Petersen’s Cafe, Alden, MN

I was unusually lucky to get to spend many days of my childhood in a small-town beer joint. My maternal grandparents, Francis and Alma Petersen, were the owners and proprietors, the bartender and the cook, the rule enforcer and the wise comforter of Petersen’s Cafe. If not the heart of Danish American life in Alden, MN, “the restaurant,” as we relatives so grandly called it, served, at least, as its huffing lungs. The extended family gathered there on Sundays and holidays, and my family lived upstairs with Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle Kenny for several months while my dad was on strike from his packinghouse job. I learned by watching and listening how a community enfolds the people who huddle at its margins:  the mentally ill, the alcoholic, the lonely, the no longer useful, the disowned, the displaced, the abused and their troubled abusers.  I got to know enough eccentrics to welcome the spice they add to a life that may look dreary and dull to outsiders. I was only eight when Grandpa Frankie’s weakening heart compelled them to sell the place and move into retirement in Albert Lea. (He lived another twenty years!) Yet I remember names and faces and incidents as vividly as only a curious child newly attentive to the world around can.

I have resolved to write some of these memories, first adhering to the limits of memory and including the misunderstandings and false assumptions created by childhood innocence and the long passage of time. Only after I have plumbed my memory will I turn to the historical record to see what I can find there to supplement, challenge, or affirm my memory. I don’t expect this project to become a book, so I will, I think, be content to blog the bits of it here from time to time. I figure I don’t have the life expectancy to undertake a lengthy research project like those my books have required.

Of course I have had to ask myself why I think my fragile recollections of the years 1945 to 1953 in a long since razed and forgotten beer joint/cafe are worthy of literary attention. Here are my answers:

–Because it was a treasured time of childhood, innocent but with an undercurrent of human suffering.

–Because people of little note deserve their dignity as much as the famous do.

–Because I was so fortunate to know eccentricity up close and to see how it is absorbed into a community.

–Because I have not done justice to my mom’s family and my Danish heritage.

–Because so much has been lost and laid flat by commercialism and suburbanization.

–Because Petersen’s Cafe is full of stories.

(P.S.  There will be photos if I can get my scanner to work again. Here is one, of Christmas at the restaurant. I’m on the left, age 2.)

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