It must have been a summer morning, because I wasn’t in school, and if I had been home sick, my mother wouldn’t have been relaxed enough to sing along to the AM station of our ’70s-era radio: The very thought of you / And I forget to do / The little ordinary things / That everyone ought to do... “That’s our song, your father’s and mine,” she said dreamily, a small smile on her face, as she made my everyday breakfast of cereal and juice. My mother was seldom in a dreamy state. Fiercely practical and constitutionally active, she kept busy most of the time. Forms were filled out, lunches were packed, dinner was made. She was content with what she had: A husband, two children, a house, two cars, and pizza every Friday night as a break from cooking.
But what she had began with romance, and that romance began with breakfast.
My mother reached her mid-twenties without marrying, and though this wasn’t the cruel fate it might have been a generation earlier, it still manifested a certain bohemian streak that her mother knew how to use against her. “You and your liberal friends and your free love,” my grandmother would say. “You’ll be in trouble in no time.”
The irony was, although my mother was liberal culturally and politically, she was personally conservative and sexually inexperienced. She attended folk music hootenannies, voted for Kennedy, and ate exotic foods like Italian cheeses and Chinese mushrooms, but her romantic life was less exciting than a box of Lorna Doones.
That was about to change. Mom worked at a small Roman Catholic women’s college and commuted south from an apartment she shared with a girlfriend. Each morning she stopped her gray VW Beetle at the same diner in Marlboro, New York. The joint churned out coffee, toast, and eggs for dozens of hungry workers and never had enough staff. My mother, used to pitching in, offered to help out pouring and flipping.
Here’s the part that always makes me smile: “Your father helped out, too.” It didn’t occur to her that the handsome, recently divorced engineer from New Jersey might be helping out not because he was altruistic or loved to cook. He was helping out because it was the quickest way to sidle up to the lithe and witty young woman plating bacon and hash browns.
Their first date away from the diner took place at an Italian restaurant. He ordered a whisky sour and she did, too, because she didn’t know any other cocktails. The piano player launched into “The Very Thought of You.” They fell in love.
My father has been gone for almost a decade, so I can’t ask him about that diner, or how many eggs he had to flip to convince my mother to go on that date. But I can remember how, every Sunday of my life before college, my father made a full breakfast for our family of four on an electric skillet. Eggs and bacon, fried to perfection, with a percolator of fresh coffee nearby and rye bread popping out of our old chrome toaster.
Now I know he was really cooking it all for an audience of one, the woman who captured his heart as they both worked and laughed behind a narrow counter. For my mother and father, the very thought of each other included the pop and sizzle of breakfast.