd've answered "Collectin' my thoughts."

So, my advice isn't to not have a take-out coffee or drink from a water bottle, but, occasionally at least, do something that slows you down.  In a way, I think we all want to do it.  It's there in that moment you forgot that you were watching a baseball game on TV and are just staring at the pretty moving picture.  It's there when you wait in your car, engine running, to listen to the end of an old favorite song or symphony.  It's there watching a child sleep or a sun rise.  I know you recognize it in others, that wistful look on another's face.  A "faraway smile" you could say.  You've most likely had to get someone back from that place.  I've had to do it with you boys.  I see Marci do it - she'd usually smiling as she does, which is sweet.

I suppose, in truth, what I am talking about here is "mindfulness."  Yeah… no.  That makes it seem like a goal or a state of existence or a trance or something you need direction with.  As I said, it is something we all do, this "thought collecting."  What I am suggesting is simply to recognize your soul in it, your self.

If I were a man of faith (which I am) I might make one final observation (which I will).  As I look back on these moments - each serene, quiet, rich, even poignant - I sense something else.  I wonder if perhaps I saw it then, considering that I can so readily recall the details.  I wonder if I haven't always sensed it…

A prayer perhaps?

Peace, boys.

And to you kind reader, thanks for coming around.

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