Later on, there was Burger King, and McDonalds, a variety of fast food joints littering the towns and roadways where any dad could bring his kids for a quick, inexpensive breakfast. As an adult, I’d shared eggs and orange juice with my daughters in the plastic cookie-cutter realm. But years before Ray Kroc had master-minded his blueprints for the McDonald-izing of America, there were only the local luncheonettes, and coffee shops, and diners.
Every town had its special place. In South Fallsburg there was Pop-Ins. In Parksville it was Poppy’s. Monticello had the Miss Monticello diner which, incredibly, still stands. Every colony had a concession, or colony store. If you were to eat a meal out with your dad, it was usually either on grounds, or, when off, in one of those small-town eateries.
How many Sunday mornings did your dad struggle out of bed, yearning for the certainty of his pillow and mattress, but determined to share with you what few hours he could? He’d been out late the night before. You knew this because from your bed, in the back of the bungalow, you’d been awakened by the joyful din of the parent’s insanity at, what did the small, luminescent alarm clock read? 4 AM? There was laughter and shouting and the sounds of bodies splashing in the pool. You’d turned in bed, pulled the comforter around your head, and returned to your slumber. Now, at 8 in the morning, you and your brother (sister?) were decked out in shorts, tee shirts and sneakers, seated in the kitchen, the morning sun slicing the venetian blinds and painting you in zebra stripes, as you impatiently waited for dad to emerge from the bedroom.
Then he was there, and you quietly slipped from your bungalow, holding the screen door as it closed, careful not to awaken your mom or the neighbors. You each walked on either side of your dad, flanking him against a small army of kids alone, their parents yet asleep, as you beamed with the knowledge that your dad was special, your dad was unique, your dad was, well, awake.
The car still held the moisture of the morning dew, and you finger-penned your name on the rear window while dad fumbled with his keys. The car started reluctantly, finally turning over with a deep rumble, and you and your sibling(s) piled into the sedan, as dad eased out of the rock and gravel parking lot, onto the county blacktop, off to a wonderful and mysterious place-town.
The ride was thrilling and exhilarating. Mom was safely asleep in the bungalow, and dad chanced stunts that would have had mom shrieking in disapproval. He accelerated into bumps and curves, evoking the distinct sensations of being in your own, private roller coaster. It was almost like when he’d driven back from a town movie without mom in the car, and, passing the small, decaying cemetery, he’d shut off the car’s headlights, prompting you to scream in unqualified terror.
Now, in town, dad parked a block from the luncheonette. You stopped at the candy store to buy the Sunday Daily News, wrapped in the prismatic frames of “Dick Tracey” and “Dondi.” You scoped out a few new Spaldings-pronounced “Spaldeens”, and some cool goggles for swimming in the pool. Then it was down the block, the streets small and uncluttered, and into the luncheonette.
The whole place smelled of coffee and frying bacon and spearmint leaves. The tables were thick formica, and the chairs metal and covered in red and yellow vinyl. There were red stools along the long counter, and the day’s offerings were posted in black crayon scrawled on the face of paper plates and taped up haphazardly around the cooking area. You ate eggs, and french toast, and some of dad’s home fries. He liked them burnt crisp, and you drenched them in ketchup, much to his chagrin. Your dad spooned his coffee into your milk, just enough to give in flavor and a kick and to make you feel grown up. You talked through the meal, often with your mouth full and you were surprised dad didn’t correct your table manners. But he seemed lighter than usual, easier, much more relaxed. It was almost like he might be happy to never leave the table, ever. Then, after exhausting your repertoire of what had transpired in your world all weekend, and what you were anticipating for the week ahead, you began getting a little fidgety. Suddenly you ached to return to the colony, where you knew your friends were waiting to play stickball, softball, slap-ball, volleyball, or to just splash in the pool. Dad was still talking though, prompting you for more details of your summer. But you were done. You’d enjoyed the time with him, but bigger and better things were waiting.
How had he felt, your dad? What could it have been like for him? Sunday morning, the weekend fleeing so fast, the short time with his family like an interrupted dream he longed to return to. His week was so different that yours, not that you’d ever paused to consider that. You were ten, or eleven, maybe twelve, and it was YOUR world and he was just living in it. While you swam and played ball and ate pizza and watched movies and cautiously touched your toe to the water that would cast forth the first ripples of your burgeoning sexuality, your dad was home, in the city. The subway to work each morning, nine hours in the office, home to the apartment with the one air-conditioner (on hot, summer nights he often slept in the living room). Dinner was a reheated package of something your mother had froze in June, companionship was a black and white TV with 6 channels. Once a week he’d call mom from the office, and the announcement would blare on the colony PA “Telephone call for________….” And your mom would hustle off to one of the two colony extensions, and later, at dinner, absently mention that she’d heard from your dad.
What was it like for dad, all those summers? Each June your vacation stretched before you, long, open, seemingly without limits. Dad looked forward to brief weekends and, if he were fortunate, a week in July and maybe one in August, too. But he didn’t much care. If his life had become emptier and he ached for his family, he had comfort in the knowledge that you were somewhere better, somewhere he’d wished he could be. That was his gift.
Still, how many of us wish that we’d forsaken the extra stickball, or swimming, just to dawdle over Sunday breakfast with dad,? What wouldn’t we give for the chance to do just that? Just you and your dad, alone, him spooning coffee into your milk………..