In a response to our February prompt, a family breakfast tradition explores the tension within silence and an untold truth. Marema explores the contrast between the precise, familiar ease of making eggs for breakfast with the complicated unknowable experience of sharing a traumatic experience with loved ones for the first time. Small, fragile details add a great deal of life to characters within a short moment in time, and we as readers come to learn the process of perfecting a recipe over years–eggs may be tried and true, but a recipe for sharing the truth is different every time.
by Graham Marema
I lean on the counter while my mother stands at the gas stovetop. Her hands shake as she turns the knob. They always shake. When she cuts photographs out of magazines for her collages. When she signs my birthday cards. When she reaches for the Crisco to show me how to make gashouse eggs.
That’s what my mother calls them. Gashouse eggs. My granddaddy called them toad in a hole. His daddy called them one-eyed jack. I call them mother making me breakfast when I’m home from school.
“You could use olive oil if you’re trying to be healthy,” my mother says. “But Crisco is the real deal.”
She uses a spoon to carve an ice cream scoop out of the jar and slaps it on the skittle. It screeches and melts like the Wicked Witch of the West.
It’s raining. It’s always raining in Tennessee. When my brother plays drums in the basement. When the dog paces on the porch, anxious for intruders. When I lean on the counter and try to think of the right way to tell my mother. Hoping she can’t hear the sound of my heart over the death throws of the plant lard.
My mother pulls a piece of white bread out of its plastic sheath and sets it on the cutting board. She presses deep into the flesh of the bread with a cookie cutter. Her hands stop shaking as she leans, her shoulders doing the work, her knuckles knotted on the handle.
My daddy calls these eggs in a hole. My brother called them basket of yum when he was younger. I call them waiting until the right moment.
My mother plops the bread into the pond of melted Crisco, and its circular daughter cut from its tummy right next to it. Spits of Crisco pop and bounce around them.
This is the recipe my granddaddy taught her growing up in Tennessee. He liked recipes. His recipe for his own body was too much Scotch, as my mother tells it, and a whole lot of Crisco.
I wonder if there is a recipe for telling my mother.
“You crack the egg,” says my mother.
She pushes the carton toward me. I select one in the middle and crack it on the edge of the skillet. The yolk slips into the hollow heart of the bread.
“Perfect,” says my mother.
My mother makes tea. My mother is always making tea. When my daddy is asleep beneath a crossword beside the dog on the couch. When I’m alone in my childhood bedroom downstairs, lying on top of my blue comforter, staring up at the ceiling beneath the kitchen. From my room, I can hear every footstep on the tile above. I listen to my mother walk from the microwave to the stove to the fridge, hear the kitchen counter stools scrape on the floor as she sits with her tea in the early morning Tennessee quiet.
I picture my mother like this often. Sitting at the kitchen counter, the rain flattening the front lawn outside the misty window, the steam from the tea, circling out of her shaky hands and touching her face.
My mother pokes at the gashouse egg while the water boils. “See how it’s white all the way down?” she says. “That’s how you know it’s ready to flip. I know you like it runny, but we’re doing it my way.”
She wags her spatula at me. I swat it away.
My mother nudges the spatula under the toast, burrowing beneath the egg. I lean against the counter again, and the sizzling of the egg yolk and mumble of the boiling water cover the sound of my heart, because I know the recipe for telling my mother, and I know it’s not toast and Crisco. I wrote it down senior year of high school, on a rainy Tennessee night, the week of graduation, in the back of a truck in the parking lot of the old high school.
I wrote down the recipe and tucked it away in my recipe book, and I haven’t cooked it up in all these years. I watch my mother clench her fist around the spatula and flip, in one quick motion, wrenching the toast away from the skin of the skillet and slapping it back down, so that the dark, crispy bottom of the egg and toast glisten with oil.
The teakettle screams. My mother removes the heat.
If I tell my mother, the mother who cooks gashouse eggs, whose hands shake, whose footsteps tap on the ceiling above my bed, the mother looks out the window at her wet, dark lawn with steam filling her hair from the tea in her hands – will she crack like a broken yolk, bleed into the white, deflate, turn hard and dark in the oil? Or will I flip her upside down without splitting her open?
My mother never breaks the yolk. Not when the dog is barking at unseen intruders. Not when her son plays drums. Not when her daughter seems distant.
“That is a perfect egg,” says my mother. She hoists the egg and toast out of the pan and drops it onto a plate with a fork. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah, yeah, perfect egg, mommy,” I say. I eat my egg while she makes the tea. Salty, oily, crispy – though not runny enough for my taste. My mother pours the water. The dog wanders into the kitchen from the living room and sits by the door. The house is quiet without my brother, who is away at school now too.
“I’ll write down all the steps,” my mother says through the steam of the mugs. “So you can cook these babies up at school.”
Like my mother, I know my recipe by heart.
It’s simpler than gashouse eggs. It goes: Truth, truth, truth. One cup of each.
But unlike my mother, I’ve yet to learn how to make it.
Graham Marema studied creative writing in an undergraduate program at Davidson College, where she received the Vereen Bell Award for fiction-writing.