Coffee Ghost

white ceramic mug with coffee on brown wooden table

Photo credit: Annie Spratt via Upsplash

I dump the compacted coffee grounds from the basket of the stove top espresso maker into the compost and sweep my index finger in the metal basket to free the remaining grains. The day old coffee puck smells like an ashtray, and reminds me of my mother.


I used to lie in bed listening to the coffee percolator burble. I sniffed for the first whiff of coffee and singed tobacco tinged with freshly lit sulfur from a spent match. The signals. To be sure the moment was really right – that I could squeeze between an inhale, an exhale and a sip, when she would be happiest – I sang “Mary Had a Little Lamb” twice. And then I bubbled into the kitchen.  With an elbow propped on the counter, hand raised, mother gently held her cigarette. Beside her were an empty ashtray and a full cup of fresh coffee.

“I’ll make your cinnamon toast and vanilla milk in a minute. Just let me finish this first,” she said.


I press freshly ground beans into the espresso basket and set the Bialetti on the stove. Steam hisses from it as the water boils and rushes through the basket into the top compartment. At the kitchen table, I wait and look out at the chickadees gathering at the feeder. I wait for the day to pour open, liquid with possibility, for daylight, like cream swirling into coffee, to lighten the dark morning hours. I drink the quiet seconds before my children thunder into the kitchen.


Mid-afternoon my mother stopped time. In the living room, she gazed through the window to the harbour, waiting for Dad to come up the road from the fish plant where he worked. She waited with a full ashtray and a half cup of lukewarm coffee. I nestled into her, placing my fingertip into the pink cave of her longest fingernail – a small place I could hide and insert myself into her quiet time.

person holding cigarette near window

Photo credit: Bart Scholliers – Upsplash


41 thoughts on “Coffee Ghost

  1. Wonderful post! Reminded me… My adopted mom smoked and in the mornings had coffee but in the afternoon or evening had either wine or Ginger Ale. But always the cigarettes. My adopted dad smoked cigars and pipes. He had coffee in the am and then bourbon, beer or water with lemon in the afternoon/evenings. I don’t smoke (used to but quit) and in a mostly unused drawer I still have an ashtray that my adopted parents used during their last visit. I open the drawer and smell them… and remember the love.

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  2. I loved reading this. You bring back some very interesting memories for many, I think. We were not allowed to appear or speak before the second cup was all but consumed and the cigarette finished. Wow! Thank you for sharing this.

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  3. “a small place I could hide and insert myself into her quiet time.”💖
    When I was a child, occasionally I would be awake when my father rose before sunrise to get read to go to work and seeing the pinkish-red end of his freshly-lit cigarette in the darkness gave me a mysterious feeling.

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  4. Love this. I grew up in a household of smokers too. Whiffs of coffee combined with cigarette smoke brings me back to my childhood too, when life was simpler yet full of so much more possibility than now. Although I love how everything is smoke-free now, it IS hard to come across that scent combination and the memories it evokes today.


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  5. This line gave me chills: “I wait for the day to pour open, liquid with possibility, for daylight, like cream swirling into coffee, to lighten the dark morning hours.”

    I love that! This is such a great piece. So subtle and moving. 😀

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    • The idea came from a book called “Writing the Memoir” by Judith Barrington. She suggested taking something from your everyday life and using it to reflect on the past, moving backwards and forwards in time. I like how it worked out, too,

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