Patrick McConville

A Cup of Coffee

by Patrick McConville

She was a poor woman and an eccentric. We called her “the goat lady” because she had had a small herd of goats. The goats were gone now but that is another story.

I stopped in to see Norma, who was living alone on the family farm. The house was a classic clapboard pioneer home with the original wainscoting and the hardwood floors, which were still intact and well-maintained.

This was in the 1970s, and electricity had not yet come to “the end of the road.” With the exception of a black dial wall telephone, the house was an anachronism from the 1930s.

Norma’s welcome was genuine and profuse. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” she asked.

“Yes,” said I, almost adding, “if it’s not too much trouble.” But I hadn’t quite gotten those words out before she disappeared to the back kitchen where she proceeded to shout pleasantries between the whacks of a splitting axe.

She reappeared with an armful of kindling and fired up the wood stove, a Findly Oval, if my memory serves me right.

She chatted away like the hermit she was—used to talking to herself and her goats.

She talked about her goats, and I grieved with her as she mourned their loss. The goats had been intimate companions “since Pa died nine years back.”

When she slipped out the door again to pump a kettle full of “fresh water,” I took a look at my watch. When I saw the time, I rolled back my eyes and almost regretted stopping in.

I watched Norma through the kitchen lattice as she rocked with practiced vigour over the cast iron pump, which was pouring out its water.

She bustled back into the kitchen and merrily plopped the dripping kettle on the wood stove. The stove top hissed like a cat. Then when the dripping water had dried, the kettle settled down and purred.

By now, I had abandoned myself to Norma’s presence; I stopped watching the slowly heating kettle and checking my watch.

A black hand grinder materialized and Norma clamped it on the wood table. Then with the sweeping gesture of an opera singer, she waltzed to the cupboard over a retired ice box and said, “This is the one luxury I allow myself.”

Then rattling a mason jar, she confessed, “Three varieties of coffee beans. I get them every couple of months from a speciality shop in Ottawa.”

Then ignoring me for the moment, she began talking to the coffee grinder which grumbled in reply.

When Norma turned back to me, an aroma the like of which cannot be put into words suddenly filled the room.

She made the coffee, and we drank it.

Norma was battling cancer. When she had to stay in the hospital, I visited her a few times.

Months later, I attended her funeral. In her will, she had asked “to be piped out with Amazing Grace.” Hearing that song that day was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life.

And the coffee she gave me that day I visited her in her kitchen was the best coffee I have ever had.