My dad’s family is Greek and Italian, two cultures with coffee traditions dating back for centuries.
Greek coffee is strong. It is made in a special pot called a briki. A briki is a small copper pot. Fine ground coffee is placed in it. As the coffee boils, a foam forms at the top of the briki while the grounds settle to the bottom. Greek coffee is meant to be enjoyed slowly and savored.
Americans tend to be more familiar with Italian coffee, particularly espresso. (My daughter will be quick to correct you. “It’s espresso, not expresso!”) Espresso is also made with fine ground coffee, which is then combined with very hot water under pressure. This is what causes that characteristic hiss from an espresso machine.
But a cultural connection to coffee is not why I drink it, although it is amazing what you can find when you Google something.
My mother and grandmother drank coffee all my life. Well, actually my grandmother took a little coffee with her milk is a more accurate description.
But a family tradition is not why I drink coffee.
I drink my coffee decaffeinated and black with a spoon of local honey. (According to my doctor, the local honey can help with my allergies.) Since my coffee is decaffeinated, I do not drink it for an energy boost. Supposedly there are health benefits to coffee, but that’s not why I drink it. (I could just take the honey straight without the coffee.) And it certainly is not the taste! I cannot stand the taste of coffee.
So why do I drink coffee?
Because I am old enough.
I used to joke that I was not old enough to drink coffee. But this year I had one of those birthdays, you know, that kind that ends with a zero. So I figure maybe now I am old enough.
Zero birthdays mark milestones.
The first zero birthday marks the beginning of double digit birthdays. It is a big, round number that sets you apart from the other kids. With the second zero birthday you leave your teens and begin to move toward adulthood, at least hopefully, though in our Western culture of affluence, at twenty just as at ten most are not thinking about anything or anyone beyond the moment and themselves. They are just enjoying life. They are free with limited responsibilities, and I suppose there is nothing wrong with this.
Of course, by the time the third zero birthday rolls around, you really should not be living in your parents’ basement. You are thirty; you are grown now. Get a job! Somewhere after that second one and definitely by the third, most people are still focusing on themselves but in terms of career and family. The next several zero birthdays seem to come faster and faster and with more responsibility and change.
For example, on my last zero birthday I had just become a single parent with the custody of two young children. (This is when I probably should have started drinking caffeinated coffee because I needed the energy.) Life was busy and very uncertain. In fact, the only certainty was the knowledge that my job was to focus on raising my two children and everything else centered around that. It made differences in my career choices, my friendships and associations with others, virtually every aspect of my life was touched and re-focused on them, and it has been that way for the last decade. I am not complaining. I have said repeatedly that dad is my favorite job. But it is work. There was homework and band practice and recitals and more homework and teacher conferences and homecoming dances and more even homework and first dates and everything that goes with raising children. My involvement in my church and community was focused on helping my children engage and making those areas better for my children. Hopefully, anything I advocated for helped others as well. But the reason I showed up to the band boosters and parent teacher organization meetings was because of Nick and Olivia. Yet now, they are almost grown and on their own, having both now celebrated two zero birthdays.
So as I greeted my most recent zero birthday, it was with the realization that my kiddos were nearly grown and the compelling task of most of my existence was almost complete. Of course, I will always be their dad. You never outgrow your father, even after he is gone. But you do grow into a different relationship with your parents. I recognized my kids were almost there. And in the process, I began to wonder who I was and what was next. Yeah, I know this is a first-world problem, but it is still a problem.
I struggled through it a bit, and then I started drinking coffee because I was finally old enough. In fact, I was several zero birthdays old enough.
About this time, one of my Greek friends shared a picture of figs from a tree that his dad had brought from Greece. His dad had long since passed, but his children, grandchildren, and great-grand children were still reaping the fruits of his labor. I responded to him with a Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.” By the way, I am not old, but it helped me begin to frame my thinking about this zero birthday and beyond.
Similar to the wisdom of this proverb, there is a passage in Genesis that is often lost on those who are not from the Middle East: “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there called on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God” (Genesis 21:33). The tamarisk tree is sometimes called a salt cedar. It is well-adapted for inhospitable climates and can grow into a large tree that provides shade from the heat of the sun. But Abraham was not going to sit under the shade of the tree. Even the long life of a Biblical Patriarch would not be long enough for the tree to grow to full maturity to provide shade for Abraham. Instead, Abraham planted the tree trusting God’s promise that the land it was planted in would belong to his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and generations to come. I wonder what Abraham pondered about the fulfillment of God’s promises as he watered and tended the tree as a young sprout.
So now I drink coffee, my version of a tamarisk tree. It reminds me that between now and the next zero birthday to keep doing what I have been doing. From the outside, it probably will not look all that different. I will still work to improve my community. I will remain involved with the local school system, to the delight or dismay of the school administrators. I will continue to communicate with my elected officials. I will participate in my church, hoping to make it better, not just for me or even my kids but for generations yet to come.
Realizing my life and my work is not just about me helps me take this zero birthday in stride. I do not mean to aggrandize. After all, I am just drinking coffee, planting trees, and trusting in the promises of God.