Before Tea There Was Coffee

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The Early Years

Tea was not always a staple in our home.  The hot beverage of choice for my parents and their friends was coffee.  It was that hot, dark stimulant that filled their cups to the brim.  Coffee was what got them going in the morning and kept them going throughout the day.  I remember coffee having a seat at the table wherever we visited.  The nutty aroma was ever-present.  It inspired feelings of reassurance and comfort.  I don’t recall anyone ever worrying about not being able to sleep if they drank a cup of coffee in the late evening!  Now I’m older and the smell of coffee brewing immediately transports me back to my childhood.  This heavenly scent hits me in restaurants and at drive-throughs.  It often creates emotional distress in my head!

My family did not buy into the notion that “coffee will stunt your growth”.  I remember that often I would sip a cup of coffee with my parents.  I would also partake with my grandfather when we visited.  Of course, my portion was smaller, was mostly milk and sugar, and just barely appeared tan in the cup.  I remember feeling very grown and we would talk about the events of the day.  I was a precocious child and I willingly shared all my 4 to 6-year life’s wisdom with him!  He always smiled and listened intently.  He would offer his praise for my beyond my year’s intellect, as he lightly chuckled under his breath.  I remember, too, that he would pour coffee on his cereal, in place of milk, and on his toast, eating it like a pudding.  I found this odd and fascinating all at the same time.  When I ogled at his actions, he told me that the warm coffee on his breakfast helped to keep him warm when he went out to do the chores.  I am sure there is more to it.  All of my grandparents experienced extreme hardships, growing up in the 1910s’s and beyond.  Their habits and tendencies usually developed out of necessity.

Around this same time, we lived in a small apartment above a corner store called Nelson’s.  It always smelled of strong, fresh coffee and fresh raw meat. The smell has stuck with me over the years,  I remember, too, that this store carried the widest selection of penny candy in our small neighborhood!  It was conveniently located across the street from the grade school and was a landmark for children for several blocks around.  There was always a flock of kids around our yard, many of which were older or a bit on the shady side (insert a mental pic of ‘Our Gang’).   My mother, protecting me, would not let me play with them. It would break my heart!  There was not usually money for candy, not even penny candy, but every time I found a cent, I would beg my mom to take me into the store and I would purchase my selection, with her approval, of course!

The flight of steps up to our apartment was long and narrow. The top of the steps was a landing between 4 of our 5 small rooms.  To the left was the bathroom, a hard left took you to our kitchen.  Straight ahead was a furnace closet and bedroom and to the right was our living room.  This space did not seem that small to me at the time, but as I recall some of the maneuverings that took place to get from room to room, I realize now it was quite tiny.  Every morning my mother would carefully pour coffee into my father’s thermos and he would set off to work.  Nearly every afternoon, my mother would strategically place her ironing board near the outlet at the top of the steps.  There she would stand, for what seemed like hours at a time, ironing everything from handkerchiefs to bed sheets.  While she ironed, she would be watching her “stories”.  Often, she would also be on the phone discussing the daily storyline with her bestie that lived just a few blocks away.  Of course, there would always be a cup of coffee nearby.  The more coffee she drank, the more animated her conversation would become!

Our family existed on a meager budget.  My mother is the most thrifty woman I know and was able to stretch our funds to accommodate our needs.  She was even able to ensure that the coffee in our home was always name-brand.  There was no room in the budget for poor quality java!  My mother was a very gracious hostess and always made sure there was plenty of coffee for the occasional guest that would stop by.  She never forgot to offer “Can I get you anything?”  The answer was always presumed to be “Coffee is fine.”  This reply eluded to two things: 1) that coffee would surely be available and 2) that the guest felt that requesting anything other than coffee would be extravagant on their part. This reply was so expected, in fact, that often my mother didn’t wait for a reply before fetching the cups.  On occasion, though, someone would unexpectedly declare, that “A cup of tea would be nice.”  My mother would get that deer-in-the-headlights look, then smile and say  “Sure!”  She would dash to the kitchen and rummage through the cupboards muttering: “I know I have a tea bag in here somewhere!”  It was important to her that she emerge successfully and she always did.  Then came the brief moment of embarrassment when she remembered that we did not have a water kettle or teapot.  So, out would come a copper-bottomed saucepan.  She would fill it with water, place it on the lit burner and within minutes her guest would have a steeping cup of tea!

My father was a few years out of the navy, working in a mill and studying for his GED.  My father was also a weekend beer lover.  To be able to afford the weekend, he would drink coffee during the week.  I remember seeing him at his desk, in one of the small bedrooms.  He would have coffee in hand as he studied for his GED.  When daddy was at his desk, the atmosphere was tense.  My brother and I had to be quiet, which was impossible for us to do.  There was often some yelling followed by my father taking a big gulp of coffee.  I am sure that it was coffee that got him through the long nights of studying.

My parents were young during these years.  They struggled as they worked to be loving companions to each other and raise my brother and me in a loving, stable home.  There were bumps along the way.  I was completely unaware of many of their challenges or did not understand the depth of them.  I am proud to say that they will be celebrating 58 years of marriage this May.  Their work ethic, devotion to one another, and demonstration of strong family values continue to reign today!









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