Halloween, 1972 was the first Halloween I didn’t go trick-or-treating. Since I’d been sick for days with a fever, my mother refused to let me out of the house. The black and yellow pirate costume she’d spent the past weeks making hung in the closet dejectedly. My sister was forced to split her candy with me but I was in no shape to eat it. Ravenous when my fever broke, I devoured the “eggy and toast” Mom made. Perfectly soft-boiled eggs mingled with bits of broken up toast and mixed together. The toast was neither too crisp nor too mushy. Globs of half-melted butter slid throughout the mixture along with a little salt. Eating it I felt strangely happy.
At 27 I moved in with my grandmother. I would like to say it was because she lost her sight and needed me but it was also because I wanted some freedom, having lived with my parents my entire life. She lived alone in a second floor apartment in a sketchy section of southwest Philadelphia. Her sight deteriorated at the same rate her fear escalated. “They are not going to experiment on me,” she’d say emphatically when I suggested she have the cataracts removed. Consoling herself she’d add, “At least I still can see some things.”
Because the television didn’t work, I’d read to her after dinner. Short stories and poetry were her favorites. One evening after reading “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” I explained to her how symbolism is used in writing. After mulling the purpose of symbolism, she responded, “I prefer to keep my cookies on a lower shelf.”
She loved “Breakfast,” which was really an excerpt from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Anything that had to do with the simple things in life, or people being compassionate to each other, appealed to her. “Kindness,” she would say, “is the most important thing in life.”
For our own breakfast we’d have toast. Mine would be with coffee and hers with tea. “I can tell you spread the Oleo to the very edges of the toast. I like that.”
On my birthday, she’d put out a white linen hand towel that had, “Maid’s Day Off,“ embroidered on it. She would change the toilet paper when it was close to the end so I didn’t have to. When she knew it to time for me to come home from school, she would feel her way down the steps and unlock the door so I wouldn’t have to wrestle with it. Sometimes I’d find her sitting halfway up the steps because it was just too much to turn around and climb back up.
Sometimes I would get lost in the memories of time together. When I was younger we used to walk through Mount Moriah, the nearby cemetery that held Betsy Ross’ remains. That was until they were relocated so visitors to Philadelphia during the bicentennial wouldn’t have to travel through such a shady neighborhood. We’d put flowers on graves of children who had died that had nothing more than “Tommy” and “Billy” etched into the stone. Names and the dates indicating they were children.
I remember things she taught me: how to throw a ball, how to crochet a chain stitch, and how a pebble tossed into the pond would create endless ripples.
When Cathy and I first got together, it was obvious she was the cook. Even to this day there are only about 20 meals I can make. Blueberry and cream cheese stuffed French toast is one of them. On our first Valentine’s Day, I made it for breakfast. It took me a good deal of time and the kitchen looked like a hazmat scene but it was scrumptious. I watched as she sopped up every sticky bit of the homemade blueberry compote and washed it down with a mimosa.
Two years ago, when Dad was dying of end stages C.O.P.D., I’d spend Wednesday nights at my parents’ house. Mom, Dad and I would watch Criminal Minds and try to figure out who the “unsub” was. Dad’s hospital bed was situated in the living room. I stayed on the sofa bed and got up often to make sure he hadn’t pulled his oxygen tubes out of his nose. On Thursday mornings I’d get up at 4:30 while it was still dark out and have toast and coffee with him before making the two-hour trek to work. In the beginning I would try to creep through the living room so as not to wake him. Dad, in turn, would rattle the trapeze chain above the hospital bed. I’d whisper, “Dad, you up?”
“Yuh, huh,” would come the reply. After transferring him to the wheelchair, we’d sit at the kitchen table. Usually we’d toast dense twelve-grain bread then smear it with Country Crock and grape jelly. Dad would fold the toast in two and the jelly would squeeze out the bottom and glop down on the table or sometimes his T-shirt. Time with dad was precious and I was fortunate to get some one-on-one time with him. I don‘t really remember the conversation we shared. I always felt so full when I left on those mornings.
I sit here eating toast as I write this.