Though none of us are early birds, mornings are sacred to our family of three. Typically, our waking hours are filled with work and school, dance classes and playdates, and all manner of things that make life enriching. And yet, there’s too little togetherness sometimes. That’s where the mornings come in. My daughter bounds into our room anytime between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., if we’re lucky, and hops into our bed, demanding, “Lights off!” as soon as she lands. (Sometimes the “light” is the actual sun, which we can’t dim, for all our parental prowess.) We read a couple chapters of a book together. We take turns getting ready. There’s some dream analyzing, super-crucial daily goal setting (“Ice cream sandwiches after dinner?”), and a lot of cuddling. My husband and I work at home, and my schedule is fairly flexible, which allows for these comparatively leisurely mornings. We don’t take our luck for granted.
Sometime later, we all make our way downstairs for coffee and breakfast. Interestingly, though our mornings aren’t usually rushed, our breakfasts tend to be less considered. Peanut butter toast. Frozen waffles. A banana muffin baked the night before. I often skip breakfast altogether in favor of a huge cup of coffee (I know! Dietitians hate me!), but I like to sit with my daughter while she eats. She swings her legs as she makes her way through her breakfast, strewing crumbs around her chair like she’s trying to find her way home from a dark wood. We listen to music, though I’m a bit peeved to say I never get to pick from my playlist. I’m sure this ritual will shift, especially as she enters adolescence, but for now, I enjoy every mundane moment of it.
As a kid, my mornings looked different. For years during my childhood, my mother worked at a job she abhorred and (understandably) brought much of that stress home. She’d wake during the 5 a.m. hour, when I was still fast asleep, dress and do her makeup before the sun rose, and trudge into the office by 6 a.m. She didn’t enjoy the way that job interrupted her sleep cycle (who would?) and always regretted that she wasn’t there to send me off to school, though she was there to pick me up at the end of the day. My stepfather was responsible for dropping me off, but other than the fifteen minutes we spent in his truck together, we did not have much to say to one another in the mornings, or at any other time.
From the age of nine or ten, I learned to practice independence. I set my own alarm, knowing that if I didn’t wake in time, no one would drag me out of bed, and I’d just miss school that day (and incur Mom’s wrath). I dressed and got my backpack packed, then sat on the couch by the door, reading until my stepfather jangled his keys at me, a sign that it was time to go. I think those early morning lessons continued to serve me well into college and graduate school, when I shook off hangovers to pull myself out of bed, knowing that only I was responsible for my decisions.
Yet for all the things I learned to do for myself, I never had to make my own breakfast. Each morning, Mom left a cellophane-wrapped egg sandwich on our formica counter for me. She’d use a fresh, sliced roll from the bakery, then layer it with egg and Canadian bacon, both fried in a battered old pan. (Never cheese, because I was — and am, no matter how reluctantly — lactose intolerant.) The cellophane caught the heat from the ingredients, steaming everything into a deliciously soft, yet never soggy, sandwich that kept me full until lunchtime. By the time I woke and went to the kitchen in the mornings, the sandwich would have cooled, though I could still taste a bit of the warmth at the very core of the sandwich. I ate at our yellow table, propping a book in front of me as I did, smelling around me the butter from the eggs, the salty pork of the lunchmeat. As if my mom were cooking right next to me. She never left a note near those sandwiches, but the message was clear. I’m thinking of you.
My mom often regrets things about my childhood, telling me that she wishes she had been around more. It’s true that she was not a PTO volunteer mom, a playdate mom, the kind of mom that liked to go to parks or the beach. To be quite honest, maybe there was a time when I did resent my own loneliness, knocking around a silent house and missing her beyond measure, even when she was in the bedroom right next to mine. But now, as an adult and a parent myself, I see all she did give me. Not just the skill of self-sufficiency, but also the understanding that a parent does not need to be right there in a room, peering at you over the breakfast table, to be thinking of you. To love you. And affection is shown in so many ways, some of which we can never fathom as children: egg sandwiches left on the counter, a load of laundry on the bed. A note in a lunchbox; a meme sent to your phone. A blown kiss through the crack in your bedroom door at dawn, before your eyes manage to flutter open.
She visited my home a couple weeks ago and brought with her a suitcase brimming with frozen soft shell crab, mangoes from her tree, and airline crackers she thought my daughter would like. For my mom, acts of service will always be her love language — and more specifically, the sharing of food. Though she works standard hours now, she still wakes up early, a habit from those years at the job she’s since left. So when I woke in the mornings during her visit, blearily making my way downstairs to start the French press, I’d smell something familiar. Frying eggs. Even while on vacation, she could not resist making breakfast for me. My mind flashed back to an image I never saw, but felt all the same: a younger version of Mom with her hair curled, makeup perfectly applied, standing by the stove in her bare feet, flipping an egg in a skillet. Forgoing those fifteen extra minutes of precious sleep so that I could stay nourished, even if she wasn’t there to see.
Mornings will look different for every family — and sometimes, they might shift through the years. I treasure our slow mornings, but I also know it’s not the only way to love. Maybe one day I’ll kiss my daughter on the cheek as she hops into her own car, granola bar in hand, rushing to meet her friends before school. Or maybe I’ll leave her an egg sandwich in cellophane, trusting that she understands that I’m doing my best.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.