Captain Stemkowski: Don't drink my coffee from my cup, Jilette!
—No Mercy (1986)
I just got back from a whirlwind trip to Florida. My uncle died last week, and his memorial service was scheduled for this past Saturday, so Wife and I made our plans, got in the car and headed south on Thursday evening. We left Baltimore at about 6:30 and stopped in Manning, South Carolina at about 3:00 AM Friday, where we crashed in a motel for about six hours, then had breakfast and hit the road again. There was a pretty bad accident on I-95 that stopped traffic somewhere in the realm of Ridgeland. We were maybe a hundred yards back from the accident so it was pretty easy for us to see the helicopter land on the highway and then fly right out again. They don’t waste time when that bird is on the ground, I guess. At any rate, we managed to get to my mother’s place in Port Richey by 6:30, almost exactly twenty-four hours after we left home.
I got re-acquainted with my cousins, one of whom I hadn’t seen in literally years, and introduced my wife to them, and the tone was as merry that night as it was somber the next day. I’m starting to turn into a go-to guy when it comes to saying stuff at funerals, so I prepared something on Saturday morning and—because my brother’s printer didn’t have any ink in it—I saved it to Microsoft One Note and read it off my tablet instead.
But I’m not going to tell you anything about my uncle, or his memorial service, or anything else I might have done in Florida (which wasn’t much, really). I’m here to vent about the Mug Protocols.
This actually started…oh my gosh, about twenty years ago. I was staying at my grandmother’s house, and we’d just returned from a restaurant. Everyone was in the mood for some coffee, but I’m a tea drinker. So I put the kettle on for tea and started up the coffee maker. The hot water was ready first, so I grabbed a mug from the little mug tree that my grandmother had on the counter, put the tea bag into it and poured the hot water in.
A minute later there was some murmuring over what I’d done. Apparently I’d grabbed the “wrong” mug. I looked at it again: it was just some mug, the first one I saw on the mug tree. It was a giveaway from Duval Federal Credit Union, and it read “Duval Federal, You’re Incredible!” on one side. It’s possible that they think this phrase has an internal rhyme to it; I don’t really know. What I do know is that I’d inadvertently taken my stepfather’s traditional coffee mug and soiled it with my tea. After some questioning I discovered that everyone in the house had a mug that was “theirs”. Most of them didn’t even live there, but that was no matter. So every time I made a cup of tea, I’d check with everyone to ensure that I was using an unclaimed mug. This was the beginning of the Mug Protocols.
At some point, while I was down there (back then), I was in a dollar store and I spotted a Christmas-themed latte mug. I wanted a Christmas mug for school, so I picked it up and took it back to my grandmother’s, fully intending to take it home at the end of the visit. As frequently happens to me, I neglected to bring it home with me, so my grandmother just put it away in the cabinet. The next time I came down, everyone made a point of noting that “my” mug was in the cabinet on the top shelf. By this time I’d completely forgotten about the mug, so I had no idea what they were talking about until I opened the cabinet and saw the Christmas mug up there. At the end of that trip I left the mug behind again, and again I forgot about it until my next visit. In the interim, though, they’d all got it totally ingrained into their heads that this was MY mug and nobody else was to use it. Once I left, my grandmother stashed it away until I came back.
Several years later, my grandmother decided that she was getting too old to live on her own, so she moved in with my mother. In order to do this, she had to divest herself of nearly everything in the house—furniture, bed linens, glassware, cookware, you name it. Whatever wasn’t getting sold or given away was going to go either into my grandmother’s bedroom in my mom’s house, or it was going into a storage locker. And those lockers fill up fast.
I actually managed to get a couple of things from this purge, but my one regret is that I didn’t get my grandmother’s cutting board. It wasn’t a genuine cutting board; it was actually a cut-out from a Formica countertop where they removed the piece of counter so they could put the sink in. It was a deep red (red countertop!), and was a rectangle with curved corners and a hole drilled through it, and then a cut from the hole to the edge. See, they’d drill the hole, and from there they’d use a jigsaw to cut the main hole in the counter. The picture at left is for an oval sink, but I think you get the idea. Either my grandfather or my uncle had rescued it from a construction site about a million years ago, and my grandmother took it and used it for a cutting board for years and years. And even all those years later, despite the abuse from thousands of knife cuts, the countertop/cutting board still looked pretty good. But I spoke up too late, and it was gone.
So the first Christmas after my grandmother moves in with my mom, and I’m there for dinner, and after dinner we’re going to have some kind of dessert and, of course, hot beverages, and I reach into the cabinet to pull out a mug for my tea. Of course, without even looking and the first mug I grab is Duval Federal. Nope, can’t use that one but I’ll leave it out for my stepfather. “How about this one? Can I use this one?” Yes, that one’s fine. Then my stepfather pipes up, “You know, your mug is in the other cabinet.”
“Oh, yeah!” my mother exclaims. “Look in that cabinet over there, on the top shelf.” The cabinet in question is actually on the opposite side of the kitchen. I open it up and there, on the top shelf, is “my” Christmas mug. They were all very pleased with themselves for saving that mug when they were getting rid of all my grandmother’s other stuff, and for holding it aside for my use.
But here’s the kicker: when I went down this past week to attend the memorial service, after Friday’s dinner I start pulling mugs out of the cabinet and I start asking “Is it OK to use this one? How about this one? After all, I don’t want to violate the Mug Protocols. Is there one designated as mine?” My brother says “Yeah, I’ve got your mug,” and shows me a souvenir Baltimore, Maryland mug that my mother bought about ten years ago when she was visiting. “You want it?”
“No, Brother, I really don’t care. I just don’t want to upset anyone with this mug business.” And that’s when it somehow turned into MY quirk, that I just had to have a certain mug or things could get ugly for everyone.
“You know,” my mother said, “your tall mug is still in the cabinet up there, if you want it.”
“No, Ma,” I said. “I’m not drinking out of a Christmas mug. I really don’t care what I drink out of, so long as it holds my tea. It’s you guys who get all up in arms if I use the wrong mug.”
They’re not hearing me, I think. I’m just going to have to continue to observe the Mug Protocols. Either that or quit drinking hot beverages when I’m in Florida.