She would sit at the Arborite kitchen table in a housedress, beaming at me while drinking coffee from a chipped mug. We would share stories and laugh together.
Then, during the final months of her life, because of her health, she was not allowed any coffee. She told my dad, “When I get to heaven, the first thing I’ll do is ask for a cup of coffee!”
“Mary,” Dad smiled, “I’m sure they’ll have much better drinks up there.”
Mother died during a frigid February, so cold they read the graveside service in the church so no one still living would get frostbite. At the cemetery, after the coffin was lowered, I felt guilty leaving Mother there alone while the rest of us went back inside for coffee. It didn’t seem right. I hoped that at least she was now getting all the coffee she wanted!
Since then, although I miss the connection with my mom, I haven’t visited the cemetery very often. I don’t really have an idea of what to do there. Do I talk? Or pray? Do I bring flowers?
As a lifelong Mennonite, I wonder how to relate to departed loved ones. I know we think differently about our dead than do other religious groups, many of whom tend beautifully decorated gravesites. I can’t recall ever seeing a book or hearing a sermon on Anabaptist cemetery protocol. It seems we avoid the topic.
I suppose it’s a carry-over from the 1500s, when the Reformers became quite upset about the doctrine of purgatory. The conflict spread to cemeteries. Reformers were incensed over certain epitaphs on gravestones that implied a belief in purgatory, such as “God pardon his soul.” At night, zealous Protestants would vandalize Catholic cemeteries, disfiguring or tearing down gravestones whose epitaphs offended them.
It’s embarrassing to have that kind of aggressiveness in my ancestors. Their influence must still linger, though, because I have this strange uneasiness about the cemetery.
Then one spring day, I was on my way out of Winnipeg after picking up a fresh coffee. The road passed by the cemetery where my mother is buried. I had no plan to stop there that day until, sipping from the paper cup, I remembered how Mother loved coffee. She would have enjoyed my drink – a large coffee with cream.
On impulse, I made a U-turn and drove into the cemetery grounds. The air was fresh with spring rains and the ground spongy.
I found the headstone: Mary Schmidt. Under her name, this phrase was engraved: “With the Lord.” The strongest of all Protestant epitaphs! Was the rivalry still going on?
Coffee in hand, I stood staring downward, remembering laughing together at the kitchen table while she drank from her favourite mug.
Then I had an idea!
First, I looked around and saw no one. Good, I thought. No one to think I’m loony. Then, lifting the cup in a toast, I said out loud, “Mom, you loved coffee. Maybe you still do or, maybe like Dad said, they have much better drinks up there. Anyway, rather than flowers – I’m sharing my coffee with you today.”
Then I slowly poured it out near my mother’s headstone. I added with a chuckle, “Here’s a fresh coffee for you, Mom.”
I left with an empty cup but satisfied, feeling close to my mom again. We had shared a cup of coffee with a laugh.