Without having done any research on the question, I’m nonetheless going to guess that it was fairly typical of west Kentucky culture that I took my first taste of coffee before I started to school. Now, it may have been another year or two before I took my second taste; I don’t remember for sure. I’m guessing we were taking our first sips of coffee at about the same age kids in east Kentucky were taking their first draw off a cigarette. It’s hard for some cultures to hold off on instilling their vices in their young. Some worse than others, of course.
I don’t know that there’s any way to soften the first sting of smoke in the lungs but I do know that two spoons of sugar and an ounce of cream significantly alter the character of a cup of coffee. But I also found out at age eight that the coffee some folks make would require an apostolic miracle to convert it into something a little kid would enjoy.
We were guests in the home of one of the families at Horton’s Chapel Church of Christ in Muhlenberg County. We were guests because it was Sunday and because Dad was the preacher. Back then and there, it was customary for different families to feed the preacher and his family on Sundays. Since it was a hundred mile round trip from our farm to the church, the arrangement was more than customary politeness.
Among the provisions of customary politeness was an inflexible law laid down by my parents that you if you served your own plate, you ate everything on it. All of it. The same rule applied to your beverage. Had I known, had I any inkling of an idea, the multiplying factor this family applied to the amount of coffee grounds used for making a cup of coffee, I would never have asked for coffee.
Other than tasting my first green persimmon, I had never been so astonished at the difference between expectation and realization. Two teaspoons of sugar and a dash of cream barely affected the bitterness of that brew! With a maturity far exceeding that of my years and possibly surpassing that even of my father, I managed to suppress a monstrous vomit reflex into a stifled hack. My eyes must have looked like tea saucers.
I pondered the situation before me and knew that it was useless to ask for mercy. Even bringing up the issue in front of our hosts would risk parental displeasure, if not eternal damnation.
So, I asked for more sugar, dumped in more cream and stirred as if stirring could stop the sun from moving in the sky. Two hours later, I finished the last syrupy sip of that torturous concoction and slowly slid the mug onto the counter in the kitchen. “Thank you,” I said to the woman in the kitchen, without the least inflection of sincerity.
As we rode through the rolling hills of Logan County after church that night, on our way back to the farm in Todd County, Dad looked over at me and asked, “So, how was that cup of coffee you had over at the Dillons’ house this afternoon?”
Even in the dim glow of the dash lights of that Impala station wagon, I could see that he was grinning a bit. I think it was a while after that I began to realize that our heavenly Father, too, is pleased when we finish what would be easier to abandon. Especially in those times when there’s not enough sugar in the world to make the bitter sweet.