One recent morning, while emailing one of my co-workers and simultaneously texting my boss, I heard the distinctive sound of toast popping up. I was working in the living room—my pandemic-mandated office—and after hitting “Send” I ran to the kitchen and pressed the lever to reheat the already-cooled-off toasted bread. As I released the cancel button to force a second popping, I quickly took one now extra-crispy slice and started spreading butter. When I reached for the second piece of toast, I noticed crumbs from the first slice in the butter.
I never have toast crumbs in my butter. It just isn’t me. After all, the toaster has a built-in removable crumb tray right at the bottom, and with gravity’s compliance, it should be a done deal. Yet, there the crumbs were . . . and they triggered a memory so vivid it was as if I’d been transported back to my childhood kitchen.
There was my dad, sitting at the head of the bluish-colored formica table. It was very early on a weekday morning, and he was eating a bountiful breakfast he had just prepared. He was a healthy eater who lived to 94, and one of the things he always enjoyed was pumpernickel toast with butter and marmalade. Now, there were times when I woke up early to the aroma of his breakfast cooking, and with the true excuse of having to use the bathroom, I would then detour to the kitchen threshold to say good morning. I’d wait, not daring to ask for a sampling. My dad, hearing my little five-year-old voice whispering “good morning,” would look up from his meal and ask if I wanted a little something to eat, with the understanding that it was then back to bed. I always said yes.
These were my days of sitting on a thick telephone book atop a kitchen chair to reach the table. I was given pumpernickel toast and tea from his bounty. And, yes, as I began eating, I would notice toast crumbs on the stick of butter in the butter dish. I don’t remember if seeing the crumbs irked me back then, but I was a respectful child and wouldn’t have brought it up, especially while we were literally breaking bread and with me taking food from his plate. It was a quiet meal, except for the radio atop the refrigerator broadcasting morning news and weather reports. I remember the jingle that would play in between, a blending of pleasant voices singing “S B L I leaves you more money for living!” It was the mid-60s. My dad was a city employee, a sanitation man working the early shift. He knew that a hearty meal at the start of his day was essential to ensure he had the energy and strength to do the job—during harsh winter snowstorms with mandatory overtime or on the blazingly hot days of big-city summers. My dad would fortify himself from the inside out no matter the season. He’d come home exhausted, but on the upside, no pricey gym membership was needed to keep him in shape!
We were born on the same date 40 years apart, and in some ways we were alike. This was a quiet time of day when words didn’t need to flow. The peaceful calm, the warm food, and my dad’s generosity and presence were exactly enough for me. I grew up with two brothers but I don’t think they ever individually took part in this clandestine, one-on-one, pre-breakfast snack, which was fine with me. I was grateful for this carved-out, special impromptu time that happened every so often but was never planned. I would finish my small pumpernickel square and a few ounces of just-the-right warm-temperature tea with milk, then say thank-you and wish my dad a good day, knowing it was time to go back to bed. He didn’t need to tell me, and I never needed to ask for more time or food.
I hadn’t thought about all this until recently, but now I can savor the memory of a little blond-haired five-year-old in her pajamas and her dad, a strong 45-year-old blue-collar worker in his pajamas and robe, contentedly spending early-morning time together. (At the risk of indulging in clichéd armchair psychology, this ritual may explain the origin of my passionate love of tea parties as well as my preference for the strong, silent type.)
So, I think it’s time to see toast crumbs—oh, not in my butter, perish that thought—as perhaps something so unimportant, so mundane, that my dad didn’t waste his time even noticing them. He was a quiet man, and a worrier. During his pre-dawn breakfasts he was thinking not only on the day ahead but about his important obligations for the days and years ahead, namely, providing for his family of five beyond the basics—for instance, a good Catholic school education for his children. And every so often, his solitary contemplation was met with the unscheduled interruption of his youngest, an experience that now evokes tender memories.