First We Have Coffee, by Margaret Jensen
As someone who specializes in reading memoirs of dysfunctional families and unpleasant childhoods , I am often struck by elements that make a book distinctive. This book had a very distinctive set of elements that is worth pointing out, at least. For one, the childhood experiences of the author were unpleasant for different reasons than normal. She wasn’t abused as a child and her parents stayed married, although her mother came from a broken household and that added to elements of brokenness in the family as a whole. Also, her father was remote and emotionally distant, being focused on books and not so much on people. Both of the author’s parents were first generation Norwegian immigrants, and the author’s father happened to be a pastor who heard the call or was voted out by the members, and had to move from place to place because of his work in the ministry. So, if you want to read about how growing up in a poor and somewhat overly full household of preacher’s kids makes one have a dysfunctional childhood, and that is quite honestly something I am willing to do, this is a good book for you to read. The book was written in the late 1970’s, probably at the beginning of the trend towards writing memoirs about unpleasant childhoods, and it manages to be both honest and written with a great deal of love and kindness, especially for the author’s mother.
The book itself consists of fairly short and slightly connected stories in a generally chronological order that extend from the childhood of the author’s mother to the death of the author’s mother in old age from a failing heart. These stories take up a little less than 200 pages of writing, and are filled with odd touches, like poems, quotations of familiar Christian songs, and passages about the Bible. The author manages to strike an odd balance between being unsentimental and being deeply sentimental in some pointed quotations . The stories themselves mix comedy with loss, including death, homelessness, poverty, and a lack of parental love and care. It is easy to see in ourselves the sort of wounded people who wound others–the author’s father is shown as being emotionally distant and very strict, and far more caring towards his books than his own children, a reminder of how it would be easy for someone who was emotionally reserved and restrained to be viewed in a negative light. Many of the stories are tied together by the author’s mother’s insistence that before discussing anything too serious or unpleasant, first we have coffee.
There are a lot of insights that can be gained from a book like this. For one, this book gives a vivid impression of the importance of ethnic communities and in people like ministers and those who run orphanages like the author’s father and mother, respectively, in helping to keep a community together. The author’s family is full of love and more than a little bit of mischief, and also struggles to communicate and get along even as each family member manages to find a niche that allows them to care for others and show a sense of dignity and pride. Given the way that serving in the ministry is often associated as being a position of considerable wealth and power, this book is a reminder that in not all cases is this so. The author does not remember or picture her father as a golf-playing resident of a country club as is the manner of some ministers, but rather as a man struggling with the finer points of the English language but someone who loves old books and has too many kids that he did not know how to relate to. It is yet another type of brokenness I can understand in my own awkward way.
 See, for example:
 See, for example:
“Heeding Mama’s admonition to “settle down with a good wife,” Barney finally married a comfortable friend, Mildred, who was solid, faithful, and strong and became his harbor in the storms of life (32).”
“When someone brings us a frightened, wilted, hurt child, I hear my Susie say, ‘Love it back to life, Mother!’ So many human relationships can be loved back to life. For me, the most rewarding are those with a child, who has been wilted and abandoned in a broken flower pot or home (122).”
“The text this morning is found in Mark 11:25: “When ye stand praying, forgive.” Forgiveness is not optional, but a command. Forgiveness is not a feeling, but an act of faith, a definite act of the will to forgive, in obedience to God’s command. The feeling comes later, the feeling of peace. When we offer to God our hurts and despair, God will pour his love and compassion into the wounds and His healing will come (131).”