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Cafe enriches father’s world, and community

July 31, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 26, 2017

I find refuge in small cafes. It started in my post-college years.

Quiet ones serving loose leaf jasmine tea, fresh baked goods and healthy light fare are most appealing, to me.

Rochambo Coffee and Teahouse in Milwaukee was where I graded papers for the high school social studies students I taught. At Bookend Café in Boulder, I completed most of my graduate studies in ecopsychology – and more importantly, met my wife, Lori, and later enjoyed burritos and giant chocolate chip cookies with our 2-year old daughter, Zoe, when Lori worked Saturday shifts at the hospital there. And I networked with strangers at Haymarket Café in Northampton, seeking work during the Great Recession.

Each was a place of connection, a space where the world slowed down, creativity flowed and possibilities emerged.

Six years ago, we moved to Florence, landing a few blocks from the village center, where, situated at the main intersection was Cup & Top Café.

For years, our family has visited the café for special lunch outings, where the menu offers peanut- and tree nut-free options for son, Adam, mac and cheese for Zoe, gluten-free fare for Lori — and loose leaf tea, for me.

In their younger years, the kids entertained themselves, mostly, in the play area where a slide, dress-up clothes, books and games awaited, while Lori and I would relish precious minutes of uninterrupted conversation.

Once, Zoe and I enjoyed a lunch date there, and I taught her how to play chess on the small square table that bears a painted checker board. Another time, Adam, still a toddler, and I, marveled through the front window as a fire truck parked in the middle of Main Street and extended its ladder up high to secure an enormous American flag for the Fourth of July.

As a father, I have always found a steady presence of caring adults, young and old, at the café offering a knowing glance, acknowledgement that parenting — at its best — is a team sport, played on a community field.

Founder and owner, Helen Kahn, a parent who is also president of the Northampton Soccer Club, clearly understood the value of community, when she founded Cup & Top more than 11 years ago.

But while the back room at Cup & Top has always been a family favorite, the front room has nourished my creative muse. When new to the area and seeking connection, I convened a father’s group, after hours, in the front room of the café, quarterly for nearly two years. The day after the first gathering, I sat near the front windows, journaling and sipping tea, when I first imagined writing a monthly fatherhood column.

I stepped outside with my cellphone and called the Gazette, and within minutes was pitching my idea to the editor. Since then, most of my columns have been written at the café, always a cup of tea at my side.

Over the past decade, Cup & Top has become a vital hub — a place to lunch with colleagues, meet with friends, host visitors, grab a cup of coffee, seek warmth during New England winters, chat about elections past and present, purchase locally crafted paintings, cards, books and CDs, and enjoy a fresh, locally sourced menu.

Together, our individual lives become a collective story — a community. Cup & Top has been one of the special places where this story is written. And, so, Helen’s decision to sell the cafe and make space for new adventures is both a loss and pause for celebration. It is also a moment of anticipation, as we wonder what the new owners will unveil when the cafe reopens as the Freckled Fox Cafe later this summer.

For now, I lift my cup of steaming jasmine tea to you — Helen Kahn — for creating and nurturing a space that enriched my life, my family — and our community.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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