OF FEET AND TABLES AND FORKS THAT DON'T MATCH
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Breakfast growing up was most always a boring thing: one egg, one biscuit and one glass of milk. We would wake for school and embrace the day in this manner.
It wasn’t because Mama thought it was nutritious. She did say, on occasion, that it stuck to your ribs. By the time I was in the ninth grade, biology class dispelled that claim. By my senior year in high school, economics class made be finally realize that this was nothing more than an inexpensive way to feed the five of us boys. Biscuits were cheap when made by hand, an egg apiece was reasonable and the milk just washed down the love and frugality.
There it was, every morning of the week: one egg, a biscuit, a glass of milk and a heaping helping of frugality. The only variation from this would be Saturday morning.
Every Saturday, my mom would make bacon and grits or milk gravy to go along with the egg and biscuit. Quite often, if we were lucky, we would even get two eggs. If we were fast, we would get two biscuits.
Most of the time, what we referred to as bacon was actually fat back or what mama called "strick-o-lean". I never really cared. It was different. It smelled good cooking and I would always be the first of the five kids awake just so I could soak in the smell. It seems a bit trite to most people, but to me, this was a special occasion.
I didn't know we were poor. I knew we had less than some people but I didn’t equate that to being different. The economic part of all of this never came into play until I was older. My real appreciation for these Saturdays wouldn’t hit for many years to come.
Back then, we would sit as a family and eat breakfast on Saturday morning. Two of us boys would be at the kitchen table with Mama and Daddy, the other three boys at the bar between the kitchen and dining room.
Mom would always sit sideways to the table. I once asked her why and she seemed puzzled. It was like she, herself, had forgotten why she sat this way. She told us she was more comfortable like that but I figured it was because of all the feet under that old oak table. There just wasn’t enough room for her. She never complained.
I learned to enjoy the simple pleasures of life with my feet under that old oak table on Saturday morning. Through the years, we had the same table but many different plates. Five clumsy boys made sure of that. The funny thing is that I can recall the table and I can recall what was on the plate but I can’t picture the actual plate. I appreciated it. But I can’t recall it.
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Most of the time, the fork would fail to match the spoon. Well, maybe they did match because they were silver in color but the patterns were seldom the same. I came to appreciate this as well because it was something different. Mama always kept one set that all matched in a safe place for company. I don’t really ever remember company coming over to eat. Maybe it was because there were too many feet under the table.
Breakfast seemed to last a long time back then. We would pray and we would eat. Not much was ever said. No one proclaimed their plans for the day. No one talked about the weather. No one really ever spoke. We just ate. Mama always had an old AM radio playing in the background. Most of the time, it played country music. Sometimes it was the news. We never really paid it much attention. It was just part of the kitchen.
We had a washer and a dryer in the kitchen as well. During meals, it served as a buffet. I never saw anything wrong with a plate full of fluffy white biscuits sitting on that old brown dryer. It was part of the kitchen and the kitchen was where we ate.
There were never any biscuits left on the dryer after breakfast anyway. As a matter of fact, there was never anything left on any of the plates. I would, later in life, come to understand this to be a compliment to the cook.
As the years went by, I never stopped to look at that kitchen as much as I do today. The kitchen was a focal point in our family home. It divided the rest of the house from the den. We walked through it dozens of times each day. We ate there. We drank there. We fussed there. We got our whippings there for fussing or fighting. We grew up in that kitchen. We never really stopped, though, and appreciated what it meant to our family.
I haven’t been back in that kitchen since I was 21. It has, no doubt, been remodeled countless times from the pine paneling, green linoleum and single frosted light fixture. It was good enough for us. There wasn’t a lot of room but we didn’t need a lot. There wasn’t a lot a light but we could see just fine anyway. We didn’t have a dishwasher. We didn’t have an ice maker.
The old oak table was lost it in a move. The spoons and forks, I am confident, gave up on finding their mates. Plates that met an untimely demise probably still haunt the cupboards early on Saturday mornings. And the feet from my youth have all gone in separate directions. Mama and Daddy, too.
Breakfast taught me a lot about eggs and feet and thriftiness. Most of all, it taught me about love and traditions.
Years later, as a young man, I found myself to be a single Dad to two wonderful kids. I also found the chance to repeat traditions. Shanna, my first child, and Bryant never saw it coming.
We lived in Georgia then Virginia then back in Georgia and finally to Alabama. We had an octagonal table, a square table and long table. I don’t ever recall owning a round table. The tables were all wood but not oak. Well, there were particles of wood, pressed together in a factory. It seemed like wood I guess. They all had seemed to have enough room underneath for feet.
We had plates but they never did catch my eye any more than Mama’s plates did. I always tried to have matching silverware but often failed. Despite the years and the obvious differences, Saturday morning became special again, at least to me.
Most mornings during the week, Shanna and Bryant had cold cereal before school. Eggs and a biscuit were available but never called into service. The biscuits stayed in the freezer and the eggs lived a lonely week in the fridge. Yes, I found myself being frugal as a single parent but saving a few minutes was as important to me as saving a few pennies.
But, not on Saturday.
Saturday was when I would cook a big breakfast. I had learned how to make milk gravy like Mama and Aunt Nora used to make. That was a watershed point in my life. Neither one was around to test my recipe but I thought it was good. We had grits most of the time but once we moved to Virginia, grits were scarce. I learned the milk gravy recipe almost out of necessity. Bless my babies; it was a trial of errors.
As the years went by, I began to feel giddy on Friday night while planning Saturday morning breakfast.
I learned how to make banana pancakes. I still couldn’t make biscuits from scratch but I could knock that can up against the counter with the best cooks. I learned which cheese to use in the grits and how much. I found the lost art of flipping eggs.
I never did learn how to sit sideways at the table although I do remember trying it one time. It seemed extremely uncomfortable for me. Mama always bragged that she never told a lie.
As more years passed, I realized how proud I was to get up and make that Saturday morning breakfast for the kids. I was carrying on a tradition.
I assume Saturday morning breakfast was special for Shanna and Bryant. They never really said it was special. I do have a feeling that one day they will glance back into the old kitchens in Georgia, Virginia and Alabama and see what I see today. I guess that’s the thing about traditions: for a tradition to be real time has to pass. I am sure they’ll never embrace it until later anyway.
There we were, anyway, a single Dad and two babies. A table, some plates, mismatched spoons and forks, eggs, milk gravy and frozen biscuits. And love.
Shanna and Bryant grew up. Their feet are now under someone else’s table.
Shanna is married and is a college graduate. She lives in Georgia. There are just four feet under her table for now.
Bryant is in college and is also a soldier. He has many feet under the table no matter where he sits. Most of the time, lately, his feet are in Iraq but soon they will be in back at the University of Tennessee again.
I miss their feet. I miss their smiles. I miss those days.
I have now started a new family. I remarried and Granger was born a month shy of Bryant’s High School graduation. Maggie followed fourteen months later and now we have little Laina. My wife, Val, loves my Saturday morning breakfast. She has made sure that the spoons and forks all match.
We have a pine table now. The plates are all different colors by design. I have learned to make biscuits from scratch. I take them out of the oven, stack them on a plate and serve them from the counter. It’s part of the kitchen.
I even have a hot plate to make pancakes. I have an ice maker and a dishwasher in my kitchen. The walls are made of gypsum. There is tile on the floor. We have a chandelier over the table with five lights. We have room to move around.
Most mornings, Granger wakes up with the sunrise much as I did when I was a small child. I see so much of me in him. It makes me remember what all I had growing up. It also helps me forget all that I didn’t have growing up.
Mama and Daddy were good providers. We never got all that we wanted. They gave us much of what we needed but we were always prudent. I never had a dirt bike. I never went to Disney world. Our birthdays all fell within a few weeks of one another so all we received for a present was a home made cake of our choice made in Mama’s kitchen and served from the dryer. Christmas wasn’t much different.
I had a tradition, though. This tradition, I have found, would mean more to me than a dirt bike or a trip. They don’t sell this stuff in the Christmas catalog.
Shanna and her husband Daryl visit often. Bryant is home when he can make it.
I find myself, when all of my children are home, almost overcome as I cook breakfast on Saturday morning. Is it a chore? No, not at all. It’s more like a privilege.
I have eggs. I have bacon. I even have home made biscuits and gravy. I have plates that don’t match by design. My spoons agree with my forks.
I have five kids now just like Mama and Daddy. I also have a table. Under that table I have feet, lots of feet. And under those feet I have a tradition. I wonder if this is how Mama and Daddy felt