The scene repeats: For breakfast, Avery eats toast starting at the center. He puts his finger in the jam, smears the jam on toast, and puts his mouth smack in the center. He comes away with jammy lips and jammy cheeks. He says, “yummy yummy” and asks, “Mama, you eat toast?”
I remember a similar scene with different characters. My grandfather, who could only “make” toast and canned spaghetti, let me butter my own toast. First thing, I licked the butter right off. My mother remembers a childhood spent eating buttered toast with sugar on top and staying out of the sun. Her toast-memory is less aligned with the moon and stars, her toast memory is trailing her mother’s ghost, is her brother and her self sent under the table with a humidifier right when they got home from school.
When we repeat the toast-eating, we hurl ourselves into day-to-day routines, and we are utterly surrounded by all the stuff we sweep under the bed.
My father kept “Mrs. Thomas making toast,” an FSA photo, in a velvet lined box. The box also had broken watches, a picture of his mother on a bicycle, and class rings from college days. Maybe the tiles reminded him of his childhood home—his mother made pancakes every Sunday and casseroles almost every night; he expected this kind of domesticity, faced a “shock” when women (his wife and daughters) didn’t show interest in staying tile-bound. My father became a good feminist because he had daughters and he believed that his daughters were a little bit his sons, he couldn’t differentiate and he had, badly, wanted a boy. This isn’t to say his patriarchal dream didn’t sometimes find itself alive and crawling up his spine, but he played baseball with us, told us we were smart and deserving, and listened to us. My father listened to us so much that our ideas and words seemed to sew themselves into his freckled skin. He regarded us as smart, asked us what we thought, and took our thoughts seriously. He learned to be a feminist.
But nostalgia is deep and I know that he also sees me—as a mother now—and wonders something. Especially now that I’m resume sending, cover letter writing, and job searching. I’ve tried to explain to him that nobody questions men’s jobs or their time away from children, but he still falls into a deep memory that is more like a myth, a memory where his mom greets him with hot chocolate after sledding down a hill. A memory where toast is already buttered and jammed before you even sit at the table. Today, this deep myth flickered upward and, when he saw me feel failed and doubtful, he said, “You’re a good mother. You’re not a failure because you’re a good mother.” I see the nineteen year old version of me thinking this olive branch is somehow belittling, but I see the thirty-one year old version of me cry. When my father says this, the air gets lighter.
There’s part of the FSA photo I didn’t see until now: Mrs. Thomas is connected to the power cord, to the American interest in consumer goods and new technologies. She was never isolated in the kitchen, happily buttering toast, but she was immersed in the whole project of repetition. She was, before digital technology, connected.
Mrs. Thomas, and the dreams she represents, attach themselves to kitchens. When I married, I registered for a stand up mixer, a shiny object that showed me something about “settling.” And the dream renders the rest of it too: a house, a family, an ending. We get so adrift in the series of objects and things that represent these larger and handed-down goals.
When we moved back to Buffalo, after some wandering, people talked to us about buying a house. “You have to grow some roots.” “What I really want to see is you two getting settled.” We are renting, we are puckering our lips up to some pretty big dreams, and we are practicing awareness. Mrs. Thomas and her domestic nostalgia can make you pretty under-aware, can lay you under in an impossible appearance.
I think about toast, nostalgia, and routine. I think about this a lot because I am applying for jobs and I am trying to pay attention to the jobs and not to the condition of being unemployed and uncertain. There’s so much pressure to get “a” job and fall into the routine. But we moved here to be present.
We went to Five Points Bakery today to fill out job applications and distract Avery. We ate a lot of delicious toast and tried to pay attention to meaningful things—like being good parents. Despite our frustration, application fatigue, and moments of sincere doubt, I can’t connect myself to cords and live next to the same tiles day-after-day if it means missing the opportunities to see change as entirely possible. Five Points was a really good place to think about something like this—the impetus to make changes—since it is in a part of Buffalo that is changing, needed changes, and deserved sincere work. It’s a good symbol for the work I’m trying to do/find.