I used to spend a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. She lived near the fairgrounds, across the street from Winchell Elementary. Her house used to also be the corner store, so one part of her house was a big blocky looking thing with the ghost of a store sign painted on the front, and the rest of it looked like a regular old California bungalow. We did most of our living in the former store, and the house part was my great-grandmother’s domain. We called her Nona, which was more of an Italian endearment than Greek (her in-laws were Italian), but her real name was Constance, and there were a million Constances in our family– not during my generation, though. By the time I came along there were only two.
My grandmother’s house had a substantial yard, since it really was more like two properties than one, and if you went out the side door, down the steps and past the walnut tree (fallen walnuts, we found out one year, are the same size as gopher heads– did you know?) there was a little gate that led to the house next door, which was also a California bungalow, though much smaller.
This is where my grandfather lived.
Growing up, it seemed so normal to have them in separate houses because it had always been that way. Even when my mom was growing up, thirty or so years before me, they had lived separately. They never fought– they’d gotten that out of their systems while my mom was growing up– and they were devoted to one another. My grandfather was closer in age to my Nona than my grandmother. He was 70 when I was born, and Nona was 80, so I was only left with Nona if my grandmother had to go sell a house. Grandpa got me more often than Nona, and it usually felt like a bit of a punishment because he walked very slowly and tended to watch soccer or soap operas all day from his armchair. He watched me like a hawk, which meant I had to sit with him or do whatever he was doing– unlike Nona, who just told me to go play. He didn’t talk a whole lot, but when he did, he sounded like a gravelly, slightly more cranky version of Jacques Pepin.
I was thinking about this because yesterday my seven year old daughter asked me why I enjoyed a soft boiled egg with toast so much. She could see that this supposedly mundane thing was such a treat for me, and she just couldn’t fathom it. And then I had to wonder, well, why the heck is it? It’s just an egg and toast!
I must have spent many mornings with my grandfather (maybe in the summer, but I was absent a lot, so who knows) because I can remember him trudging about, assembling his breakfast. A soft boiled egg, two pieces of Roman Meal wheat bread, buttered, and a cup of plain yogurt. And coffee! Here I am in my thirties, eating the same thing. The only difference is that I like Marmite on my toast, but I am pretty sure he would have liked that too, had it been available in the 1970’s and 80’s.
This has been my favorite breakfast for years– ever since I grew out of the cereal-for-breakfast phase, which ended when I was about 18.
The older I get, the more I ponder my grandfather. He was so impenetrably huge and important, and rather silent compared to all the women who surrounded him. He was fluent in English, but it was not his first language, and he slipped more comfortably into French and Greek with family members.
My grandmother used to tell me stories of this taciturn fellow, how he was a grand partier, the funniest, wittiest, smartest, and handsomest (with his strangely red hair) of them all. It was difficult to reconcile the two images, but when I was a little older, I found this picture:
And when I saw this picture, gone was the trudging ancient leviathan! I could see him being the life of the party now, and I could suddenly understand why my grandmother agreed to the marriage my grandfather and Nona cooked up rather quickly.
And so I think this is why I enjoy that simple softboiled egg so very much– I’m back with him in that tiny kitchen and he is so strong and present, even though I know that I am now at five foot four taller than he was, and there is nothing for me to do but trail after him and watch him boil the egg, butter the toast. We could just exist together, and he never got mad– not even when I rubbed myself with pork chop grease after he’d told me the Indians used to use every part of the buffalo, even rub the buffalo grease on themselves to keep away mosquitoes. Oh! But one time I did manage to make him furious, when I ran ahead to the ice cream truck because he was taking FOREVER. He got so mad he was barking in French and my grandmother had to translate. I was truly sorry and quickly forgiven.
I think now, when I smash the top of a softboiled egg with my spoon and then slice the top off with the spoon’s edge, then dip one of the toast soldiers in, I am transported back to that time with him. The rest of the world falls away, and I am four and seventy-four, and there is a part of him that is still enjoying it with me.