Firsts and Lasts

I was eleven when I drank my first coffee-infused beverage.  Even at my current age (a brazened twenty-one) I know that eleven is too young for coffee.  But, still, I wanted one so badly.  We all grow up too fast.

My mother made the cases against me constantly: I was too young to drink coffee, it would stunt my already doomed growth, we didn’t have money for coffee, it tastes bad anyway—she had a lot of supporting evidence.  I only had a craving and whiney eleven-year old girl voice.  Sometimes that’s enough.

I picked out the location: a Starbucks right at the center of my town.  The building was close enough to the beach that there was sand in the crevices on the sidewalk, and it was perfectly wedged between Long Beach Public Library and City Hall.  The bus stop let my mother and I out just outside of the door; for the first time in my life I didn’t even read that “Specials” sign; I walked straight into the Starbucks and right to the end of the line.  And I waited.

Every now and then when I’m enjoying a cup of plain-old hot coffee with milk (and sugar if I’m feeling in for a treat) I think of how excited I was to taste that first coffee… if you can call it a coffee at all.  I think of the grin that must have been on my face as I placed my order.

“I’d like one tall mocha Frappuccino with whip cream, please,” I said.

I still remember the wide grin on the barista’s face as she entered my order into the cash register.  I remember the way the barista glanced at my mother standing behind me, standing over me, and laughed.  For once my pre-teen blues didn’t kick in; I didn’t care that she thought I was a little kid.  I was getting to drink coffee for the first time ever and nothing was going to rain on my parade.

I left my mother to pay for the drink and went straight to the pick-up counter.  I picked out my straw and unwrapped it and I waited.  And I waited.  And I waited.  Until finally, finally another barista called out my order, and I snatched the cup up, laughing because someone had drawn a smiley face on the side of it.  I took that first sip—and I remember exactly the way that icy, sweet, bitter drink felt as I gulped it down.  I didn’t even get a brain freeze.

I offered my mother some of the drink while we walked home the fifteen blocks or so to our apartment.   She drank some—more than I wanted her to, but I reminded myself that sharing was a good thing.  She told me it was her first Frappuccino too, and somehow that made us feel really even.  Like we were growing together.

We were.  Now, at twenty-one, I know that for a fact.  It’s an aspect of mother-daughter relationships that neither party likes to address.  There’s no handbook; there’s no manual; there’s no college class; there’s no yellow-brick road.  Mothers and daughters are always growing, always learning, always loving, and always trying to find their footing, to understand each other…

Years later—maybe I was fifteen or sixteen—my mother revealed to me that while I was ordering my first coffee at that legendary Starbucks counter, she had been mouthing the word “decaf” behind me to the barista.  I laughed when she told me, but mostly because I remember being so hyper that day.  When I tell her that she tells me, “Ginny, you were so hyper every day.”  I laugh again.

What she doesn’t tell me about that, and what I can surmise based on experience, is that we didn’t have enough money to take the bus home, and my mother took the bus to the middle of town with me that day to buy me an overpriced coffee she couldn’t afford, and then she walked over a mile to take me home.

It’s true: mothers have done more extraordinary things.  And honestly, I’m not sure why this memory comes back to me so often, like it has on this morning:

I’m sitting by my mother’s bedside in Hospice.  I no longer feel I am a child.  After all, I’ve already finished three fully-caffeinated coffees from the hospital cafeteria…

It’s true: I have come a long way from Long Beach, New York.  Inside and out I am a different person than the one who ordered her first Frapp with the biggest grin on her face, than the girl who walks home because she can’t afford a bus, than the girl who sat on the couch with her mother and reminisced the old days…

The only thing that keeps my mother from moving is placing her hands in between my own.  I am so afraid that she will die right there, that my hands will feel hers go cold.  But I can’t bear to see her to try get up and go home one more time.  I can’t bear to think about her home—the one I left after the custody switch.  I can’t really bear to think.

She can, though.  She tells me with a dangerous slur that I have to laugh.  She tells me I’m going to be okay.  She hushes me when I cry.  She is only fifty-one.  I try to imagine what kind of experiences I could have in the next thirty years that would give me enough wisdom to calm my daughter at my death-bed.  I end up deciding I will never be that strong.

But when she dies, and every single person who hugs me ends up breaking down in my arms, this is when I finally begin to understand my mother.  One week before the memorial my mother was comforting me—and in that small week I managed to learn how she summoned that courage.  It seems a little like sharing a first Frappuccino, learning about that bitter-sweet taste of things, and walking a mile just to get home.

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