November 22, 2009
On Sunday morning, I’m sitting in my parents’ kitchen sipping coffee. I’m staring down into a chipped white mug. There’s a bald eagle on the front emblazoned in red, white and blue. Beneath the eagle it reads, “Ray Henry — The Vernon Company.”
I watch the steam swirl upwards from the mug. My eyes wander to the living room where my father sleeps in his worn blue recliner. He just turned 84 years old.
Ray Henry is long since dead and buried. The mug is about 35 years old, and it’s the same mug I sipped tea from on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. Saturday mornings were special when I was young. My father would wake me at 7 a.m. We’d hop in his 1967 cranberry-colored Dodge Dart and drive to Al’s Delicatessen, then Stanson’s Bakery.
First stop was Al’s corner deli. My father would park in front of the store and hand me a dollar. I’d bound up the steps into Al’s. Green-and-black floor tiles, dark wooden shelves — it felt like entering a cave. I’d grab a New York Daily News from the shelf to my right, then turn left where the comic books were displayed. I’d root around those shelves, searching for the latest offerings from Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Avengers or the Green Lantern. I’d run to the counter where silver-haired Al would croak some kind words about my reading material, take my dollar and hand me change. I’d charge out of the store, dive into the car, show my father my loot and off we’d go to the bakery.
We’d pull into an adjacent parking lot and run inside. I can still hear the tinkling bell slap against the glass door as we’d enter. The smell of fresh baked rolls — comforting, inviting — a smell so intoxicating you could bite the air and taste the warm bread.
The memories are vivid: A white paper bag bulging with rolls. A snow-white box wrapped with skinny red-and-white twine and filled with pastries. Dashing through a chilly spring rain back to the Dodge clutching the rolls against my chest. A faint wisp of steam escaping from the bag.
Homeward bound. Crinkle; thud — the sound of a bag of rolls dropped on a kitchen counter. The clatter of a silverware drawer. A spray of crumbs into a kitchen sink as a roll is sliced, then buttered. The whistle of a brown kettle on a brown stove: Tea for me; Sanka for my Dad.
We sit at our usual places at the dining room table. I’d dunk my buttered roll into my tea, watching the poppy seeds swirl in the “Ray Henry” mug. The roll is followed by a Boston-creme doughnut; I’d always save the end with the creme for last. My father’s eyes widen as he’d lift the lid of the box, deciding what pastry with which to wash down his Sanka. He’d savor an apple turnover, flipping through the Daily News with thick arms that could manhandle a saber-tooth saw or carry a five-year-old boy from his bed to the living-room couch when measles left him too weak to walk. . . .
What remains today are warm, distant memories and a chipped mug. I sip quietly from that mug. My father lies brittle like a leaf in December; his stocking feet propped on the walker that helps him stumble from the living room to the bathroom. His leg muscles are too atrophied to make the trip without help. He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t eat much. My mother gives him a piece of toast for breakfast or a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. That’s all he ever asks for now. For decades my Mom decreed that eating candy before noon was forbidden in our home. That rule no longer applies — at least for my Dad. (I still won’t dare to eat candy before 12, even in my own home 12 hours away from my Mom.) My Dad earned the right to have chocolate before noon. Or maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Everything changes — it’s life’s only constant.
I gaze into the nearly empty coffee mug and think of the approaching winter. A slight chill permeates the air, a dampness festers under the skin, sinks into the bones. Stiffening them. I hear a creaking noise when I raise the mug to my lips. The last swallow from a now empty mug.
Penelope’s laughter echoes from a back bedroom. I suddenly ache for a ritual to share with her. A tradition that needs to be continued. Hours that need to be shared. A chipped white mug that needs to overflow with warm, sweet moments.