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K. Joanne Miller: Breakfast was once a magical experience

When I think of breakfast, the imagery that floods my mind is not of tastes but rather of sights, sounds and people. As a young child, I associated breakfast with time alone with my mother. I would wait until my brother and sister left for school before weaving my way down the creaky, wooden stairs, trying to avoid the boards that would warn my mother in the kitchen of my impending arrival. More than one would always give me away.

Food was always the same: hot oatmeal with a large dollop of brown sugar, which fascinated me as it melted and oozed like glistening rivulets. Breakfast preceded a morning spent together doing errands, feeding the porch squirrel, working on jigsaw puzzles and visiting neighbors. It was a lovely, magical time.

Parallel to these childhood moments with my mother were the ones I spent in summer with my grandmother, Nana, on her dairy farm. No matter how sleepy I was, I tried to rouse myself in the wee morning hours to join my two uncles and the hired hand in the barn as they milked the cows, still by hand, before they left for their “real” jobs. As young as I was, I could still connect the satisfaction of the cows as they ate their own breakfast, grinding their cuds, with that which we would soon experience when we sat down at my grandmother’s table.

As we entered Nana’s kitchen, the sweet smells of hay and milk were quickly exchanged, because by 6 a.m. she’d already cooked a full dinner – meat, potatoes, vegetables, fresh baked bread and always a homemade pie. To this day, decades later, I can still see the men devouring this feast and Nana hovering to bring refills.

By the time I was in my teens, the whole breakfast scene had become a misery. I’d awaken to the sound of my father’s Zippo lighter snapping closed, and then to my mother as she plodded down the same creaking stairs that years before had held such magic.

I dreaded having to join her at the breakfast table, sitting kitty-corner, listening with equal parts annoyance and puzzlement to her consuming the usual bowl of oatmeal. I wondered how the simple act of eating oatmeal – which didn’t require being “chewed” – could create so much noise? Why did her teeth have to gnash together as they did when she ate?

My father would generally emerge before my escape, and I would then have to endure the shrill and insistent ringing of the phone as teachers called him, their principal, to say they would need a substitute. His voice would be sharp in response, and he would become frustrated with the short, twisted phone cord.

Years later, my then-husband would prepare a wholesome breakfast for our son and me before we left for school and work. It was often an effort to get my son to finish his breakfast, and I would resort to pleas such as: “You’ll think better on your test!” Such vocal noise must have created for him a similar agony that I had felt at his age by the gnashing teeth and the ringing phone. The tables had turned.

Today I find myself resorting to the familiar oatmeal, simply fixed with apples and cinnamon. There is an absence of sound – sometimes welcomed, other times deafening. In this, my third act of life, I would like to exchange one current breakfast for any one from the past. I’d love to again hear those creaking stairs, the grinding cuds and chomping teeth, the voice speaking into the phone with the snarled cord or the responses of my son as we three began our day by eating breakfast together.