Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sugar Lumps for Breakfast

I still miss my grandfather...

I woke up under thick blankets on a mattress in the corner of my grandparent’s room. The ceiling above my head was steeply pitched, made of plaster and lath like the walls and painted with a hard enamel paint that these days might be called sea foam, but in 1960s North Dakota we called light green. My grandmother Hazel was still asleep, but my grandfather Arvid had been up for a couple of hours. I could hear the percolator gurgling in the kitchen downstairs. The smell of coffee rose through the heat register, a metal grate that covered a square hole in the floor between the first and second levels of the house.

It was early June, the first morning of my summer at our grandparent’s farm in the Red River Valley. I can’t tell you what year it was; they were all the same sort of perfect. The tidy two story white house was small and precisely square, no taller than it was wide. It had been built in the early 1930s for $900 and had been home to my grandparents, three uncles, and my mother. I’m told that when my mother was a young girl the schoolmistress hired to teach at the local one room school house also lived there.

The door to the shanty opened and closed. There were footfalls on the three steps up to the main level. The main door swung open and was closed again with a creak. Someone opened the refrigerator. Then I heard the door close with a thump and the Frigidaire’s latch clicked. That meant Grandpa had finished his morning chores and the day’s milk was in the fridge. My grandfather milked a dozen head of Holsteins every morning and evening. A gallon a day fed the household. The rest was poured into burnished steel milk cans which were manhandled into the water trough to be kept cool until the dairy man came by to collect the surplus milk.

I could hear my father talking quietly with Grandpa as they sipped their coffee and smoked cigarettes. My father didn’t get to stay the whole summer like we did. Having delivered us to The Farm he would soon have to go back to The Cities. He was a grade school principal and he had to run summer school. The bedroom windows were open a crack and a still coolness crept in with the sunlight. In the distance I could hear a tractor coming up the half mile driveway from the road. That’s how you can tell old farms from new ones. In the days of horse drawn farm equipment the farmstead was located at the center the farm. The tractor would be driven by my uncle Norlyn, who lived with my aunt Phyllis on the original Solberg farm two miles away. Norlyn was the strongest man I’d ever met. He had a grip like a vise, muscles like steel cables, a crew cut, and a quick smile.

I got dressed and ran down the stairs of darkly stained wood. The kitchen was small, built of the sort of pre-fabricated steel cabinets a person used to mail order from Sears or Montgomery Ward. You could have any color you wanted as long as it was white enamel with chrome handles and accents. This cozy quarter of the ground floor contained a fridge, stove, sink, and a small table at which four adults could just fit. Family meals were eaten in the dining room.

Norlyn was pouring himself a cup of coffee when I got downstairs. The morning sun poured in through the two windows that faced east, illuminating lazy curls of cigarette smoke. There was just enough room for me, my dad, my uncle, and my grandfather in the kitchen. I grabbed a green melamine cereal bowl from the cupboard and filled it with Cheerios. I weaved my way between the men to the refrigerator and took out the pink anodized aluminum pitcher. In it the raw milk had already separated. The skim milk, watery and white, with the palest tinge of blue, was for later. This was breakfast so I spooned the heavy cream on top of my cereal then put the pitcher back. The cream was so thick I had to stab it with my spoon to wet my cereal. On the table I found the sugar bowl made of green “depression glass” which in our family meant it was actually used during The Depression. One, two, three spoonfuls of sugar topped my morning meal. Dad and Grandpa sat. Norlyn stood by the stove so I’d have room to sit at the table. The men talked about sports, grain prices, politics, and the plans for the day. My brother Steve, who was a year younger than me, would join me soon enough. Our sister Kathy, four years younger than Steve, would get up later when Mom and Grandma did. I ate my breakfast content and smiling.

My cereal consumed, I slurped the sugary cream then finished off the gritty sugar sludge in the bottom of the bowl. It was time for the special treat we could get only at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. There was always a pink and white cardboard box of Crystal Brand sugar cubes on the table next to the sugar bowl and the ash tray. Grandpa let us dip a sugar lump in his coffee. Then we’d suck the sweet coffee from the cube as it dissolved between our lips. I hadn’t done this trick since Christmas and held the cube in his coffee too long. It collapsed under my fingertips and disappeared into his cup. He smiled and let me keep trying until I was successful. He smiled at the men, sipped from the cup, and shook his head a little. Grandpa took his coffee black, no sugar.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you linked this to your colloquium, what a beautiful piece and honoring tribute to your grandfather. I was honored to share your colloquium day with you. Theresa