Caffeine

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O P I N I O N

LEMENADE

By June Lemen


This morning I learned that coffee was rationed during World War II.  I wish I had known that before my mother died, so I could have asked her how she coped. But then I think,  would she have had anything to say?  The U.S. government started rationing coffee in 1942 and my mother was not a teenager yet.  I doubt that even Mom —  who drank coffee, like me, at all times of the day and night — drank it at 10 years old.  But it is she I would ask, because I would love to know how people survived without it.

I am a person who needs coffee in the morning the same way I need air.  It is a necessary condition of my existence.  I cannot focus before my first cup.  Lucy brings me that first cup of joe in the morning, and she makes it perfectly –  I like my coffee (a dark roast) light, with no sugar.  Occasionally, Lucy will try a different type of dark roast and ask me if I notice the change.  During COVID, I would occasionally try something new, to amuse us both, but after a terrible experience with blueberry-flavored coffee I remain firmly in the camp of regular or dark roast unflavored coffee.  Recently, Lucy stayed around and asked me how my coffee was.

“Great.”

“Does it taste any different?”

“No.”

“Well, I’m adding collagen.”

I looked at her.

“For your knees.”

The collagen does not seem to make my coffee taste different, and my knees seem a tiny bit better, so my new coffee order is dark roast, light, with collagen powder.  It’s delicious. And I need it. To wake up.

I have given up coffee a few times in my life, but it was not a good experience.  After I got through the nightmare part of awful headaches, inability to focus, and just plain crankiness in the morning, I did not have the epiphany of good feeling that I had been promised.  I did not feel a new appreciation for my caffeine-free life, particularly as I had given up chocolate as well.

I stayed off caffeine for a while — not a terribly long while, but for months.  Long enough so that when I broke down and drank a cup one night when I was on deadline I could feel my energy and focus kick in.

It was like magic.  Suddenly, what I was struggling with got easier.  I could see a way forward.  I met my deadline.  And I was once again in the thrall of coffee.

The reason that coffee was rationed in 1942 was because the military said that it was essential for boosting morale and welfare.  I get that.  But for U.S. families, who were rationed 1 pound of coffee every five weeks, it must have been difficult.

But I don’t think it was for my mother’s family.  They were tea drinkers.  So was my father.  In the morning, my mother had coffee, from a full pot she percolated.  My father had tea.  Tetley or Red Rose.  We never drank Lipton. 

If I could have another chat with my mother, I would ask her a lot of questions. After asking what it’s like in the afterlife, of course, I would ask about small things, like, what was it like, growing up through the Depression and the second world war? The one time I got her to talk about the war effort, she talked of walking around Vernon Hill in Worcester for hours, trying to find cans for the scrap metal drives.  And then she started laughing, and told me about a night when her mother sent her out looking for something other than metal. 

Apparently, my Grandmother Johnson (and a more upright woman you’ll never meet) had a friend who liked to visit and enjoyed a tipple.  One night she imbibed far too much and went outside to be sick.  She never noticed — until the next day — that she had lost her teeth (or her ‘plate’ as Mom called it) during this incident.

What an errand to be sent on.

I had to ask.

“Did you find them?”

“Oh, yes.”

“And then what?”

“And then it was never mentioned again.”

Hm.  Different generations handle things differently.

I like to think that if I had been alive during WWII, that I would have contributed to the war effort as code breaker.  Lucy points out that I am not good with numbers, but I am good at puzzles.  I am sure I could have done something.  And, if I was working for the war effort, I would probably have gotten coffee at work.

Or, I could have become a black market coffee dealer.

I need my second cup.