After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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One summer morning I was playing beneath our backyard apricot tree when my father burst out of the house and stood over me. I sat quietly with my head down, waiting to hear what I’d done wrong this time. When he asked if I wanted to go downtown with him to see a car show, I looked up to see if he was kidding. I was nine and didn’t care at all about cars — it was my brother who went nuts over anything mechanical — but I wasn’t about to say no; my father had noticed me, and I wasn’t in trouble.
The downtown street was closed to traffic, a surreal event in Southeast LA, and cars of many colors and vintages were parked there. I tried to look interested, but really I was watching my dad. My usually moody and mercurial father had been replaced by this relaxed, playful man. As we passed an ice-cream cart, he grinned and asked if I’d had breakfast.
Walking beside my father down the middle of the street, eating a chocolate sundae for breakfast — whipped cream, cherries, the works — is one of my best memories, and also one of the biggest mysteries of my life. What was it about that particular day that allowed him to show me this happier side of himself? It would have been less cruel if he’d never let me see it, because then I wouldn’t have spent the rest of my childhood hoping for another glimpse.
San Diego, California
Plumpy’Nut sounds better than it tastes. The sweet, peanut-based product was developed to nourish starving children in the developing world. You tear off the corner of the package and squeeze out the beige high-protein paste.
I feel vaguely guilty eating it after a sleepless night — as if I were stealing food from the hungry — but the packages sit unused, spilling out of a cardboard box that rots on a concrete floor here in West Africa. The children it’s intended for won’t touch the stuff; it’s too rich and dense for patients dying of Ebola, who can barely keep down water. If there is anything less appealing to an Ebola patient than Plumpy’Nut, it is Plumpy’ Nut offered by a person dressed in white plastic, eyes peering above a surgical mask, muffled mouth speaking strange words.
I’ve been avoiding the daily fare of cassava greens and rice since I noticed that the women who prepare our food don’t wash their hands regularly, and one of them came down with Ebola not too long ago. At least the Plumpy’Nut is clean, and we have plenty. For breakfast I squeeze the package, bite off a fat ribbon of moist paste, and wash it down with oral-rehydration salts and water. It will have to do.
Providence, Rhode Island
Home from college for the summer and looking for a way to earn money, I took a job in landscaping and immediately hurt my back lifting fifty-pound bags of fertilizer in the hot sun. For the next two days I lay in bed. On the third day I went to look for other work — preferably indoors.
My North Carolina town didn’t offer many options. The manager of the local barbecue restaurant seemed amused when I asked if he had an opening for a waiter. His wait staff was made up entirely of women. A young man in an apron with an order pad would be a strange sight in that conservative town, but I figured my pride couldn’t hurt as bad as my back.
I worked weekends and evenings, fetching refills of sweet tea and clean plates for the buffet. My fellow servers were all high-school girls, because the older waitresses took the most desirable shifts — weekday breakfasts.
One week I was asked to fill in on a Monday morning. With no self-serve buffet, the breakfast shift was hectic, and I hustled about, pouring coffee and grabbing plates of eggs, bacon, and grits from the pass-through to the kitchen. I committed my first rookie error when I brought menus to a group of gray-haired men at a large corner booth. Apparently they came in every Monday morning to talk and drink coffee, not to eat, and they laughed when I attempted to take their orders.
Then a man sat down by himself at a small booth for two, and I brought him a menu and silverware and asked what he wanted to drink. He seemed surprised that I was talking to him and looked around in confused disappointment before ordering decaf coffee.
As I poured a cup for him at the wait station, I told a waitress named Michelle about his odd behavior.
“Oh, he’s Doris’s customer,” she said. Doris was the waitress I was filling in for. “Don’t worry. I’ll switch with you.” Michelle brought the man his decaf and sweet-talked him as if he were a minor celebrity while I took care of someone else.
The next time a man sat down alone at one of my tables, I hesitated and looked to Michelle. She waved me away and proceeded to good-naturedly sass him while taking his order.
By the end of my shift I understood: these regulars who dined alone were not interested in being served by a college boy. I’m sure a few of them had wives or girlfriends at home, but I imagined that for some, on that day at least, ordering breakfast would be their sole interaction with a woman.
My brother Joe sat slumped in his favorite chair, his robe wrapped tightly around him, his skin yellowed by the cancer that had returned. I was trading days with his wife, providing care for him at his home. I couldn’t believe how much he’d changed in just three short weeks.
He pulled himself up and, stooped and shrunken, shuffled toward the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” I asked, concerned he would fall.
“To make myself breakfast,” he replied.
It was painful to see him take each faltering step. I insisted he sit back down and tell me what he wanted.
His request was simple: an English muffin with butter. But, he said, no one ever made it the way he did. They didn’t toast it enough, or they toasted it too much, and they failed to fill every nook and cranny with butter.
I followed his instructions carefully. He ate rarely those days, so I wanted to get it right.
Joe looked skeptical as I placed the lightly toasted, heavily buttered muffin in front of him. Then he took a bite and smiled. It was exactly the way he liked it. “How did you know?” he asked.
“I’m your sister,” I said. His withered, yellowed hand reached out and gripped mine.
I thought this would be the first of many days in which I would find simple ways to show my brother how much I loved him. Instead it would be the last.
It’s 8:30 PM on the seventeenth day of Ramadan, which means I haven’t had anything to eat or drink since about four this morning. (We get up at 3 AM to eat before first light, then go back to sleep.) I’m beginning to feel the effects of fasting and sleep deprivation: I’m achy and constipated, I forget things easily, and I’m quick to anger.
But sunset and the evening meal are coming soon, and I’ve gotten past the severe exhaustion and hunger of midday. The last two hours of daylight are filled with euphoria. By day’s end I’m eager to hold on to this feeling for a few more minutes. I go outside to be alone and watch the sun’s final rays hit the blue water tower while I savor the drug-like high. I want to channel my energy into something else. I want to chant God’s name and hear it echoed back. But my mother-in-law is calling us to break our fast.
I converted to Islam three years ago, and this month of abstinence — not just from food and water during the day, but also from swearing and judgment — is still new to me. So are the five daily prayers in Arabic and these huge, loud, chaotic meals that accompany the end of each day’s fast. At 9:18 my mother-in-law closes the curtains and turns on the kitchen light. “Bismillah,” she says (in the name of God), handing around a bowlful of dates and glasses of water.
“Bismillah,” we all say, and let the sweetness of the date fill our dry, hungry mouths.
Growing up in the 1970s, I often peeked into my oldest brother’s top dresser drawer to see what treasures I might discover: condoms; a postcard from an old girlfriend; a ticket stub from a concert; marijuana and an apparatus for rolling perfect joints; and always the latest issue of Playboy.
One time I heard my dad, just coming off the graveyard shift, snooping through my brother’s dresser. Dad rarely ate breakfast when he got home from work in the morning. He would have a couple of cigarettes and a cup of coffee, hug us kids on our way out the door to school, then go to sleep and wake up around lunchtime.
On this particular day, however, Dad had four eggs, six pieces of bacon, and toast with his coffee. Evidently, instead of a cigarette, he’d smoked one of my brother’s perfectly rolled joints.
It’s a Tuesday morning, and I am doing last-minute homework at the kitchen table before I catch the bus to school. My older brother, R., comes downstairs in a camo T-shirt and swim trunks and begins gathering the components of his breakfast: Honey Nut Cheerios from the pantry; milk, orange juice, and applesauce from the refrigerator. My brother always eats the same foods for breakfast, in the same order, and not out of habit or convenience. Like so many other aspects of his daily life, breakfast must be a ritual. Any change — the wrong brand of cereal, applesauce in a plastic jar instead of glass — is enough to trigger a bout of anxiety.
The cereal bowl R. set out last night is there on the table at his place, where no one else sits, even when we have company. From the drawer next to the sink he takes the spoon with the faux-wooden handle and the metal fork with the flowery grooves and the fork’s matching knife. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t need a knife and fork to eat cereal and applesauce; it is crucial that every utensil be on hand. He opens the cabinet above the counter to retrieve one of the glass jelly jars that he always drinks from, then sits down and pours the cereal into the bowl until just a few Cheerios overflow onto the plate below. He eats loudly and quickly, his head lowered to minimize the distance that the cereal and milk must travel. When finished, he spoons applesauce into a clean bowl, bends his head, and slurps it up.
I want to ask him to please stop eating like that, because I find it disgusting and he will never get a girlfriend, but I keep my mouth shut. To him this is the only possible way to eat applesauce.
My brother’s inflexible requirements, though frustrating to me, are calming to him, and he needs calm before he goes to his job, assisting mentally ill and autistic workers on a nonprofit organic farm. One day he might help a person with schizophrenia fill water buckets for the llamas. Another, he could be supervising a crew of people with autism as they weed a row of carrots. His work is more challenging than the careers of many people without a condition like his — and it’s much better for him than living on disability payments.
As he leaves the house, I’m glad I kept my criticism to myself. I wish that I did so more often.
Since she returned home from the eating-disorder treatment center a few weeks ago, my seventeen-year-old daughter has been responsible for planning her own meals. She shows me her menu for the coming week, and I buy all the groceries she needs. We take turns preparing the food. This morning I’ve fixed her a couple of scrambled eggs, two pieces of toast, and a glass of orange juice.
She comes to the table dressed for school but sleepy. I set our plates down, and we give thanks. When I lift my head, I see a tear running down her cheek. I’m not sure what to do. I’ve learned that talking about food is nearly always a frustrating, sad endeavor, but I desperately want her to eat.
“What’s wrong, honey?” I ask cautiously.
“I’m having a hard day,” she replies.
I suggest that she try to eat a little something: “You have to eat to stay well. But I also know it is your choice.”
She looks at me and says softly that she is doing the best she can, but sometimes it’s just really, really hard. She’s sorry she can’t do better.
I feel bad for saying anything. Should I leave her alone, I ask, so she doesn’t feel pressured? No, she wants me to sit with her while she tries. She manages a few bites and sips, tears falling the whole time. Then she takes her plate into the kitchen and goes to brush her teeth.
That’s when I let my own tears come.
Grandma had lived through the Great Depression. (As a girl I never understood why something so terrible would be called “great.”) Her motto was “Waste not, want not.” For breakfast each day I had to eat a bowl of soggy puffed wheat floating in cold milk. I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I’d finished it. Then Grandma would braid my hair. If I shrank away from the brush, she’d admonish me to “straighten up and fly right, young lady.” I wanted to fly, all right — up through the roof and across town.
Once the tight braids were in place, I slunk off to school, where I was in the third grade. A girl named Mary Margaret, a year behind me, looked up to me for some reason. She would follow me on the playground and wave excitedly to me in the halls. I went home to Grandma’s for lunch every afternoon, and one day Mary Margaret asked if she could come with me. I would rather have gone to her house to eat. Over the summer I’d discovered that her family had strange and wonderful sandwiches made with mayonnaise, bologna, lettuce, tomato, and not one but two slices of bread. I didn’t understand why she would ever want to eat anyplace else, but the pleasure of my company apparently outweighed her appetite.
I was raised never to say no to anyone, so I had Mary Margaret wait on the front porch while I asked Grandma if she could stay for lunch. Yes, Grandma said, but only if I split mine with her.
My lunch was typically a piece of bread with crab-apple jelly made from the fruit of the trees in our yard. Sometimes I had rhubarb jelly instead (not as good) or just butter and sugar. I didn’t relish sharing this meager meal, but Mary Margaret was a guest. Grandma cut the slice of bread neatly down the middle, and Mary Margaret studied the two halves carefully before choosing the slightly bigger one.
After that, my schoolmate began coming home with me for lunch on a regular basis. One day, instead of bread, Grandma brought us out two small cups and proceeded to pour into them the warm milk and disintegrating cereal that I hadn’t finished that morning. “Waste not, want not,” she said.
Mary Margaret quickly excused herself, saying she’d forgotten something she had to do at home. For the second time that day I found myself staring at my uneaten breakfast.
Port Charlotte, Florida
In 1967 my eleventh-grade English class was practicing extemporaneous speaking. Mrs. Fischer had each student write down a topic (I wrote “my favorite film”) and toss it into a paper bag. One by one, we reached into the bag and picked a subject on which we had to deliver a three-minute, off-the-cuff speech. My hand sank into the bag and chose a piece of paper that was wadded up like a spitball. “Soup for breakfast,” I read. Oh, God, why did I have to pick this one? No one eats soup for breakfast.
While other students rambled on about summer vacation, marriage, FM radio, and desserts, I was struggling to come up with even one lucid thought on my topic.
Everyone laughed when I announced what I had drawn. I began by listing all of the canned-soup types I could remember from the grocery-store shelves, but I soon gained momentum: Why couldn’t we eat whatever we wanted for breakfast — soup or lasagna or ice cream? And why not Cheerios for dinner? I actually went over my time limit, and Mrs. Fischer had to ask me to sit down.
The student who had written “soup for breakfast” on that scrap of paper became my boyfriend, and eighteen months later he went to serve in Vietnam. He never returned. In one of his letters he told me that the Vietnamese ate soup for breakfast.
After weeks of unseasonably warm weather, it is cold on the January day my son gets out of the Georgia state prison. His fifteen-year-old daughter and I pick him up. It’s almost noon, but he wants to eat breakfast, so we find a cafe and take a seat at the counter. My son sits between his daughter and me, looking a little bewildered by this new environment. He scans the menu and says he can’t choose between bacon, ham, and sausage. His daughter tells him to get all three, and he does. He also orders waffles and coffee — the first decent cup he’s had in more than a decade, he says.
My granddaughter and I aren’t hungry, so we sit and watch my son savor his meal. I remember the first time we visited him, and my granddaughter cried when we had to leave. She was three and didn’t understand why he couldn’t come with us. She doesn’t remember this. She knows her father only from our biweekly visits. To her he has always lived in prison.
My granddaughter shows my son how to use her cellphone; the technology has advanced so much while he was inside. He sips his coffee and says he likes the heft of the white mug in his hands, the way it feels against his lip. The cook behind the counter overhears this and says, “Take it.”
“Thanks, man,” my son says.
It must have been obvious to the cook from the way we’ve been watching my son that we have just come from the prison. I wonder how many other men like him have shown up here immediately after they got out, their first desire upon regaining their freedom a big breakfast.
In my first week as a college freshman I met a red-haired girl from Connecticut named Anne. We were sitting in the dining hall one morning, just as the leaves outside were starting to change color, and Anne pulled out a pack of Camel cigarettes and lit one. (This was in the early eighties, when the tables in the dining hall had tin ashtrays right next to the napkins.) Anne took a drag on her Camel and said, “There’s nothing like a cigarette after breakfast.” This was news to me and felt radical somehow. Her eyes shone as she exhaled smoke into the sunlit air.
Anne and I fooled around a few times. Then I transferred to another school and didn’t see her again until a chance meeting on the street maybe a year later. She was still slim, funny, and beautiful. We chatted, had dinner, and said our goodbyes.
I’m not a smoker today, but I smoked socially for almost twenty years, in part because I loved the ritual, but also because I had been in love with Anne. I haven’t seen her since that chance encounter, but every so often, when I’m drinking my morning coffee, I think of her and desperately want to light up.
My dad had a shot of vodka, two slices of toast, and coffee for breakfast every day: always orange marmalade and butter on the toast; always instant coffee. It was the breakfast of a Hungarian peasant, except that in Hungary they ate more than toast.
I remember him mostly as absent. We didn’t have father-daughter discussions. He wasn’t the type to confide in anyone. He kept secrets. He pulled sneaky stunts. He made bad decisions, starting before I was even born: In 1967 he arranged passage on a transatlantic steamer from Canada to Hungary for himself, my eleven-year-old brother, and my mother. Their final destination was Matraballa, my father’s birthplace. They stayed for five years, during which time my mother had me.
Why did my father take his young son behind the Iron Curtain? Why did my mother allow it? Dad’s excuse was that kids adapt, but it wasn’t an educational experience for my brother. There was no money. Dad burned through their savings. There was no meat. There was an outhouse. My father’s relatives scoffed at his foolishness and treated my Canadian mother and brother as outsiders. Even after he’d decided to leave, bureaucratic red tape delayed our exit visas for nearly two years.
It was during our time in Hungary that my father picked up the habit of drinking vodka at breakfast. The men in the village fortified themselves each day with it, and he followed their example.
We returned to Canada when I was four years old. I spoke no English. A year later I told my parents that I would never speak Hungarian again, and I kept my word.
Dad couldn’t hold down a job for more than a couple of years at a time. His ego would get in the way, and he’d quit, or there would be layoffs and plant closures. Often he’d take a position far away and be separated from us for months or even a year. We moved around a lot.
In his eighties Dad developed Alzheimer’s. I went to the doctor with him and my mother last year, and the physician showed us test results that indicated impaired liver function. My father was using vodka to manage back pain (he had scoliosis), but I suspect he also drank too much because, with his dementia, he could no longer keep track of how many drinks he’d had.
For breakfast I usually have coffee, yogurt, fruit, and granola — never vodka.
One morning when I was eight years old, I walked into the kitchen and found my dad at the stove. My mother had always done the cooking, but that morning she was too sick to get out of bed.
“Do you want a Davy Crockett egg?” my dad asked.
I was skeptical of his cooking skills and didn’t know what a Davy Crockett egg was, but as a child of the 1950s I did own a raccoon-fur cap and knew all the words to “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” so I said yes. My father told me to go out in the yard and find him a stick “like one that Davy Crockett would use around his campfire.” I went and brought one back. Dad inspected it and, finding the stick satisfactory, used it to stir my eggs. He said that was how Davy Crockett had done it.
The eggs Dad made that morning were the tastiest I had ever eaten.
My mother died when I was thirty. Throughout my adulthood, whenever I returned home, I would ask Dad to make me Davy Crockett eggs, and they were always the best. Was it something about the stick?
At sixty-two, while visiting Dad, I spent an emotionally draining evening with someone dear to me who was going through a hard time. The next morning my father poked his head into my room and asked how my night had been. “Horrible,” I replied. Later, when I came into the kitchen, I saw a freshly whittled stick sitting on the counter. Dad had made me Davy Crockett eggs.
He died six months later. That stick now sits in my silverware drawer.
Ann C. Schauber
One fall afternoon when I was nine, there was a buzz of excitement around our Missouri farm: the wife of a poor sharecropper a mile away was about to have a baby. Mother would serve as midwife and hurriedly packed a bag in preparation for spending the night. Dad took her to the woman’s house and brought back the sharecropper’s two children to stay with us. The older girl was in first grade and attended the same one-room country school my sister, Anna, and I did. The girl was pale and thin, her clothes were threadbare, and her school lunches, I recalled, were usually just bread with either jelly or Karo syrup.
The four of us had a good time playing that evening, and the next morning Dad fixed a breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, toast, and oatmeal, with butter, jelly, and sugar on the table and all the milk we wanted to drink.
The sharecropper’s children just sat and looked at their plates for what seemed a long time, as if afraid to eat, or perhaps unable to decide what to try first. Dad quickly assured them that there were seconds of everything.
They began to eat slowly, picking at their food, not quite believing, I suppose, that there really was more.
Nathan J. Bolls
When my Protestant father married my Catholic mother in 1934, he agreed to bring up any offspring in her faith. My brothers and sister and I attended a Catholic grammar school, where we learned that being non-Catholic presented a real disadvantage to seeking salvation. We were urged to pray for our father’s conversion.
Once, when I was in second grade, the teacher asked me gravely, “What is it like to have a father who is not a Catholic?”
“It’s great,” I responded. “He always has the breakfast ready when we get home from church.”
Susan Seymour Murphy
Pawtucket, Rhode Island
© Cynthia E. Wood
Early in the morning I stagger out of bed, put on my heaviest winter coat, boots, and mittens, and retrieve the newspaper. Back indoors I make myself a cup of coffee, grab two gluten-free muffins and a tangerine, and sit down at the kitchen table to savor the paper and the silence.
Later my husband of twenty-eight years will come and kiss the top of my head, and I will ask how he slept. He will make a cup of tea with eighteen shakes of cinnamon and eat a cherry Greek yogurt and a bowl of Cheerios with almond milk and stevia. I will pass him his favorite parts of the paper: the advice column and the comics. He will sometimes laugh, and I will read him an article that has caught my eye as the sun comes through the window, illuminating our faces.
My husband has an incurable lymphoma and believes he will not live long. I am not convinced he’s right, but if he is, I know that one day I will look back with longing on these ordinary breakfasts.
I grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, the oldest of three siblings. My father was a lawyer and an alcoholic, and I think my mother had Asperger’s syndrome. When my father was in a drunken rage, she would sit on the couch and sing to herself or babble about some unrelated subject.
One of my father’s rules was that we had to have breakfast together as a family on Sunday mornings. But because he’d often been drunk the night before, he sometimes wouldn’t serve breakfast until noon. He usually fried kippered herring, and the whole house would smell of it afterward. He also fried oatmeal. Several times I tried to leave the house early to avoid this ritual, but my father would catch me and shove me around, slapping and berating me while my mother babbled. I’d end up at the breakfast table choking down the kippered herring with a tear-stained face.
When I married and had children of my own, I never insisted that they sit at the table like little soldiers, waiting for their breakfast.
Kamloops, British Columbia
Bacon. The tantalizing aroma drifted up the farmhouse stairs to our attic bedroom, reminding my two sisters and me that it was Saturday.
On weekday mornings our mother would have left already for her teaching job, and we would scoop cold Cream of Wheat or oatmeal from the pot and wash our own dishes before we went to school. Dad would eat while we were gone, after he’d finished milking the cows. But on the weekends the whole family had breakfast together: bacon and eggs and homemade bread toasted and slathered with butter.
My sisters and I went downstairs and took our places at the table. Mom ladled scrambled eggs into a bowl, set it in front of us, and sat down to say grace before we ate.
That morning, as I was reaching for the butter, I saw something outside the window that startled me: smoke was rolling from the brand-new pig house Dad had built with the neighbors’ help. “Fire!” I shouted.
The pig house had been a major investment. It was as big as a garage and had a heat lamp hanging from a beam to keep the sow’s litter of ten piglets warm in their straw bedding. I loved watching the squirmy babies line up at their mother’s belly.
The neighbors formed a frantic bucket brigade with us, but it was too late. The structure burned to the ground, and the baby pigs all perished. The sow had escaped into the pen, but I don’t remember what happened to her after that day. Most likely she was butchered for our weekend breakfasts.
Once the fire was out, I returned to the kitchen to clean up, scraping the dried egg from our plates, and the cold bits of bacon.
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” my mother would tell me from the time I was in first grade until I was a sophomore in college. Even now she will sometimes call and ask what I had for breakfast.
My last boyfriend was a breakfast person. He would wake up an hour before me to enjoy a leisurely morning meal. As I ran out the door, I would grab his leftovers to eat later as a snack or even for lunch. Toward the end of our ten-year relationship, when it had become clear that we were going nowhere as a couple, he commented, “You can’t even make yourself breakfast in the morning.”
He was right, I thought.
Three months after we’d broken up, I told my therapist that my boyfriend had been too good for me. For example, he had gotten up and made breakfast, the most important meal of the day. I couldn’t even do that simple task for myself.
“Do you like to eat breakfast?” my therapist asked.
No. I really didn’t. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment: If I didn’t want breakfast in the morning, it wasn’t a sign that something was wrong with me. I just wasn’t hungry.
I recently began volunteering at a Seattle homeless shelter that offers young adults a safe place to spend the night and a meal in the morning. On my scheduled days I show up at 6 AM to cook breakfast for our guests, who have to leave by eight. Most shuffle to the serving line, wiping sleep from their eyes, and thank me for the hot food before they head out.
One morning I served a young woman who couldn’t have been much older than eighteen and didn’t look as if she’d been homeless very long; she didn’t have the hardened appearance that life on the streets can give a person.
“Is there any more bacon?” she asked.
I glanced at the empty steamer tray that just fifteen minutes earlier had held two pounds of bacon and told her no; the bacon goes fast. Disappointed, she mumbled something about being late because she’d needed to take a shower before breakfast. I pointed out that we still had a dozen or so pancakes and asked if she would like one.
She peered at the tray tentatively and said yes, but only if she could have “that one.”
Really? I thought as I rearranged several pancakes to uncover the precise flapjack she desired. You want to be that choosy? But I put it on a plate for her with a helping of butter and syrup and sent her on her way.
Later I reflected on the exchange. I’d been annoyed by what I’d seen as that young person’s sense of entitlement and lack of gratitude. But now I tried to let go of judgment. People in her position have very little control over their lives. Often they are forced to take whatever others are willing to hand out. If, by granting her request, I could help her regain some modicum of control, shouldn’t I have been glad to give her that gift?
After a long night of drinking and gambling, I would wake up Sunday morning eagerly anticipating a visit with my twenty-four-year-old son, Ryan. Ever since he’d been in high school, I had seen him mostly when he needed money, but lately he had begun driving almost an hour every weekend to meet me at a bistro for a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, omelets, hash browns, and fresh-brewed coffee.
For many years before that, Ryan and I had tried and failed to understand each other. I saw in him some of the same traits that made his mother so hard for me to love. But now I found my son great company. Sometimes after breakfast we might continue the visit with an outing to an auction or county fair.
That all ended abruptly in the winter of 2011, when I stole money to feed my gambling addiction and received a ten-year prison sentence. Ryan promised to stay in touch while I was behind bars, but four years later I’m realizing that I lost much more than money when I chose to live a life of gambling and crime.
These days I wake up at 5 AM every day for breakfast. The kitchen usually serves something that passes for biscuits. The coffee machine has been broken for years. I don’t care. It’s just food. There are no more breakfasts with my son. He no longer speaks to me.
When I was three, breakfast was often appams, thin pancakes made of rice flour and coconut milk. I could smell them as I came downstairs at my grandparents’ house at dawn. They looked like lace doilies on the china plates. I was supposed to eat them with a spicy green chutney, but instead I tore off pieces and dipped them in sugar.
Other South Indian breakfasts I feasted on back then were idlis — fat little cakes I also smothered in sugar — and upma: Cream of Wheat sautéed in oil, ginger, onions, and green chilies and flecked with mustard seeds. It looked like a cloud. I kneaded it with banana and sugar and licked it from my fingers.
By my fourth birthday, my family had moved from Boston, where my grandparents lived, to a small university town in Virginia. I missed the smell of my grandmother’s breakfasts and the sight of her at the stove in her housedress, curly hair tumbling down her back as she watched over an array of kettles and frying pans. But I adjusted quickly to American-style breakfasts: cold cereal, cinnamon-flavored frozen waffles, “sunshine toast” that had an egg yolk cooked into the middle, and scones from the bakery.
In middle school I heard conversations about some girls who were gaining weight because they made bad choices at mealtimes. Breakfast suddenly felt dangerous. Food could turn my body into a sight worthy of revulsion or pity. I began to crush my Cheerios, making them sink to the bottom of the bowl, beneath the milk I hadn’t drunk. I thought everyone hid food and lied about it, and I was only just catching on.
Before long I was afraid to put anything into my mouth. At twelve I woke up every day to the cold, medicinal smell of a hospital ward and had breakfast brought to me on a white tray. If I couldn’t eat it, the doctors would make me drink a thick liquid that looked disgusting. As I swallowed it, I thought about appams, idlis, upma, toaster waffles, and sunshine toast. I thought about what I’d once been able to eat without fear.
Palo Alto, California
My father was disciplined and structured; my mother was high-strung and “nervous” — the code word in those days for mentally unstable. She always believed that someone was screwing her over. Once she got going, nothing we could say or do would distract her from her rants about her latest enemy.
My father was a World War II veteran who fought at Okinawa and Guadalcanal. Even in retirement he would get up each morning at six, get dressed, read the paper, watch the morning news, and eat breakfast.
At precisely 8:30 he’d wake my mother, who’d likely been up till three in the morning the night before, scrubbing the old stove top until it gleamed like a showroom model. She would stumble downstairs to the kitchen, looking wild after four or five hours of sleep, in a ragged nightgown and leather gardening shoes. My father would bring her coffee and heat up some French toast or scrambled eggs for her.
He did this unfailingly every day until one morning he tried to get out of bed but failed. For probably the first time in their sixty-two years of marriage he asked my mother to make him breakfast. She did, but he couldn’t take a bite.
I came to their home to help out, and for the next two weeks, until the day he died, my mother muttered over and over, “He woke me up to make him breakfast, and then he didn’t eat it!” Her eyes would dart, and her voice would rise angrily: “I’m not making breakfast for people who won’t eat it.”
I don’t know which I found more painful: the way my mother’s mental illness made her turn on her dying husband, or the knowledge that my father would never make any of us breakfast again.
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
I went to a Christian college at which students were required to attend morning chapel twice a week. I obeyed this rule for my first two years, but as a junior I moved into a farmhouse off campus with several friends, and we began skipping chapel to go to Wolfe’s Diner instead.
A boxcar-shaped building with a shiny aluminum exterior, Wolfe’s could seat perhaps twenty patrons. If we got there before 10 AM, a breakfast of eggs, toast, hash browns, and bottomless mediocre coffee was just $1.25. While we ate, my friends and I would share our pretentious undergraduate philosophies of life, or lament all the sex we weren’t having, or talk about rock concerts in nearby Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
I learned more about life and spirituality at those hazy morning meals than I did at any chapel session. Sometimes a comfortable silence would settle over the table, and I would offer an unspoken prayer of gratitude while sopping up egg yolk or reaching for a napkin from the chrome dispenser.
After breakfast we would light cigarettes, the smoke hanging in the air above us. The smell would get into my clothes so that later my classmates in Old Testament Studies or Spanish 301 could detect it. This made me feel cool and contradictory — an outlaw who still dug Jesus.
Though Wolfe’s was open twenty-four hours, we never went there at any other time of day. (We had another, neon-lit diner where we hung out at night.) Wolfe’s was for morning Mass only, the cracked vinyl booths our pews, the cigarette smoke the incense, the soggy toast and watery coffee Christ’s body and blood. I imagine the graying waitress shaking her head as she cleared our table and collected the nickels and dimes we’d left behind: our offering.
Seven days a week I eat the same old thing: one egg scrambled with cheddar and green chilies on a toasted English muffin — maybe a pat of butter if I’ve toasted the muffin to a crisp — served with eight ounces of orange juice and two double shots of espresso. I’m a creature of habit, it’s true, but it’s a tasty breakfast.
Our son is almost a year old, and my wife tells me she feels frumpy. She sometimes says, “I hope you don’t fall in love with a pretty girl at work.” She doesn’t mean it — except maybe she does, a little bit.
We’ve been together for thirteen years. She’s even more beautiful to me now than when we were newlyweds. No other woman can compete. Still, she’s insecure and asks if I get bored with our lovemaking. I wonder: Do I seem bored? I worry that she’ll get bored with me.
This morning, when she asks again if I’m tired of having sex with her, I give her an incredulous look, grab her around the waist, and pull her close. It’s early. The baby’s still asleep.
Later we stand in the kitchen, flushed, smiling, and hungry. She toasts the muffins while I whip the eggs in a bowl that we’ve had since before our wedding. The coffee is brewed, the orange juice poured. We’re about to eat the same old breakfast, one more time. It’s sure to be delicious.