“I’m selling the shop,” he said. “With places like these, you never know what kind of offer will come when you’re finally ready, so if you get one that’s any good, you have to take it.” A week later, he walked out the door into retirement and my beloved heroine was left slumped over a laptop, deflated once again.
The new owners tore out the walls, built a custom bar and joined the place with the brewery they owned down the hall. When he’d said who was moving in, I knew it was over. There would be bearded boys and flannel and inflated egos lining the high-top tables by month’s end. It would go from a place where I could just be to a place one went to be seen. And on the one morning a week I escaped my house and slipped into my old skin, I really didn’t care to be seen.
Those first few weeks, I went there anyway thinking the magic must live within the air, must be tied to the floorboards now refinished and distressed. But it was gone. In its place I found bright light bulbs shining down on chili-spiced café mochas infused with bourbon-barrel aged stout and oat milk lavender cardamom lattes. I would be lying if I said they weren’t delicious, but I wasn’t looking for delicious. I was looking for familiar. I was looking for myself, and she was nowhere to be found in this new place that smelled of dead magic and cardamom.
“Do you come here a lot?” an acquaintance inquired (because this was now the place to run into loosely known acquaintances). “I used to before it changed hands,” I replied. “Oh, really? I didn’t even realize it was a coffee shop before, but I come here all the time now.” The little corner refuge exploded into shards of glass and coffee grounds within the recesses of my imagination. “You don’t say.”
It had been my sanctuary, an outdated hideaway with seasonal murals painted on windows and Formica countertops worn by the elbows of regulars – old men who sat and stared, groups of women done with morning runs, sticky kids on daycare grandmothers holding plates of cookies, and one dirty blonde mom, huddled in the corner, desperate to write herself back into existence.
There was a point after my second child when I’d misplaced myself. Like the infinite line of moms who came before me, I’d been forced to make a decision as baby after baby arrived, and the career I’d envisioned was traded for a humbling life of domesticity. I was a warrior woman without a sword or shield. There, in the midst of battle, I stood bleeding into bleak surroundings – television hum, freezer meals, crying babies, condescending nods.
And, yes, I’ll pause and acknowledge that I am oh-so-lucky to have such a “choice,” and that, of course, I love my crying babies (because we must do that, right? Guilt and societal expectations require such things), but there are moments (and hours and days) these gifts feel more life-sucking than life-giving, and after you’ve been sucked on for so long, by so many angry, needy mouths, you go dry.
And I was dry – an empty, shriveled version of my former self. I missed my fullness, my grape-ness. But I had become a raisin, the thing nobody wants, what they pick around, throw away, (insert incredulous gasp) ignore! And it was killing me.
I needed those things that filled me up, but I could not remember where I’d put them. They weren’t hiding in the mountain of dirty diapers or half-drunk bottles slowly curdling under the couch. They weren’t on my bed under the piles of unfolded clothes. I couldn’t find them in the aisles at the grocery store or in the understanding nods of friends who still had careers and paychecks and sharply pressed dress pants. Where had I put that joy, that intoxicating juice that ran from my body as my first child split me wide open? I could not seem to place it…
…but then I found my coffee shop. I’d walked by before, never noticing my shadow perched at the end of the bar. I never sensed the magic – the way the frigid wind whipped across the front wall each time a patron ventured in, the clichéd soundtrack of acoustic covers on repeat in the background, the silver-haired owner always smiling, greeting folks by name.
The first time (wholly terrified of entering new spaces on my own) I made a bee-line to the countertop and set up shop next to the outlet and shelves of tea. “You belong among the wildflowers. You belong somewhere you feel free,” sang the radio, and I might have cried (I totally cried). I was going to be a grape again; I just knew it. Back to that nondescript stool I went every Tuesday, tied to the routine I created out of nerves and uncertainty that first fateful morning – non-fat cappuccino, one pump crème de menthe, and a frosted cookie.
At that counter, minty beverage in hand, multi-colored sprinkles littering my sweater, Tuesday by Tuesday, I started refueling, rebuilding myself in a likeness that surpassed even my memories. This heroine I created was wise and witty, independent and vulnerable. She let the wind move her this way and that, yet had a steadiness I’d never noticed before. In the quiet of those mornings, staring out into the start of a new day, I began to recover everything that I’d lost, and in doing so, I could finally see how much I’d actually gained.
My children, draining as they could be, had introduced calm and comedy to my days. They had taught me patience and gentleness, such foreign concepts to my previous self. They had stretched me to love in the most startlingly open way, without condition or limits, without fear of rejection, without doubt. But in the noise of our daily grind, I hadn’t time to process what their addition to our lives had really meant. I had gotten caught up in the irritating way they whined my new name instead of hearing that name for all I had become.
It continued on like this every Tuesday, me thumping away at letters on a keyboard, pounding out the sights and sounds of our travels, our lives, finding bits of myself along the way, carving out my new identity with each discovery, each record that yes, we were here, we did something, however small or insignificant. And then, all of a sudden, it became clear. The dishes, the laundry, the drool of dozing children streaming down my shoulder, this lack-luster calling – it was all so very significant to this heroine of mine. I loved these few hours each week for the joy they brought to the chaos and loneliness that is motherhood…
…but then the trend-setters moved in and traded my seasonally decorated sugar cookies for scones (who really eats scones?) and downsized the bowl-like white mugs for tiny black cups securing much larger margins. And, for a time, I stopped hunting that joy. The magic was gone, and with it, so was I.
But as the brick-walled coffee shop underwent its transformation, so did our family. We entered into a season of change all our own, stretching out arms beyond our three busy boys to reach yet another child needing to be held (the complete opposite of what made logical sense to my life as a raisin). So while the new coffee joint is up and running without a hitch (the only patron lost being me in exchange for an endless stream of newcomers in Doc Martens and 90’s mom jeans), our family’s renovation is still in the works. Despite our current growing pains, though, I know as I sit here sinking into our hand-me-down couch riddled with stains from these destructive beasts we call “children” that I would have been stuck on this couch indefinitely had I not found that stool at that countertop now lying in a landfill beneath a heap of banana peels and other people’s discarded dreams.
Had I not given myself the space, the few hours a week to reconnect to those things that bring me joy and fill me up, my wrinkled raisin self would not have been brave enough to walk into our family’s new dreams, holding on and letting go and blindly trusting that we will make it out the other end. Those minty mugs of coffee and Tom Petty covers and words taken from my gut and splashed onto a screen told me we can do it, and I believe them. I’m a grape again.
“Mommy, what are you doing?” my little guy asks as he climbs up on this old couch, crusty-eyed and yawning from his nap.
“I’m writing a story about our family,” I say.
“Mommy, can I watch you?”
“Of course,” and I wrap my arm around him and try to type with one elbow bent at an unnatural angle. It is slow-going and feels like a direct reflection of our life in these days of change – laborious and painful as we extend ourselves awkwardly, trying to encompass everything we hold dear, knowing that we can’t keep it all, knowing we will have to let go of the old if we hope to hold on to the new.
He yawns and slides down the sofa, crawls off to find a different adventure, and I realize the death of my coffee shop was inevitable. It was comfortable and familiar but could not hold all it was meant to (the throngs of annoyingly stylish coffee connoisseurs now gracing its super cool handcrafted bar) had it remained stagnant. The coffee shop had to be broken down to be rebuilt, as we all do. I just needed its quiet countertop and a little time to write a heroine, wise and joyful, brave and vulnerable enough to enter the next chapter.