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The A to Z's of Teenagers: C Is for Coffee

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My mother made espresso at home with a little stovetop Melitta she bought at the local Italian deli. She drank it in a demitasse with a curl of lemon rind, to cut the bitterness she said. I thought this was impossibly chic and oh-so-European—an opinion that would have pleased my mother (a talented, creative, frustrated suburban housewife) had I told her. But I was a young teen, making the transition from sweet thing to snark mouth, and I wasn't about to give the woman a break.

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I will say that some of the best moments we had together—and good moments were increasingly hard to come by as I moved through my high school years—were the afternoons we sat across from each other at the kitchen table drinking black-as-tar espressos from those demitasse cups. The coffee was thick and bitter, virtually undrinkable to a palate accustomed to root beer and Ding Dongs.

I hated it. But I loved drinking it—the idea of drinking it, the idea that my mother let me drink it. Which to me was so much more adult than, say, drinking alcohol. Any kid could go to the kind of party she wasn't supposed to and drink cheap booze. But drinking espresso was an art. It was sophisticated. You drank espresso in hole-in the-wall cafés and Italian restaurants. (This was pre-Starbucks.) You drank espresso and talked literature. My mother, in allowing me entrée into the espresso-drinking world, opened the doors to the kind of adulthood I imagined for myself.

The counter girls and the baristas knew us by name and knew our drinks.

I wasn't consciously trying to re-create this experience for my daughter, but I do know that some of the best times we had during some of the worst times we had were when we met for lattes at what became our local hang-out, Supreme Bean. She'd walk there after school—a big plus for her, as she didn’t have to suffer the indignity of being picked up in front of the school by her mother—and I'd meet her. The place was also my unofficial office. I conducted interviews there, had meetings, even wrote a little. The counter girls and the baristas knew us by name and knew our drinks. How thrilling is it, at 13, to be a regular at a café?

In those dark days of Lizzie's mid-teenhood, when we rode an emotional rollercoaster that almost did me in (and would have, had I not made it into a book—My Teenage Werewolf: a Mother, A Daughter, A Journey through the Thicket of Adolescence), it seemed as if the only times we stopped squaring off against each other, the only times we weren't busy spoiling for a fight, was when we were sitting across the little table at Supreme Bean sipping our coffee drinks. So C is for coffee, the bean that binds, across generations.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

Here I am sitting across from my mom at our Italian-vibe coffee hang-out. I'm drinking my usual white mocha. She's enjoying her usual—which I have memorized from years of ordering for her—12 oz. nonfat extra-hot latte. Sometimes, when she's being really adventurous, I can get her to drink a latte with sugar-free hazelnut syrup.

I guess coffee was a big "I'm an adult" thing for my mom. Not so for me. Kids I know have been drinking coffee since middle school. They would bring venti frappuccinos into school and walk down the hallways all full of attitude and caffeine and sugar—while I looked on enviously. But I figured I would have my coffee, paid for by my mother, if I could make it through another day of boring school.

So meeting for coffee after school is what we did. Not really so much in middle school (my dad was not a big fan of coffee for middle schoolers) but a lot of the time in high school. We had this plan where I would walk the half mile or so from my school to the place that used to be our hang-out and meet my mom. I loved the walk, even when it was raining. It was a great relief not to be stuck in a classroom. Plus, I didn't have to ride the school bus because, after our coffee, my mom drove me home. Not riding the school bus was a big plus, believe me.

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But the biggest plus was this time I had with my mom. That coffee place was neutral ground for us. We hardly ever got into the arguments we'd get into at home. Maybe it was because we were in public and we wanted to maintain our good image. I mean, there's a code about being in public. Maybe it was because my mom bought me the coffee, so I felt I had to be nice to her! Maybe I was just more relaxed because it was a place where I had to deal with only one parent. Which was kind of a relief, if you know what I mean. Whatever the reason, those coffee times were when we talked about everything that was important to me then. Like boys. And also boys.

Well, we just finished our coffees. And I have to tell you this: I paid for the drinks! And you know what? It made me feel proud, mature, responsible, empowered. Wow. That's a whole lot to say about a cup of coffee.

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