I started drinking coffee for one reason – to have special time with Mom in the morning, time to sit together, drink coffee, and share stories before Dad and others joined us for breakfast. I recall when my older sister, Bev, had that special time with Mom in our family home in Wapakoneta, Ohio, when I was a youngster. Although Bev (13 years older than I) didn’t drink coffee, she appeared to be an honored guest at the table when Mom drank her coffee. And even though I wasn’t privy to their conversations, it was clear to me that they were sharing secrets and important things and things meant for two. The sun came through the kitchen window and lit up their faces with all manner of expressions. I wanted to be included.
That desire passed when I was in high school, too tired and focused on myself and my studies to do anything more than get out of bed at the final minute every morning, get dressed, and grab a fried egg sandwich Mom had at the ready for me as I hurried off to school. Besides, my personal interactions with Mom when I was a teenager were in the evenings when she recited poems to me or introduced me to a novel or writer she thought I would like. Evenings were not coffee time. In my 20s, though, the desire to join my mother in her morning coffee ritual returned.
One day at The Lake (Lake Isabella, Wofford Heights, California), I got up early to try my first cup of coffee so that I could participate in the ritual and bond more closely with my mother. Right out of bed, it required that I go against my natural rhythms and arise before 8 a.m., something like 6 a.m. or even earlier. Mom was an early riser, often up before 5 a.m. because she couldn’t sleep. Joining her for coffee would require effort and commitment, I knew. From that day forward, the smell of coffee brewing would awaken me and I would join her for a full cup and a warmup or refill.
Some of my fondest memories with my mother are around those morning coffee chats. She was forthcoming and intimate in her storytelling, relaxed and comfortable, navigating memories and dreams, the remains of yesterday and the beginnings of today. She listened to my self-absorbed ramblings and gently reassured me that all was well and that I had all I needed to resolve what needed resolving, all without ever telling me what to do. She was remarkable that way.
I remember when she visited me in my Portland, Oregon, home after Dad died. I took her into Northwest Portland for a day of walking, talking, people-watching, and sightseeing. We stopped for coffee at Starbucks on NW 23rd and sat outside at a little table. That was before Starbucks shifted direction and added smoothies, breakfast sandwiches, and lunch boxes. In the early 2000s there were no hot ovens positioned next to the Clover coffee machines that pressed fine coffees. Starbucks was about coffee and people then. Mom loved it. While she did enjoy her specialty coffee, she most enjoyed the setting and the people-watching. We sat there a long time, happy together.
From that day on, I regularly gifted her with a Starbucks coffee card, usually at Christmastime – a stocking stuffer from across the miles – to cover our coffee treats when I visited her during warmer seasons in her home in Wofford Heights and later in her apartment at Glenwood Gardens in Bakersfield, California. We frequented Starbucks cafes housed in Barnes & Noble bookstores, in malls, and on street corners.
We drank a lot of coffee together, Mom and I. Starbucks, Mimi’s Cafe, Cheryl’s Diner, Dam Korner, Coffee Mill Cafe, Ewings on the Kern – all served up a good cup, and most offered free refills. We shared our lives over coffee and books, coffee and scones, coffee and breakfast, coffee and lunch, coffee and pie, coffee and conversation.
While we didn’t always have the most easy-going intimacy, we did share many of the same mannerisms, expressions, viewpoints, anxieties, and a habit of avoiding things that worried us most. Each of us at times slipped quietly into our solitary places – turning inward, sipping our coffee, staring into a memory or a dream or a thought – and just as quietly slipped back into our shared awareness, happy to be together. My mother had a measure of grace and faith that strengthened and steadied her, and she became immeasurably more comfortable as time went on to share personal stories about her life and perspective and the times we lived in.
After Mom died, among her things I found the last Starbucks card I had given her. I still carry that card. While my taste for coffee has diversified, I go to Starbucks occasionally and keep the card filled. With each use, I think of her and our cherished coffee chats. Every once in awhile a barista will gaze at the card, comment that they’ve never seen that design before, or say something like, “That’s an oldie.” There’s my opening to tell a story about Mom and how I came to have this treasured refillable card. Some stories are worth telling and retelling.
May every sip bring peace. May every cup be refillable.
Composed July 16, 2017 and updated May 12, 2018 – In remembrance of my mother, Virginia Helen Bruner Kuck (August 22, 1920 – December 22, 2009)