In the early years of my second marriage, I felt confident in my ability to avoid the mistakes of the past. After all, I had invested thousands of dollars in self-actualization (my lofty description of years of therapy). I had gone on to professional family dynamics training. And Hank was the best of partners. “We are the architects of our relationship; we are not copying the blueprint of another,” I would say. “Yes, we can take what we like and leave the rest,” he would reply

Yet, in spite of this academic and therapeutic background, I sometimes — oh, all right, very frequently — smashed up against the wall of self-centeredness, and was forced to crawl through the door of humility into the land of awareness to regain the cozy glow of our togetherness. With a blush of embarrassment, I recount one example — and its background.

My favorite meal is a scrumptious and luxurious breakfast. Is it a reaction to my childhood breakfasts, planned first and foremost with nutrition in mind? My sisters and I were served one soft-boiled egg, one piece of whole wheat toast swiped with a knife that had barely kissed the margarine, freshly squeezed orange juice, and a small alphabet of vitamins. And the torture of chewing dry toast was multiplied when you got the last piece at the end the loaf: the dreaded heel.

It was before my 8 a.m. Spanish class that my love affair with breakfast began.

The heel, as most people know, is almost all crust. It is not as soft, not as comforting to eat as the other slices. Sometimes by the time a loaf of bread has been reduced to the heel, it has aged and is less than fresh. “It’s still good for you,” my mother would insist. “We’re not going to waste food. Eat it.” We ate briskly, in an atmosphere of what can only be described as utilitarian dining. Food on plate; utensils, glass, and napkin on the oilcloth that served as our table covering for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sit, eat, swallow vitamins, clear dishes, leave table.

During my years at college, I discovered new modes of meal serving and dining. College cafeteria food, though not inspiring, was certainly abundant. No limits on the number of times you could go through the line with your plate piled high. I discovered I loved toast with butter — real butter — and jam. On the bread trays, the heels were abandoned like so many orphans.

It was before my 8 a.m. Spanish class that my love affair with breakfast began. I liked piles of bacon. I loved pancakes smeared with syrup. Imagine my burgeoning gluttony when I discovered the world of New Jersey diners! In a New Jersey diner, the waitress (not “server”) has a coffeepot permanently affixed to her pouring hand, deftly refilling as she goes by your booth with another order. And the bread! Rye, wheat, sourdough, challah, pumpernickel, and white. Toast, bagels, grilled cheese sandwiches, three-decker clubs, French toast, with never a heel to be seen.

Fast forward to the year Hank and I got married. We were on a pretty strict budget and rarely went out to eat. My answer to, “What do you want for your birthday?” was, “I’d like breakfast in bed.”

Hank was inspired. He brought it in on a white wicker tray with the New York Times in the side pocket, a tall glass of OJ, two eggs over easy, and two slices of rye toast slathered with butter and cut on the diagonal, which is always so much better than rectangles. The good silverware made an appearance, with a linen napkin folded on the side. My saliva glands stirred, the taste buds on my tongue perked up. This was living. This was a gift from a loving husband.

A bite of egg, a sip of juice, and then, the climax: biting into the toast. My hand froze. I physically recoiled. The toast was … the heel. Was that the last of the bread? Was he being funny?

My sweetie was waiting expectantly. I spoke from love. “It’s wonderful. Thank you.”

Such was the success of this breakfast that, two months later, on Mother’s Day, the wicker tray made an encore appearance — scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, cranberry juice, and a rose in a tiny acrylic bud vase that had “LOVE” etched into it. My eyes scanned to the bread first. I couldn’t help it. I poked at it with my index finger. Again … the heel. Come on. I felt my face get hot.

“Eth, what is it? What’s wrong?”

We had agreed never to say “nothing” to the question “what’s wrong?” when, in fact, something was wrong.

Possessed with the perceived deprivation of childhood, I whined, “Why did you give me the heel? What kind of present is that?”

Hank’s mouth made an O of genuine astonishment. He had no response.

Ha! See, he is being mean. My actualized, adult Ethel vanished. The petulant child in me took over. I believe the look on my face could be labeled a pout.

Hank turned and left the room. I almost cried. So much for talking things out. When he returned, he had the loaf of bread in his hand: a package containing about six pieces. So why’d he give me the heel?

“Let me tell you something,” he began, as he sat on the side of the bed. “I wanted to give you a really special breakfast in bed. So I fixed all this and deliberately gave you the heel. When I was growing up, whoever my mother gave the heel to was the special one for the day and sure to have good luck. When someone got the heel, my sisters would say, ‘Oh, you’re the special one.’ So, honey, you’re the special one.”

The heel of my childhood or the heel of his? We kept the one from his.

This essay is an edited excerpt from Seedlings: Stories of Relationships (Wheatmark, 2014) by Ethel Lee-Miller ’69. A former elementary educator in New Jersey, she now lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her business, Enhanced Life Management, is at the core of her work as a writer, educator, coach, and observer of life. 

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