Confucius says the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In this case quite literally, and more specifically, a single step and a cow. Jens “KB” Anderson, my great-grandfather, sold and then delivered a cow, walking the cow from Kent to Seattle to its new owner, a distance of over twenty miles round trip.
Jens, a fisherman in his native Norway, and his wife, Magnhild, a dairy maid, arrived at Ellis Island in 1901, after which they spent several months in Calumet, Michigan where Jens worked in a mine. From Michigan the newlyweds moved to Kent, Washington where they had friends. In 1904 Jens and Magnhild purchased their first farm; three years later moving the young family to Ferndale, Washington, where Jens operated a farm and hauled the family’s and neighbor’s milk. By 1920, the year my grandma Lillian was born, the burgeoning family moved back to Kent where they farmed for another four years. Jens started Anderson Transfer in 1924, two years later changing the name to City Transfer, specializing in delivery, hauling, and the fuel business.
Jens and Magnhild’s sons worked at City Transfer throughout their childhood and into their adult lives as did my Grandma and her oldest sister, Betsy. During extended visits with my grandparents over school breaks and the summer months, I often visited City Transfer, first at the location in downtown Kent and then at their location on the Valley Highway.
A major highlight of the visits to City Transfer was the opportunity to see my great uncles. Each of my grandma’s siblings had a gift for letting you know in no uncertain terms just how much you were loved. Great Uncle Jens, who collected and restored old cars as a hobby, worked in the metal shop. Typically clad in blue coveralls, big leather gloves and a welding helmet, Uncle Jens was always quick with a hug, a joke and a smile. Great Uncle Danny, who worked in the machine shop, would similarly greet me, minus the hug due to well-worked, greasy, oily hands. Working in the front office, a bit more staid but my favorite nonetheless, was my god-father, Great Uncle Norman.
City Transfer had grown over the years, first hauling coal to fuel oil, and then to road construction. Despite the the company’s growth, vestiges of the family’s origin were evident beyond the employees. Norwegians love their coffee, and my grandma’s family was no different; the hotter and stronger the coffee the better it was. No self-respecting business owned and run by Norwegians would ignore the importance of the revered coffee break. At first glance the break room at City Transfer was not much different than most lunch or break rooms of the day, adorned by long tables and accompanying metal folding chairs. What set it apart were several smallish pink and white boxes boxes, strategically placed on each table, adorned with the monogram C & H. The treasure within, pristinely white and glittery sugar cubes
On one of my very first visits to the break room with my grandma, Uncle Jens asked me if I liked sugar with my coffee. Not a coffee drinker at age seven, I laughed. Grandma’s reproachful, “Jens…” told me there was more to this than his simple question. A cup of coffee in his hand, Jens reached into the box of sugar cubes and retrieved not one but a half-dozen or so sugar cubes, and promptly popped one into his mouth, his tongue positioning it between his front teeth. Fascinated, I watched as Uncle Jens took a sip of his coffee, filtering it expertly through the sugar cube. The look of fascination must’ve been written all over my face, as a broad grin broke out over Uncle Jens’ face, “You want to try it?” he asked. Again, Grandma chimed in with a reproachful “Jens….”. I knew my grandma’s tone well enough to know that this was out of the question. My Uncle Danny soon joined the break room crowd and with hands scrubbed clean, joined Uncle Jens in the choreographed sugar cube ritual. Hand to mouth, teeth, sip. Repeat.
As anticipated, Grandma turned down my request to replicate my Great Uncles’ approach to coffee drinking. But when you get an idea, especially one as fascinating as drinking coffee through a sugar cube, it is quite difficult to let it go. It’s a bit like a small pebble in your shoe, moving around, disappearing and resurfacing until you just can’t stand it any longer, the only solution to take your your shoe off to shake out the annoying culprit. That’s what happened. I tried to ignore my curiosity. Ignoring it until I magically came across a box of sugar cubes located in the cupboard under Grandma’s oven.
Although quite comfortable in my grandma’s kitchen, my seven year old self knew nothing about making coffee and could not fathom a way to smuggle a cup of coffee outside or to another acceptable hiding spot. Missing this crucial component, I retreated to the shade of the cherry tree in my grandparent’s back yard, several sugar cubes hidden in the folds of my shirt. Minus a cup of coffee I was left to my imagination, I plunked a sugar cube in my mouth, pushed it forward between my front teeth with my tongue. Nothing. I closed my lips ever so slightly and pulled the air in through the sugar cube. Sugary sweet, cool air filled my mouth. Breathing in and out, I repeated. Closing my mouth, my tongue retrieved the sugar cube. The sharp corners and edges of the sugar cube poked the soft tissue of my palate as I pressed the sugar cube against the roof of my mouth.
What was a solid structure one moment gave way to a sandy sweet pool on my tongue. Fascinated by this magical threshold, solid giving way to liquid, I repeated this process until my cache of sugar cubes was gone, savoring the textures, rough and edgy becoming gritty, and finally liquid. What can easily be explained by the laws of physics, instead was something wondrous and familial.
Five years later my mom and I moved half way across the country to Prairie Village, Kansas where she followed work on a federal grant in Kansas City and pursued her doctorate at the University of Kansas. Having some pretty amazing teachers in my years there made being away from family a bit easier. The onslaught of adolescent angst and ongoing, peppered assaults from the mean girls made seventh grade especially memorable and infinitely more bearable due to Mrs. Max, my Language Arts & Social Studies teacher. Greek myths, diagraming sentences, the Constitution, the countries of the world were all considerably more interesting thanks to Mrs. Max.
Each of our units of study in Mrs. Max’s class were accompanied by a culminating project, as was the case for countries of the world. Imagine my disappointment to find she had assigned the study of Norway to someone else and I was relegated to Mexico. One requirement of the culminating project was to create a replica of a historical structure, for me this meant the Mayan ruins. Construction materials? Sugar cubes.
Pyramid construction as one would imagine, was pretty straightforward. And as someone with a deeply personal connection to sugar cubes, there was some slight material loss. Each of those sugar cubes taking me back to family, Uncle Jens and Uncle Danny’s blue eyes, bright with laughter.