Some of my earliest memories – the misty, water-colored ones just like in the song – are about coffee. I remember the smell of it, puffing out from behind the counter of a busy diner as waitresses bustled about refilling cups and setting down plates of pie a la mode while I swung my little legs against a cracked vinyl seat in the corner booth my family always sat in. My father drank black coffee with every meal, and to this day, the scent of it conjures his presence.
I was an adult before I realized that people hate “coffee breath.” I didn’t even know that was a thing. My father breathed coffee into my hair when he hugged me, like a benediction. He came of age in the 40s and 50s, when everyone smoked and chugged coffee by the gallon. When we had guests, my mother brought out a big tin coffee urn that she’d plug in next to a folding table covered with a tablecloth that looked like linen but was in fact plastic, for easy cleaning. She’d set out trays of steamed pork buns (manapua, we call them in Hawaii), Jell-O salad, chips and dip – our standards for entertaining. My sister and I could have anything we liked off the table, but the coffee was for grownups. I had no idea what it tasted like, but I was determined that someday, I would drink that stuff. I had an idea that it conferred status or bestowed wisdom like the kava I’d read about in my Hawaiian folktale picture books. Coffee was laughter and people “talking story” after the dinner dishes were cleared and the dessert was served. It was a special treat when someone would spoon a little into my ice cream dish.
When I got old enough to sneak across the street from my middle school to the McDonald’s on the corner in the morning before classes, coffee was illicit pleasure. The other girls were busy rolling the waistbands of their Catholic school uniform skirts to make them shorter and applying lipstick in the bathroom. Me? I was sipping a hot cup of java (heavily doctored with cream and sugar) and munching an Egg McMuffin, my head stuck in fantasy novel. I felt very adult. (I don’t care what anyone says – I still love the way a McDonald’s smells at breakfast time. Fight me.)
By high school, I was an experienced coffee drinker. My fellow nerds and I discovered that we could fill our cups at the teachers’ coffee station on the other side of the dining hall and it looked like we had chocolate milk. Obviously, this was before Starbucks changed everything – these young whippersnappers today don’t know the struggle. We had to WORK for our caffeine fix, and we needed it for those late-night study sessions or long hours spent researching debate topics at the college library. Vending machine coffee and sandwiches sealed in plastic triangle containers were our staple diet. College was a caffeinated haze.
I’ve had a lifelong love affair with coffee, but you probably can’t call me an aficionado because I am indiscriminate with my affections. I appreciate a carefully selected coffee roast, and I think a skillful barista is a treasure. But I won’t turn my nose up at a cup of Folger’s or a paper cup of hospital cafeteria joe. Coffee is in my DNA, woven into my history.
These days, coffee is as much an experience as it is a comfort beverage. It’s a quiet, solitary cup while I write, a hand-warmer at an early morning soccer game, or social time with friends. And if I find myself in a mom ‘n pop diner, I’ll probably order a slice of lemon meringue or Dutch apple pie to go with my coffee, just like my dad would have.