Stirring up memories of Mom and Madge with a splash of half and half

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on

Stirring a splash of Mini-Moo into my steaming tea cup this morning, I watched the dark, rich Rooibos turn from mahogany to apricot and thought of my mother and her friend, Madge.

They were big coffee drinkers. And neither would have known a cup of rooibos from a cup of cornfield runoff. Nor would they have been much impressed by my recitation of the health benefits of what folks in Southern Africa call bush tea.

I make my loose-leaf rooibos extra dark, almost as dark as coffee. And I like the way its color changes, coffee like, when the right amount of half and half is added — much as Mom and Madge admired the way a little splash of dairy amended the taste and look of their coffee.

Louisa May Alcott implied that coffee could be more delicious even than compliments, a thought both Mom and Madge could have embraced. And trust me, they liked compliments. But they also knew that coffee was more delicious when complemented by a bit of half and half.

“Madge always says she just keeps adding cream until the coffee turns that golden color she loves,” my Mom said some years back, as she examined the contents of her own cup at a Sioux Falls coffee shop. “Then it’s ready to drink.”

As her eyesight failed, Madge could see that magical color transformation only vaguely. My mom would describe it for her friend, however, as they stirred their cups and chatted the morning away at the Rainbow Cafe in downtown Chamberlain, Casey’s Cafe up by the interstate or Al’s Oasis across the river in Oacoma.

Madge and Mom are gone now. But I remember them, and a lot more, each day when I pull out the tiny old ceramic coffee cups that were an inexpensive, priceless part of my inheritance. They’re the kind you’ll still see at Al’s or farther west at Wall Drug, where — yes — coffee is still a nickel.

You can get some white, pourable stuff for that nickel coffee at Wall Drug, too, although judging by the flavor and taste, it doesn’t seem to be half and half as Mom and Madge knew it.

Same price, same coffee cups, though — a bit of the past you can wrap your hand around.

And these are definitely coffee cups, not mugs. Proud, diminutive hot-beverage holders in an age of super-sized excesses, these little cups are each capable of holding about five ounces, six if you have a steady hand and risk-taker’s spirit.

In the bygone days when they populated counters and tables in diners and cafes across the nation, the little cups inspired a more reserved rate of consumption, as well as community connections. They meant servers had to swing by more regularly with a carafe — or “pot” for our purposes here —  of hot coffee and an offer to “warm that up for you?”

That’s still part of the service at Al’s, as always. Although that’s not the way they handled things with my mom, as a long-serving waitress at Al’s recently reminded me.

“Oh, Marie was different,” she said. “We were instructed that you never added coffee to Marie’s cup. If she wanted more and there was still some in her cup, you took the cup and dumped out the old coffee and filled the cup with fresh coffee, entirely.”

Then you kept her in half and half, so she could stir up that golden glow again.

I suppose some might argue against such special treatment, which she also received on things like fresh-butter tabs and sour cream for her potatoes. But if you’ve been a regular customer at a family owned business for 50 years or so, there tends to be some perks. More than that, there tends to be some family.

My mom was a special part of the Al’s Oasis family, as were a number of women — and a few men — of her generation who gathered there on a daily basis, and sometimes more than once a day.

If you were looking for my Mom and she wasn’t at home in Chamberlain, Al’s was a good place to check. She first met Tom Daschle there, because he had stopped to eat and knew from talking to me or my brother or one of his staffers that Marie Woster hung out there.

So the senator asked if she was present. And she was.

Mom first met Bill Janklow in his office in the state Capitol. But next time they met it was at Al’s, when Janklow asked the same question Daschle had asked: “Is Marie Woster here?”

She usually was.

She and her friends had favorite tables, and favorite chairs, which hostesses remembered and tried to honor and accommodate. And they were often joined for a cup and conversation by Al Mueller, who founded Al’s Oasis out on U.S. Highway 16 with his wife, Veda, back in 1952.

Al and his family, and the larger family of Al’s Oasis employees, made sure Mom was well served, in ways that far transcended cups of coffee and sweet rolls.

She got her windows scraped in winter, her tires checked in summer. If the highway home got icy suddenly, that sometimes meant a staffer would drive Mom back to Chamberlain in her old Chevy, while another employee followed behind in another car. Just to make sure she got home safely.

If she didn’t show up for coffee as expected, someone at Al’s might call our house or even drive over and check in person to make sure she was OK. Once when they couldn’t reach her after several calls, they called our next-door neighbor, Cal.

Cal stepped over to look out his south window and in through our north window to see Mom sitting in her recliner in front of the TV in the living room, likely surrounded — as she usually was — by an assortment of newspapers. It turned out she had a cold and was staying home that day.

“Yeah, she’s over there,” Cal said. “Looks fine. But I’ll keep an eye on her.”

Mom did the same in return,  craning her neck around the side of her recliner from time to time to look through the north window and check on Cal and his wife, sometimes making observations like: “Oh, I guess they went to bed early” or “They’re still watching that show.”

That's small-town-neighbor stuff. The stuff of stories. But this story is about rooibos and coffee and cream, about tiny cups and enduring connections.

My mom was the queen of the coffee cup at Al’s almost until her death. Al’s hosted my mom’s 70th birthday bash, and filled a back room with friends and, of course, coffee with plenty of half and half. More than a decade later, in 1999, Mom had a heart attack that nearly killed her and made it necessary for her to relocate to Sioux Falls, where my brother, Jim, lives and I was living at the time.

After a long recovery from valve replacement and multiple artery bypasses complicated in horrific ways by a staff infection in the surgical wound, she settled in nicely at The Waterford assisted living center. But as soon as Mom had recovered enough to travel, Al’s hosted a “Marie Woster Day,” with advertising in advance in the local newspaper and signs of proclamation  — “Welcome Home, Marie!” -- outside.

Relatives and friends and former restaurant staffers turned out for that, to cheer and weep and laugh. And Mom was treated like the queen of the cup once again.

But she was a queen that would never really come home.  Not that long after her day at Al’s, her patched-up heart began to fail. Travel was limited, then very limited, then hardly ever.  As the months progressed, it became clear that trips back to her favorite coffee table and lifelong friends were out of the question.

So Waterford became her world. It was a different world in a different place with different friends. Different coffee cups, too. But the coffee was pretty much the same, all dressed up in half and half and shared with others of her age and inclinations, along with conversation.

We liked to say that Mom lived beyond her failing heart for months and months simply because she refused to give in to death. And doctors didn’t argue.

“Some things you really can’t explain through medicine and science,” one of them said. “She is alive because she wants to be alive.”

Her kids and especially her grandkids and great-grandkids were a big reason for her life-supporting resolve. So were Monsignor John McEneaney and Father Gary Ternes, who prayed her through the worse of her hospital trials and stopped to visit at Waterford.

And so, too, was the coffee and the conversation that went with it. She looked forward to each day, and fought to get to it and through it.

Even as she was dying, day by day, Mom made it down the hall in her electric scooter to coffee at Waterford, sometimes scraping paint off the wall with a bumper along the way. She lived in her room and went to coffee up until a few days before she entered hospice, which was a week or so before she died.

On our last trip together to a favorite Sioux Falls coffee shop not long before all that, her heart function was so bad she kept falling asleep at the table. And she could barely talk.

She couldn’t drink much coffee, either. But she drank a little. And with a little help, she managed to get it all stirred up with half and half until it took on that warm, golden glow.

Just the way her friend Madge always loved it.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.