The Coffee Cantata—A Fond Personal Remembrance

RhinocerosAs I was pouring my first cup of coffee this morning (4:47 AM), I had one of those delightful flashbacks that pop into one’s head, uninvited and mysterious. I was remembering a cup of coffee. It may well have been my very first cup. At minimum, it was the first important cup of coffee, the first that meant enough for me to file it away for further reference.

My friend Ann and I were at a coffee shop in Redlands, CA, late at night. We were students at the University of Redlands. It must have been 1965 or 66. We were great friends. Truth be told, we had been (somehow) friends since we were toddlers. Our parents had been, that is. Her father became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Douglas, Wyoming, when my father left that position to become pastor of the First Baptist Church of Worland, Wyoming. I was six months old and she was 18 months old at the time.

Later on, when my father was an executive in the Nebraska Baptist Convention and we had moved to Omaha (1960), her father became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Wahoo, about thirty miles west of Omaha. Our parents had been friends since 1945, and they renewed their friendship. Ann and I were (somewhat long-distance) high school friends.

Sitting in that coffee shop in Redlands, Ann ordered a cup of coffee, and I said I didn’t understand why people drank that bitter stuff. She ordered me a cup, poured about half a cup of cream into it, and said I should taste it—that I’d be glad I’d learn to drink the stuff when it came time to study for finals. I had already had the study-for-finals experience at least two semesters at that point, and I couldn’t imagine why coffee would help.

But I drank it, and the rest—I will not resist the clichéd temptation—is history. We were married May 28, 1967. Our marriage lasted until July of 1975, but I still, obviously, drink coffee. She married the Canadian novelist, William P. Kinsella a couple of years after our “no-fault” divorce in Iowa, and I’ve been serially monogamous since then.images

Ann died in 2002.

I am grateful to Ann for much more than teaching me to drink coffee. As a small but non-trivial example, she taught me to appreciate (no, love) contemporary theater. Her M.A. was in theater directing. In 1970 she directed Jean Genet’s The Maids and Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano as her thesis at California State University at Los Angeles (where I was working on an M.A. in music composition). Ann was so fascinated by Ionesco’s work that she produced and directed his Rhinoceros at Colton, CA, high school where she taught.

Ann was indomitable and fearless. We were traveling in Massachusetts in 1972 and were at Tanglewood to hear a Boston Symphony concert. We were having—what else?—a cup of coffee at a hotel in Lenox when Ann jumped up and accosted a total stranger. “Mr. Ionesco, won’t you join us for coffee?” Yes, it was he, and, yes, he did join us for a cup of coffee.

A huge chunk of my autobiography someday will be about my relationship with Ann. I won’t even mention here her glorious soprano voice and the role music played in our lives from high school almost to her death. One of our hopes was someday to perform together the soprano aria Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee süsse from the Bach “Coffee Cantata.”  We worked on it in private, but never had the time or discipline to perfect it.

The last cup of coffee I had with her was in 2002 in a mall café in Edmonton, Alberta. I won’t detail that experience except to say that after we had coffee, we went to the church where she was a member, and I played the piano for her to sing the “Holden Vespers” by Marty Haugen.

For most of our married life—and during our rekindled friendship after her divorce from Kinsella—we had a favorite bit of nonsense music. The words are from The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, published 1896 by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), sung to the tune of the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We learned this hymn from Fr. Jon Hart Olson of Christ Episcopal Church in Ontario, CA.

Rhinoceros, your hide looks all undone,
You do not take my fancy in the least:
You have a horn where other brutes have none:
Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast.
REFRAIN:
Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast;
You do not take my fancy in the least.

I intended to write about Ann on our anniversary May 28 but couldn’t figure out how. Coffee. From one cup of college student coffee to Rhinoceros.  Fitting metaphors for one of my most complex relationships.

The most beautiful college campus in America

The most beautiful college campus in America

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