I remember breakfast tables from my earliest childhood; sunshine spills across a blue-checked tablecloth stiff with starch and fresh air. Cut-glass bowls hold jelly and jam. The Concord grape and strawberry wriggle, seem to live a life of their own, nurtured by a slow, hidden heartbeat.
From my seat at the table, my father’s law books stacked under me, I saw, out the window, two cardinals flutter in midair. The larger bird was bright red, the smaller dull rust. The larger pecked the smaller. “Stop them,” I screamed. Even before the first word came out of my father’s mouth, the birds flew. My father said, calm down, the birds were making babies. Soon they would lay eggs and their pretty eggs would fill to bursting with baby redbirds. Maybe the birds built their nest in our poplars or maples or elms. Maybe the mother redbird plucked up my lovely hair from the day before, when we set me in the yard on a chair and trimmed my curls so my neck wouldn’t get so hot and sweaty. Maybe she lined her nest with my curls. “Imagine that!” my father said and smiled.
My mother then may have said to my father, as she often did, “Don’t fill her head with ideas. You’ll make her wild.”
I remember fried green tomatoes and fried apple rings. My father and mother dip a forkful of charred tomato or apple into the lake of marigold yolk. They bite down with huge fierce teeth. Butter gleams on their lips. They spoon yellow cream into coffee; the coffee instantly turns pale, the way people do when they hear bad news. I remember the glurg-glurg when they swallow coffee, their enormous heads thrown back, pale white throats exposed. My father leaves a coffee taste on my lips when he kisses me goodbye in the morning. Years later, at the movies on Saturday afternoons, I buy coffee Charms and suck them. Coffee-flavored liquid rises over my bottom teeth, pools on my tongue, floods my mouth with my father’s kisses.
These memories seem pleasant enough, even with battling cardinals and strain between my mother and father. But as I enumerated dishes that weighted breakfast tables in my childhood, I felt uneasy. One specific morning and a second, also specific, kept coming back.
Sun isn’t up, rain hits curtainless windows. The furnace is turned off, and the house is cold. I see my mother’s heart-shaped face and my grandmother’s doughy cheeks. I smell their newly applied makeup and deodorant and Bluegrass cologne. In the dim kitchen, their lipstick is greasy red and their rouge unnaturally bright.
My grandmother has spread the morning paper open under my bowl. I dawdle with my oatmeal, pat its stucco surface with the back of my spoon. Oatmeal splats against the paper.
My mother’s and grandmother’s faces loom, slowly expand, as a balloon being blown up will. My grandmother says we don’t have all day, we need to get on the road if we’re going to get to the farm before bedtime.
I ask why we can’t take my cat Zoe. My mother says Zoe stays, period, that’s it, no nonsense. The cat will find a good home.
Who will give Zoe the good home? Why can’t Zoe go to the farm and chase away mice in my grandmother’s barn?
“No more questions,” my mother says.
My grandmother grabs the spoon. She’ll make me eat. She sticks the spoon heaped with oatmeal in my mouth. I swallow. She sticks in another spoonful. I swallow. Another, another, faster and faster. The bowl is empty. The oatmeal rises up and out my lips and splashes into the bowl, onto the newspaper, the table, down my dress front. My grandmother slaps me.
That was the last meal I ate in that house.
They drag me into the dark bathroom, pull off my dress, my underwear, scrub, then dress me again, from the skin out, in clean clothes. They tell me if I want to do Number One or Two, I had better goddamn well do them, there won’t be any stopping every ten miles.
My cheek burns, and my teeth ache from the hard slap. I am shaky from vomiting.
My grandmother hustles me out the front door to the driveway. The rising sun breaks through clouds and splashes light across bare treetops and our house’s green shingles and bare dirt where my father would have put in his victory garden, had my mother not tossed him out.
The tan Packard sits low on its tires. Earlier that morning, my grandmother and mother packed the back seat and trunk, heaped the roof with boxes, and tied them to the car with clothesline. The boxes are covered with tarp.
Wind blows the last leaves off the poplars and maples and elms. I am knee-deep in wet yellow leaves; leaves stick to my bare legs.
My grandmother pushes me into the Packard’s back seat, wedges me between boxes stacked with pots and pans that will rattle all day through the long ride. When my grandmother slams the car door, Zoe tries to jump in. My grandmother’s blunt foot thuds against Zoe’s ribs. Even though they washed me, I can smell the vomit on my skin.
Memories come back to you in your mouth. Decades pass before I eat oatmeal; to this day, when I become sick to my stomach, I am terrified. I fear something more awful than vomiting. As an older child, when, for instance, I ran a 102-degree fever with measles and vomited myself empty into the pan my mother left on my bed, that morning came back to me. I was back at that table, newspaper opened out under the oatmeal bowl. Always when I was — am — sick, my body felt — feels— more than ache, sore throat, sick stomach; I felt like a sausage stuffed with sorrow.
That rainy morning I lost the life I was born to. I never trusted anyone again.
Then there is the second breakfast. After my mother divorced my father, I lived with my grandmother on the ramshackle farm Uncle Carl bought her before he joined the Navy in World War II. Uncle Carl was my mother’s brother, my grandmother’s only son. He said that if anything happened to him in the war, she would have the farm.