By Stephen W. Hiemstra
More than a snack, coffee time was once an institution where some of my fondest memories of family life took place.
On weekdays, at 9 a.m., at 3 p.m., and around 8 p.m., grandma prepared coffee for the adults, cocoa for the kids, and goodies for everyone. The goodies included homemade lemon bars, chocolate chip cookies, or strawberry short cake topped with ice cream. Choice, we always got a choice.
Whether you were knitting, feeding the calves, or pulling weeds in the garden, everyone stopped what they were doing, came in the house, got cleaned up, and talked. No one was excluded; everyone was invited; conversation was required.
Coffee time on Sundays was always more involved. No one dared to skip Sunday school in Grandma Gertrude’s house (or leave before lunch). So we were in church at 9:15 a.m. and Sunday school included a break for snacks. After church, we normally changed from our Sunday best into more comfortable clothes before lunch. One thing would lead to another. Being kids, by the time we were called, we were off hiding in the attic or chasing each other around the yard. Lunch would not be on our minds—the adults would bribe us to come to lunch with reminders of coffee time.
These Sunday coffee times might be delayed until after the cuckoo clock chimed at 4 p.m. A late coffee time almost always involved better snacks, fold up trays being brought out, and breaking out the card tables—who knows, we might even move on to board games. On occasion, the piano might be played and ice cream churned by hand—“kids today are so spoiled by that store-bought ice cream”, we were told.
A more formal coffee time on Sundays occurred when birthdays were celebrated. These get togethers were common because both grandpa and grandma came from Dutch families with eight siblings, all of whom lived in or around Pella, Iowa. Oskaloosa, where my grandparents lived, was more of a family outpost, but remained within driving distance of the “Pella crowd”. Formalities took the form of a distinctive routine, which moved from greetings, to eating, to discussions and game boards, and then to goodbyes. This would involve a leisurely three or four hours—no one was in a hurry. And everyone kept on their Sunday best.
The greeting phase involved meeting people as they came in. After the formal greetings, the women gathered in the kitchen to properly set out the signature dishes, such as grandma’s steaming hot, chicken and noodles. Meanwhile, the men sat in the living room talking about the latest news or market prices for corn, soybeans, hogs, or cattle. The kids might run this way or that, but often we retreated to the basement to horse around without soiling our clothes, as might be suggested now and then.
Eating phase always started with a blessing for the food. If my uncle John were present, we might be treated to a few introductions and announcements (or a scripture reading) followed by a pastoral prayer. Otherwise, Grandpa Frank simply gave thanks.
Having blessed the food, we would grab a plate and snake around the kitchen helping themselves to the sandwiches, casseroles, apple sauce, and potato salad. A lime or strawberry punch was normally iced in a crystal bowl, ladled with a crystal dipper, and enjoyed in a crystal cup. Then, the adult assembled in the living room seated in front of a folding up tray with their plates and cups carefully balanced. Meanwhile the kids sat around the kitchen table and ate together unsupervised. Coffee was served later with the dessert.
The end of dessert marked the beginning of discussions. These could get pointed. My great uncle John, the local county commissioner, frequently chided me about the cushy government job that I would get after graduation. Of course, I had other ideas. At one point in my sophomore year, for example, I announced my intention to study comparative literature, instead of agricultural economics like my dad. The room went silent. After a couple of embarrassing seconds someone inquired: “What is comparative literature?” With questions like that, it did not take me long—before my next visit—to figure out what I really wanted to study.
Discussions were not always in earnest. “You have heard, of course, about that new government program that they cooked up in Washington? In the future, social security checks will be issued along with a prescription for birth control pills”…ah-huh.
Discussion was mandatory; board games were not. When discussion began to wind down, those not interested in playing hearts, dominos, or, some other such thing, headed for the door. It was as regular as grandpa’s daily bowl of All Bran cereal soaked with chocolate milk. Goodbyes then proceeded until everyone had said goodbye to everyone else. Weather permitting, the goodbyes included walking the most distant travelers out to their cars.
As the years went by, coffee time slowly died out.
My parents struggled to imitate coffee time when my grandparents would visit, but practice makes perfect and neglect leaves one neglectful. Interruptions during attempts at coffee time made conversation difficult; activities likewise cut into the leisure time. On the farm, a Christmas might last for two weeks; in the city, Christmas became a meal and afternoon discussion. We aspired to being relaxed and hospitable, but strived ever more diligently to keep our jobs, pay our bills, and advance our careers in the face of ever easier downward mobility. As my grandparents aged, travel distances seemed longer, schedules got more involved, and visits became rare.
Coffee time lived on during visits to Iowa. When my grandfather turned 90, he lost his driver’s license. So when I visited, Frank often requested that I drive him from Oskaloosa to Pella to visit his younger sister, Nelly, who was the family historian and a live wire—it was always Nelly who said what was on everyone else’s mind. A quick call and Nelly would invite some of the Pella crowd over to her place for coffee. Thirty minutes later on our arrival, out came the folding trays, the home-made snacks, and the coffee.
Born in 1898, Frank journeyed through three centuries during his 102 years. With his passing, Oskaloosa dropped off my itinerary. Since then, the chore of travel has become unbearable and the memory of coffee time much more elusive.
Coffee time lives on in the Hiemstra family picnic the first Saturday of August each year in Pella’s West Market Park. Picnic tables shaded under an open shelter are cool and inviting, as are the relatives that I still know and cherish. The coffee and the snacks are the same, but the folding trays, the leisure time together, and my grandparents are no longer with us.
More than a snack, coffee time (or Kaffietijd as the old folks would say) was a palace in time that lives on in the memory of my youth.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1951. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
 Pella was settled in 1847 by Dutch immigrants (http://www.CityOfPella.com).
 Cite from Heschel (1951, 12). Heschel (1951, 6) writes: “The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography.”