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Page Two, A Good Breakfast by Julia Sneden

One grandmother always started breakfast with a bowl of stewed prunes. The other grandmother poured orange juice over her dry cereal. Neither menu appealed to me. My mother and great Aunt Martha preferred hot cereal on a cool winter morning, and they sprinkled it with brown sugar (when we had any). I abhorred all hot cereals, although my mother could entice me to eat Cream of Rice if she put a load of raisins in the bottom of the bowl, and cream, brown sugar, and a pat of butter on top. As far as I was concerned, the raisins were the only redeeming feature.

Usually, my father came to the table in a great hurry to bolt down his egg and toast and set off for the commuter train, a good 15-minute drive from our house. He drove an old, 2-door Plymouth jalopy nicknamed "Prob'ly" because probably it wouldn't last out the war. It didn't.

My brother and I tended to dawdle and then dash out the door, flying down the hill to the bus stop half a mile away. Missing the bus was a great sin, because it meant that Mother had to drive us to school, using rationed gasoline. She drove the very last Ford sold in our town before the war turned the auto companies into factories for tanks and jeeps. We called our rust-colored sedan "Maybe" because maybe she'd make it through the war. She did, and then some. (Don't ask me why "Maybe" was female and "Prob'ly" neuter: that's just how it was).

Actually, breakfast wasn't my favorite family meal. Dinner was much more appealing, communal and relaxed. Most of us ate our breakfasts quietly. We were slow to wake up and fairly uncommunicative. One of my grandmothers, however, was the kind of person who wakes up cheerful and chatty. I remember her coming to the table full of good information and penetrating questions and chipper observations. We tended to respond with sleepy grunts. She simply loved sitting down to her coffee and cereal and toast, and delighted in the start of a new day.

I remember one morning in particular when she sat down, looked around at us, and then said perkily: "Ah, good old brekkie!"

My brother rolled his eyes. My father raised the newspaper higher. Aunt Martha, who was quite deaf, continued her perpetual little hum as she cut her toast into neat little squares. My mother grimaced and said urgently: "Mother, please!"

Grandmother didn't acknowledge any of us. She turned to my other grandmother and said: "Prue, do you think there's anything quite as nice as a sunny breakfast table?"

Grandma Brown looked momentarily flustered. "It's certainly a good way to start the day," she said. "So are my prunes."

"I think," said Aunt Martha, who managed to hear what she wanted to, "a bit of bran works just as well, and you know that if you chew every bite 100 times, you'll never need prunes at all."

My father laid down his paper and excused himself. My brother announced that he needed to go brush his teeth, and also left the table. My mother shook her head and gave a little laugh. "There you go again," she said. "Can't we discuss something other than the human digestive system over the breakfast table?"

For years, I thought that my grandmothers and great aunts were the only bowel-obsessed women in the world. Then I read somewhere that the Edwardians figured that all the world's ills could be cured with either an aspirin or an enema, or possibly both. If someone appeared out of sorts, they were quick to lay his or her ill humor to constipation. Certainly that was true of my Edwardian relatives. Breakfast conversation was full of remarks about which foods would "bind" and which would stimulate the healthy bowel. Oddly enough, such discussion never interfered with their appetites. I can recall my dainty little grandmothers shoveling down their breakfasts like stevedores, while discussing matters of elimination. (As noted, the rest of us made excuses to leave the table). Perhaps a generation that grew up using outhouses had reason to be more forthright than we who have known only tile bathrooms and closed doors. A family that had a three-holer was used to communal action and conversation of a kind that re-defines the word "sharing."

These days, my breakfast table is blessedly quiet except for the Today Show in the background. I married a man who simply doesn't eat breakfast, although he puts enough non-dairy creamer and sugar into his coffee to tide him over for the entire day. But I miss the old, sun-filled dining room, and all the people in it. I think I could even put up with a lively discussion on the merits of Milk of Magnesia for the privilege of hearing the beloved voices one more time. Oh, and having before me a plate of oranges, cut by my grandmother in "the rude way."

Now that was the way to start the day.


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