October 09 2020
It wasn’t until I was older that I began to appreciate the way things settled just before breakfast and just after that first cup of coffee.
Mornings in their house have been, and always will be, a tradition of sorts. Most of us, myself included, are fighting through one too many toddy’s from the night before. But the smell of coffee and drift of voices is always enough to get me moving.
I love the feeling of walking up the basement stairs and getting that first brush of cold air from the open porch door. In Virginia it’s in the high 90’s with humidity in mid-August, but here in Northern Michigan it’s a cool morning at 65. And that coolness on the skin; it’s lovely.
The group gathers on the porch. My parents, my two uncles, my two sisters, my one cousin because the other is still asleep (and will be for some time), my grandparents, all tucked into the small space in a round robin fashion with chairs dragged in from the dining room. Each has a cup of coffee in hand, and no one mug is alike. One sports an old comic on its side, one the words, “Best Boss,” another a photo of myself and my two sisters, sent as a Christmas gift five years ago. That one I always cringe at.
Like a little curse, I’m always the one to finish the coffee pot by the time I go to pour my first cup. So I make a new one, offer a snide remark that someone only left a little in the pot and set me up, and pull a chair from the dining room to join the group on the porch.
The porch is old wood, screened in, jutting out over a fall-away of trees and bramble. You can see clear through the top of the woods, a falling-away green expanse that goes on for miles and miles as far as the eye can see. There are no tall buildings here. No man built things to poke through the lay of green. That, paired with the cool weather, is like a balm. It settles somewhere deep inside me where the instinctual cravings live. Those ancient genes that crave things like homegrown gardens, walks that take you deep into nature, a stillness that comes over you when you see a deer from afar…
There is a shooting range buried within that green expanse, and so, in the early morning, we will hear the distant ring of shots. A man-made thunder that carries to us. In a way, it’s a heralding of stories. The sound will always start the conversation. And the conversation will always take us a step back into when this land and these people were younger. When things were different.
Gompa will pull out his tobacco pouch where it always sits in the front pocket of his short sleeve button down. The pipe will be clasped in his other hand. An old pipe, one of many that he has collected over the years. He will pack it, light it, and that earthy scent of good burning tobacco will softly fill the porch. It’s a smell I still love after so many years. A gentle smell, and one that only fills the space every so often as he slowly and periodically puffs.
“Did I ever tell you about the time,” he will start.
And then Sadie, their five year old German short-haired pointer, will bound into the porch, someone's sock in mouth, and distract us all. The best times are when it isn’t a sock, but rather a pair of underwear. Unless it’s yours.
“In any event,” he’ll say, finally having pulled the article of clothing from her mouth. And then the story will come.
I didn’t used to listen to them when I was younger, the stories. It’s a child's prerogative to be more easily distracted by the dog running about, or the birds dancing from feeder to feeder that line the outer deck, or to nab on to the parents in between silences about when we will be leaving for the lake.
But I’m not a child anymore, and I love the stories. It makes me appreciate how deeply, thoroughly, and totally things have changed. He lived in a time that I’ve never known, and will never know. The open fields of rural Michigan. And through his stories, and my own drives past the miles and miles of farm fields to the Lake’s shore, I can see pieces of it. That time. And I know it’s a gift now, and one that I hope to keep receiving.