By Eliot Gregory
When I was growing up in the sixties, breakfast generally consisted of a boiled egg and orange juice. Every morning, the same thing. It’s what my mother could manage to slap together between her job and keeping up with her kids, but what I would have given for some Frosty-O’s.
“Those things’ll rot your teeth,” Mom used to say, taking a drag on her cigarette.
At eight, I was willing to risk it. It was hard enough to get up early for church on Sunday, but it would have been worth it for Frosty-O’s.
Mom didn’t see me when I first walked in to the breakfast nook and sat down. She was on the phone consoling somebody. I didn’t have to guess too hard to figure out it was my Aunt Ruby. She was the oldest of my mom’s sisters and she was always upset about something.
Mom saw me and walked across the kitchen with the phone pressed to her ear. The yellow cord stretched from the wall near the fridge over to the table, the round curls straining against the stress. She put her hand over the receiver and said, “Eat your breakfast, Martin. We don’t want to be late for church.”
I sat at the table for a while, just staring at the egg and listening to my mom’s conversation. Now that my brother had gone off and joined the Army, I was the only one home. There’s something about being the youngest—and not only that, but a lot younger than my other sibling—that brought me into the confidence of my mother. She didn’t keep a lot of secrets from me and, in fact, often seemed to believe it was best if I knew up front what kind of family I had been born into. So, I sat listening to my mom talking and ignored my egg.
When she hung up the phone she lit a cigarette.
“Why’d she call so early?” I asked. “She was just here. We just got rid of her.” And, in my head I said, “I finally got to take off that stuffy shirt and tie.”
My Aunt Ruby and Aunt Rose had recently visited from Mississippi. We lived seven hours away, in Northwest Arkansas. Whenever they decided to visit, they always stayed two or three weeks Both Mom and I thought two or three days would have been plenty. They had only left the day before to go stay with my grandfather who lived a half an hour away.
Mom took a long drag and leaned heavily against the wall. She still had half the curlers in her hair from when the phone started ringing.
“They’re on their way back,” Mom said. “She and Grandpa Mackey had a falling out.”
“They’re coming back?” I whined. “What did they argue about that would make them come back?” Without thinking about it, I sat up straighter and fussed with the napkin on my lap. I really didn’t want them to come back.
She sat down in the chair next to mine and picked up her coffee. She looked exhausted. She didn’t want them back any more than I did. “I guess Grandpa thought she and Rose would go to church with him.”
She stood up and started to pour herself some more coffee, but then put her hand to her stomach and set the percolator down.
“Oh, how I wish they would just get along,” she said. “My acid indigestion can’t take anymore of this.” She pulled the chair out further from the table and fell into it.
“They didn’t want to go to church with Grandpa?”
Mom shook her head. Her eyes filled with tears. “He was so looking forward to this, you know? Showing off his daughters. I bet he even had on his best suit.” She wiped her eyes and looked over at me.
“That’s how I feel about you, you know. Since Frank has turned out the way he has….” She looked out the back window. I could tell she was trying not to cry again. My brother, Frank, had joined the Army, but he had also gone AWOL a couple of times. Mom had given up a good portion of savings to buy him a car so he’d at least stop hitchhiking when he did these things. She didn’t want to have to worry about him going missing and getting killed by an axe murderer.
“Why didn’t Aunt Ruby want to go with Grandpa? What’s wrong with his church?” I asked.
Mom dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. “He’s Baptist, you know. She’s First Christian.”
“So?” I had always gone to First Christian, too, but it didn’t seem a big deal to go to the Baptist church with Grandpa.
Mom sighed. “Ruby said she’d only go to the ‘one true church’ and she actually had the nerve to ask where the First Christian church in town was.” She started to rub her head but then jumped out of her chair. “My curlers! I can’t let Ruby see me like this.”
She ran to the bathroom just off the hall from the kitchen and left the door open so I could hear her.
“It’s such a mess, Martin.” I heard the curlers and plastic pink pins clink into the sink. “Grandpa yelled at Aunt Ruby and Rose. Poor Rose.”
“What did he say?” I couldn’t imagine my grandfather yelling at anybody. He was the gentlest man I had ever known.
She leaned her head out of the door, and with her arms raised over her head, she pulled on a curler. “He told them he didn’t know where the First Christian church was and he didn’t care to know where it was. He said they had grown up Baptist and if they were too good to go to church with him, then they could just be on their merry way.”
She ducked back into the bathroom and a few seconds later I heard her blow her nose. “I can’t imagine what Rose was doing during all of this. She’s probably as upset as I am.”
I heard the hiss of hairspray and smelled its aerosol fog just before Mom came out. Her brown hair was perfectly curled. But for the red puffiness in her eyes, no one would suspect her older sister had thrown the morning into chaos.
I, on the other hand, looked every bit chaotic, based on the once-over I got from Mom. “Good thing we’re not going to Bible class this morning,” she said. “You look like you got dressed in a tornado. Since Ruby and Rose are going to church with us, you’ll need to do a little better than that.”
I didn’t really see the problem. For the past three weeks I had had to dress more “like a little man” so Aunt Ruby wouldn’t criticize my mom for dressing me like a homeless imp. When they were gone, the first thing I did was rip off those stuffy clothes and toss them in the corner. But then I had to go to church. It made sense to me to wear what I had worn the day before. It was more broken in, less starchy. I knew from past experience that I had risked being sent back to my room to change, but I was hoping Mom would be so relieved to be free from her sisters that she wouldn’t say anything. I was wrong.
“We’re not going to class?” I asked, doing my best to change the subject.
To be honest, I was kind of glad to hear we weren’t going. The lady who taught it always seemed sleepy. Every week was the same. She read a chapter out of the King James Bible and then she would ask if there were any questions about it. We were eight. What did she expect, a theological debate on the Gospel of John?
My favorite part of class, actually, was the mimeographed sheet of questions she passed out every week—not that I enjoyed quizzes, but the smell of the purple ink made up for a little bit of the boredom.
Every week, we took turns reading the questions, trying to answer what we would do in a given situation.
One time my question had been, “If you saw your best friend steal a cookie out of your mother’s cookie jar, would you tell?”
I generally saw these as trick questions. In reality, I wouldn’t have told on my friend, but I was pretty sure the answer was supposed to be that I would. I tended toward shyness and hated being in the spotlight, especially in front of a teacher. My strategy was to answer the question in whatever way made the teacher the happiest so she’d move on to another kid, but it was like walking through a minefield. Sometimes what you thought was right turned out not to be the right answer at all.
So, no, I didn’t mind skipping Bible class. Seemed like a pretty good idea, actually.
Just then, the door opened. Mom leaned in and whispered, “Don’t mention anything about Bible Class!”
“Why not?” I whispered back.
“Ruby and Rose go to an anti-class First Christian church in Jackson. They don’t believe in classes.”
“How can they not believe….”
“Ssshhh!” Mom straightened up and tugged at the waistband on her dress just as her sisters came into the kitchen.
I could tell Mom had intended to give Aunt Ruby a hug, but she stumbled back when her rather rotund sister leaned against her and sobbed.
“I don’t cry for me,” she wailed. “I cry for Daddy.” She pulled away, but kept her hold on my mom’s shoulders. “You do realize his soul is in jeopardy, Martha.”
Mom’s eyes widened. She said nothing, but nodded weakly.
My aunt pulled dramatically away from Mom and took two, heavy strides into the the breakfast nook. She rested her meaty hands on my shoulders and squeezed.
“Besides,” she continued, even louder than before, “He was so mean to me!”
It took everything in me not to cover my ears with my hands.
Standing a couple of steps behind my mother was my Aunt Rose. She was a lot more like my mom, more reserved and quiet. Also like my mom, she was very sensitive and only wanted everybody to get along. But even she had big tears streaming down her cheeks.
“He called us Campbellites!” said Aunt Rose, pulling Mom into a hug and sobbing makeup into her blue polyester dress. “He actually told us to get out of his house and then said, ‘you Campbellites!’ It was so hateful!”
Mom just stood there. Even I knew things had to be bad if Grandpa was throwing people out of his house and calling them names. I had heard other people refer to the Christian Church as the Campbellite church because of a guy named Alexander Campbell, but I wasn’t sure who he was, exactly. No matter who he was, though, I was old enough to know that the term was meant as an insult. I could not imagine my mild-mannered grandfather being so up in arms about anything. I had never heard him raise his voice.
Aunt Ruby pulled a handkerchief from her purse and blew her nose. She leaned over me and picked up my uneaten egg. Without asking, she ate it in two bites.
I guess I didn’t have to worry about eating breakfast.
Aunt Rose sat down at the table and smiled meekly at me. “I don’t know how she can eat right now. I think I’m getting a migraine.”
Mom sat down next to Aunt Rose and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Me, too.”
“How can you not be hungry after all that?” Aunt Ruby said. She walked over to the refrigerator. The rubber soles of her shoes squeaked against the linoleum. “Martha, do you have any of those biscuits and gravy left over? Didn’t we leave some of that yesterday?”
Mom kept her head in her hand and shook her head. “No, Ruby,” she said. “You ate all of the gravy yesterday. Remember?”
Aunt Ruby pulled out from the fridge and held a jar of strawberry jam like an Olympian holds the torch. “I know there’s got to be some of those biscuits leftover, though.”
“They’re wrapped in foil in the cabinet,” Mom said.
When my aunt found the biscuits, she brought everything to the table, along with a knife and some more napkins. I sat and marveled watching her inhale the biscuits in record time. She had the look of a mad bull chomping through a wood fence.
“I never thought I would see the day when my own father would treat me like this,” she finally said when she was down to the last bite. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been this mad at him.” Then she popped the rest of the biscuit in her mouth and chewed angrily.
Finally, Mom looked up and said, “Our church service begins at 11. We’d like both of you to come with us if you feel like it.”
Aunt Rose continued to whimper into a napkin. Then she wiped her tears and sighed. “We should probably go,” she said. “I think I’d feel better if we did.”
Aunt Ruby busily mopped up biscuit crumbs with her fingers and ate them. The kitchen was silent, but for the dull smush of her fingers pressing against the plastic placemats.
When she ran out of crumbs, she looked at my mom with a look that could have cut her in two.
“Is this a church that has separate Bible classes?” she asked, chewing the last crumbs with her front teeth.
“Yes, Ruby,” Mom said. I had the feeling my mother wanted nothing more than to lay her head on the table and cry. Her shoulders were stiff and she seemed to have forgotten to breathe. “We have Bible classes for different age groups. But we’re not going to Bible class. We’re just going to the church service today after…everything.”
Ruby stood up and stalked back to the refrigerator. Before she opened the door, she paused, and walked back over to my mom. She was so big that her hip squeezed against the metal lip of the table. She took up so much space in that little nook that I couldn’t see the back window. I can only imagine how intimidating it was for my mom, who had my aunt’s belly in her face.
“You know I can’t go to a church that has Bible classes,” she said. “We can’t compromise in this. How would I ever hold my head up again if I went to a church that has divided up Bible classes?” She shook her head. “Oh no. If Sister Morgan heard that I went to a church that had Bible classes, I would never hear the end of it.”
She turned on her heel and walked back to the refrigerator. She dug past the milk and orange juice until she came upon a carton of eggs. “Do you know if there is a Christian Church without Bible classes here?”
Rose let out a squeak and laid her head on the table. I don’t think she was still crying, but she might have been hoping for a quick death of some sort. The desperation came off her in waves.
Mom stood and started to shuffle towards the hall. “You know, I have such a pounding headache now, I don’t think I’ll be able to go to services today.”
I watched my mom with as much sympathy as an eight-year-old boy can have for his mother. She looked so drained. And I knew exactly why. I wanted so badly to ask, “Is your headache named Ruby?” But I kept my mouth shut. I knew it would have done more damage than good.
I stood up then, too, and walked over to Mom. “I’ll get you a damp washcloth,” I said, knowing the drill. “You go to bed.”
Mom smiled down at me and patted my head. “You’re a good son,” she said. “Thanks.”
When I turned to look back in the kitchen, Aunt Rose seemed to be asleep at the table and Aunt Ruby was boiling more eggs.
Eliot Gregory is a contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. For him, writing is an exploration in human emotion and action. He has been writing for his own enrichment for more than 20 years. Thankfully, upon gentle encouragement from others, he decided to share some of his favorites with us.