My father gave me coffee for the first time when I was 3 months old. He put a drop of espresso in a tiny spoon; I tasted it and grimaced. He laughed. My mother screamed.
When I was a kid, even before Saturdays and Sundays meant no school, no schedule, and more sleep, weekend solace came in the form of a clunky, hand-operated, turn-of-the-century wooden coffee grinder. My dad would let me grind whole coffee beans in this monstrosity in the mornings. Feeling the rocky assemblage of beans change slowly into fine powder, the turning motion becoming smoother along the way, was as exhilarating as weekend activities got for me at age 4.
My mother and I would usually be awake before my dad was, and I’d anxiously wait for him to walk into the kitchen of our railroad apartment; making coffee was first thing on the agenda before the day could properly get started. I’d kneel on a chair to reach the coffee grinder on the kitchen table, my dad by my side. I loved seeing the fruits of my labor in the little box you'd pull out at the bottom, full of grounds, and catching him delight in how proud I was after completing such a menial task — even though he'd usually have to start it off, because my tiny arms weren’t strong enough to grind through the beans until they were already halfway broken up.
I'd watch Saturday morning cartoons and he'd make potent espresso in an old-fashioned little stovetop espresso maker. Even though I wasn’t actually drinking the results yet, or able to fully appreciate the ritual (and the pure necessity, as my body would later teach me) of a morning cup of coffee, I loved how the aroma of it would linger in our small apartment for hours.
I'd accompany my dad on weekend outings to local Italian cafés, trips that were always calming and a bit of a respite from our bustling, noisy apartment building. My dad, much unlike my mom, is introverted, distant, always seemingly in battle with the thoughts in his head — and not particularly skilled at initiating conversation, even at the time with his 5-year-old daughter. Those serene car rides, in motion through busy Brooklyn blocks, provided me with the newfound discovery of my own uninterrupted thoughts.
I loved sitting at the café for an hour or two, observant and patient, eating a pastry as my dad talked with the older men there in a language I couldn’t understand. As much as I sometimes wished I knew what was being said, I was generally content not to, because it provided an excuse to live in my own little world for those moments. When I was around 6 or 7, my forearm was lightly burned when a man let his lit cigarette dangle too close to me while my dad and I waited on line for a cannoli at one of his regular places. But I didn't mention it to my father, because the last thing I wanted was for him to make a scene and disrupt the tranquility of the moment.
Every so often my dad’s friends would bring their own children or grandchildren to the café and tell us to play. My social anxiety around kids my own age was difficult to mask; I preferred to pretend-play the illegal poker machines, no money inserted, like they were arcade games, or socialize with the cats one café owner kept in a room at the back. Sometimes I got to play with them for the whole time. Those visits were the best: just me, two cats, and the pervasive smell of coffee. (Our first house cat was actually the result of my successfully persuading my dad to take in a sprightly kitten the café owner needed to find a home for.)
I quickly developed an affinity for Manhattan Specials, the carbonated espresso beverage sold in most Brooklyn bodegas, though my parents would let me have only a few sips, lest child services rush to our door. With zero tolerance for caffeine, even a minuscule amount would give me a burst of energy like nothing I’d experienced before. And that was, well, addictive — as caffeine is wont to be. Before I’d even started high school, my love affair with coffee had been cemented, and it's one that my dad and I have shared consistently throughout my life.
As an adult, I’m unable to function properly without at least a (large) morning dose of coffee. I’m picky about the source: A cup from the corner bodega or of the watered-down Dunkin’ Donuts variety won’t do. Strength is key, flavor secondary. The necessity overshadows the comfort of the ritual; if I don’t get caffeine into my bloodstream within a few hours of waking up, violent headaches, irritability, and a general inability to focus ensue.
I’ve panicked in traveling situations where the nearest source of coffee is a trek away — or worse, unknown. This year, I spent my birthday in Costa Rica. Sitting on a café balcony, overlooking a postcard-worthy view of the palm tree–studded beach and sipping a cup of some of the best coffee I’ve ever had in my life (black, no sugar), was the most memorable part of the day.
I’ve never seen my father express much vulnerability — or strong emotion at all, really. I’ve heard that he broke down when my grandfather (his father-in-law) died, but I was just a toddler at the time. We’ve also never expressed a lot of direct affection; I can count the times we’ve said “I love you” to each other on both hands (though this is not exclusive to my dad — my parents and I aren’t the type to sign off a phone call with those three words). I don’t think I’ve ever heard “I’m proud of you” come out of my dad’s mouth. Instead, that pride has always been implied through secondhand stories from family, friends, and co-workers of my dad who’ve heard, in painstaking depth, about my latest accomplishments.
I’ve heard stories of similar behavior from friends who also have immigrant parents, but coupled with my dad’s natural tendency to be reserved and awkwardly sarcastic in social situations, it’s always been difficult for me to break through his wall. I’m usually met with stoicism — or a snap judgment, as a byproduct of his sometimes fiery temper. This is a man who refused to dance with his only child at her Sweet 16 party for more than a few bars of a song, for fear of looking silly, or cheesy. Or maybe something else entirely stopped him, but I wouldn’t know; we never talked about it.
When I was a teenager, I went to Italy with my dad to visit his hometown of Palermo, in Sicily. This was before Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, and so aside from a few disposable-camera photos I took, whose whereabouts are currently unknown, I have very few sharp recollections of the details. One of the clearest is the overwhelming moment of meeting all of my extended family there for the first time, and seeing tears stream down my dad’s face at the airport, reuniting after nearly 25 years with relatives I vaguely recognized from faded pictures from the ’70s. I remember feeling, more than seeing or doing anything in particular.
What I do remember with precision, however, is how amazing that Italian coffee was. Every day of the trip, I spent mornings with my dad getting espresso and a pastry (the quintessential Sicilian breakfast). We would people-watch and stray cat- and dog-watch, as he explained to me what unfamiliar Italian words on the menu meant. We stayed with family and ended three-hour-long dinners with espresso so strong it kept me and my cousins up for three more hours, playing games of “Come si dice...?” (“How do you say...?”) to teach one another foreign words.
Until last fall, I’d been living in my parents’ house for several years, before I’d saved up enough to get my own place. For a while we shared a kitchen, in which, much like during my teenage and younger-adult years, my dad and I would often meet up at a designated time on weekends. If only for a few brief moments, coffee gave us a reason to communicate, and to do it easily — to talk about whether this roast was more bitter than that one, to ask if I wanted my parents to pick up anything from their afternoon trip to Costco, or to bring up home improvements in the works.
When I’d fully moved into their upstairs apartment, with a kitchen of my own, I generally kept the front door unlocked. And my dad always made sure to keep my fridge stocked with coffee — a move that might seem mundane to most, but given our terse dynamic, it meant volumes more to me.
Waking up on weekends to a surprise container of fresh, strong iced coffee was a delightful way to kick off even the days set aside for doing work and banal errands. Even now, whenever I stop by (I’m only a 10-minute walk away, so visits are frequent), more often than not he makes sure I leave with a bag of coffee beans. Some people hug to show their affection; my dad hands me coffee in various forms.
I got my first tattoo when I was 17. I was a senior in high school with a blue spider on my hip. My mom threatened laser removal; my dad didn't talk to me for a few days. Then, to apologize for his cold and distant behavior, he bought me a stuffed animal that he tossed my way on a car ride to school, without commentary. I continued to get tattoos; he continued to think the menagerie of designs on my skin were stupid.
In my early twenties, I thought I would get a tattoo in homage to him — maybe, subconsciously, to seek a little bit of validation for my newfound colorful hobby. It's an itty-bitty old-fashioned stovetop espresso maker next to a cup of coffee, on my upper ribcage. I once casually mentioned to my dad that it was for him; I still don’t know if he realizes its significance in terms of our relationship, and I’m pretty sure he still thinks it’s stupid. But it’s one of my favorites, a tiny reflection of my family and my childhood and my heritage, from Italy to Brooklyn. And, of course, a reminder of how few things compare to a perfect cup of coffee, especially in the company of people you love.
On weekends spent at home, I make my own coffee now, grinding beans from my dad in a coffee grinder that’s also from him. It’s compact, smooth, and electric, nothing like the old cumbersome manual one (thank god), but the jolt of excitement I felt every weekend nearly 30 years ago remains. Only this time, I’m making a pot all to myself, doing it the way he taught me, looking forward to my own quiet afternoon.