The kitchen is dark when I enter it on these cold winter mornings. So I flip on the light and head first to the cupboard where the bowls and plates are stacked. I pull out three Corelle plates and three Corelle bowls. Another cabinet holds the juice glasses, and I pull out three spoons and two forks from the silverware drawer.
There are children’s gummy-bear vitamins in the pantry. I put two on each plate. I know which candy colors are preferred by each child as well as the plates of choice — flowers (Kinsey), red rings (Finn) or brown geometric patterns (Pike). I slice a couple of bananas into discs — which the boys eat with a fork, my daughter preferring her fingers (but only two to four round slices for her).
The drinks — two-thirds juice and one-third water — go on the kitchen table with the plates and a paper napkin at each place and the spoons and forks (unless someone wants oatmeal and then I’ll keep the spoon nearby to dish and stir the microwaved oatmeal).
I do all this downstairs — in the still and shadowy quiet — while the morning chaos creaks and clatters upstairs. I suppose my solitary kitchen ritual is a way of applying some order to the family morning when five of us are unhappily, speedily, temperamentally springing into action.
Prior to my solo act downstairs, I have gotten up at 6:30, taken a shower and tended other morning chores — including waking the kids, getting them moving and on their way. It’s when they have finished with their teeth and are haggling over hair and socks and other clothes of the day that I slip downstairs to avoid the fuss.
I also want the kitchen ready for their arrival at the table.
I didn’t always go through these paces of precision. Last fall I dealt out what was needed in a kind of random pick and pull, reacting to immediate needs, pouring cereal, buttering toast, glopping yogurt like a short-order cook as requests were made.
The transition was gradual. I started with the pair of vitamins and then put the juice glasses out. I added the napkins one day and soon was setting the whole table like a restaurateur might. At some point I began drifting downstairs, escaping the human hyperactivity upstairs and going through the appointed steps in the peace of the empty kitchen.
Then one day, looking at the table waiting — paper napkins, forks and spoons and juice and bowls lined up at the ready — I realized I had become my father.
I saw in my mind’s eye the kitchen counter I came to downstairs each morning as a kid. A spoon on a folded paper towel, a bowl and several boxes of cereal lined up for my choosing. A glass of orange juice, a sugar bowl, a small pitcher of milk. There was a stick of butter softening on a plate and slices of bread waiting in the toaster.
I stopped in my tracks that morning. I caught my breath, lingered in the moment. I paused to again take in all the levels we live on, the layers of our being. The ghosts of our existence.
My father is dead now. So I couldn’t tell him what I saw.
But every morning now when I go through this ritual I think of him. It’s almost like he’s in the kitchen with me.
I have a better understanding of him now, and why he got up every day at 6, showered, shaved and went through his routines, read the morning paper, fried bacon for all of us, made breakfast for himself — eggs fried up in the bacon grease, a bowl of Wheaties, sliced banana on top.
He had retreated back upstairs by the time the rest of us got downstairs, finding a hot pot of coffee freshly brewed for us. He returned to the kitchen long enough to kiss his wife goodbye and steer my sister and me to the car, driving us to school each day on his way to work.
By the time I got to high school the caress of this perfect breakfast place-setting rankled me, felt too close and stifling. I wanted to do this stuff for myself. But for years — even as a grown man with kids of my own visiting my parents’ house — we would come downstairs and find the folded paper towels, the waiting spoons and bowls, juice poured, boxes of cereal all lined up.
If I could, I would call him now and talk about what all I had seen when I looked at the table I had set for my own kids to launch their day happily toward school. And life.
The other thing I remember, though, is how it was in those final years when I would visit and be the one to put before him the bowl and spoon and folded paper towel, and the 11 pills he took, some for dementia.
Not a day goes by now that I don’t walk in my father’s steps these mornings in the kitchen by myself.
There are rituals we all live by. They are familiar routines that take us to different places, higher levels and deeper layers. They may seem so commonplace as to be unremarkable in themselves. But sometimes, in the wink of a moment, they help us transcend the place and time, and shower us with meaning.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at email@example.com.