Volume 13
An Online Literary Magazine
February 15, 2019


A Pattern of Deep Wells


Jessie F. Carr


The women―my grandmother, my mother, and I, the lineage of shared mitochondria―had one goal that day: to make my grandfather the crunchy waffles he craved. Photo by Ralph Daily.


unday morning we have Big Breakfast, when I face off across my kitchen island from my two children and time unravels. We don our aprons―his covered in monsters, hers in puppies, mine simply the color of the blood we all share―and I admonish them to take turns, something I never had to do as a child: my brother was so much older than me that he’d already left home by the time we’d established the waffle tradition. It had been just me and Mom and the recipe, stained and floured but legible, not that it mattered because we knew it by heart. Incidentally, her waffle iron was heart-shaped, and when it was hot, it would announce its readiness with strident beeping, as loud and persistent as an ambulance.


I know today’s recipe by heart, too, but my waffles will be thick and square and Belgian because I am not my mother. Yet the spirit of Big Breakfast connects us, mothers of small children a generation apart, establishing a weekly holiday.


“Now I separate the egg,” I tell my doppelgängers, and they nod politely and watch. This is the only step they cannot do yet by themselves, and their eyes grow wide like poached eggs as I crack the shell delicately around the circumference, revealing the slime within, and carefully transfer the whole mess back and forth between the halves. The translucent snot drips into the bowl below as the sunny orb of yolk is slowly cleaned and revealed. Back and forth, back and forth, and I look at my transfixed children, he with my full lips and she with my brown eyes, and I remember those reflections staring back at me from the mirrors of my youth. And through the looking glass I fall.



“Oil and milk don’t mix,” Mom intoned every Sunday as I whisked the two together in the clear glass measuring cup. I squatted on the chair I was standing on to position myself at eye level with the meniscus, the better to watch the globules shatter and coalesce over and over again. I wasn’t yet aware that other families spent Sunday mornings feeding their souls at church. My family just ate literal waffles.


My father was sitting at the brown Formica table in a cracked yellow vinyl chair with a macramé quilt hanging on the wall behind him as a backdrop. It was the mid ’80s but the decor was still decidedly ’70s. Everything in the house had just passed its expiration date and needed replacing, but my parents refused to accept the end of an era. The evidence of history was so palpable that even at my young age, I was aware that the world had existed before I was born and would continue to do so after I died. I was just renting time.


Sunday was Dad’s only weekend day off: as the manager of a discount department store, he couldn’t afford to miss both days of the weekend rush. From what I’d gathered during his nightly rants, delivered to an audience consisting of me and Mom perched on the edge of the bed as we watched him change out of his suit, his job mostly entailed being the scapegoat for his incompetent employees: when irate customers asked to speak to the manager, he was the one who had to pretend they were right even if they were “fucking morons.” The customers’ rage would trickle down into my father, and he would collect it to later spray it in the faces of his underlings, who were terrified of the skinny man with the bushy black mustache. Sucking up didn’t suit my father, whose anger and bitterness always hummed at a low simmer right below the surface, like a geyser waiting to explode.


While Mom and I prepared our elaborate weekly brunch, Dad disappeared behind the newspaper, but I could hear him sipping the overly-strong black coffee my parents preferred (maximum benefit with minimum effort) out of a mug that Dad had been awarded from a car dealership as a bargaining trophy after a typically hostile negotiation. After brunch he would go play golf. He played golf on his other day off during the week, too. Mom said it was better this way: if he didn’t play golf, he’d go crazy. I never understood his obsession, but it became our obsession, too. When he returned home, we had to ask him what he scored, the better to gauge how loud his voice was going to be for the rest of the day. A low number meant I’d have a jovial father, prone to fits of knee-slapping giggles and eager to play wiffle ball in the backyard or read One Fish, Two Fish before bed while I tried to find a way to snuggle into the gangly pile of bones that made up his lap. A high number meant I’d be better off playing alone in my room that evening.


Mom plopped the separated yolk into my cup, taking her bowl filled with holy albumin across the kitchen to complete the ritual. I stabbed the dandelion-yellow balloon with a fork and watched the fatty ooze leak out, then poured the liquid mixture around the dry ingredients I’d shaped into a cone mountain in the bowl, creating an island.


Then, like an angry god, I obliterated it all with my whisk.



My grandmother’s small, cloistered kitchen was hot, hotter than usual, hotter than it even was for Christmas dinner. Piles of rejected waffles teetered on every surface.


From the living room I could hear my grandfather retch.


The women―my grandmother, my mother, and I, the lineage of shared mitochondria―had one goal that day: to make my grandfather the crunchy waffles he craved. When he asked for them the saliva glistened at the corners of his sunken, denture-free mouth. I didn’t know how he was planning to chew them without his teeth in, but he begged for them nonetheless, and we could not get them crunchy enough. He would take a small bite of each batch, masticate for a long while, swallow, make a face of disappointment, and retch.


He was a shrunken man, his hair gone from the chemo, his yellow skin barely covering his bones. He’d been diagnosed when I was four and given two years to live; seven years later he was still lying on the couch, decaying out in the open before even having the decency to die first. In the only memory I have of him healthy, he is taking me to McDonald’s as a reward for picking up all the sticks from the ancient elm in the front yard so he could mow. Dutch elm disease would kill the tree before cancer claimed Grandpa.


Near the end I was encouraged to sit with Grandpa so I could get to know him before he died. It seemed maudlin and I, whose childhood shyness would blossom into full-fledged social anxiety disorder as an adult, did not know what to say. Instead I gave him a memento book filled with ethereal pastel backdrops and cutesy lettering, the better to disguise its morbid intent to collect his memories for posterity before they were gone forever. He never touched it. Was he always too sick to put pen to paper, or did he succumb to that oh-so-human foible of procrastination, the assumption that one could always do it later? Was it his way of denying the inevitable truth? Whatever the reason, we passed a few awkward moments watching Wheel of Fortune in a silence punctuated only by the sounds of a body not functioning properly.


There were memories in need of recording, of course. I’ve since found out about them but will never have his perspective. Did he really, at age 20, set sight on my then 13-year-old grandmother and proclaim that he was going to marry her as soon as he got back from the war? Was war really the same as his end-of-life morphine-induced hallucinations about heavily armed squirrels swarming his bed? How did he feel when my Uncle Joe was born with Down syndrome (my mother was two at the time)? The doctors recommended my grandparents put Joe in an institution and forget about him, but instead they joined with other parents of special needs children to found a statewide organization providing services for the mentally disabled. What was it like to be seen as a paragon of virtue in the community and then come home and blow off steam by beating the little girl who would become my mother?


And yet we women slaved in the burning kitchen to make him waffles. We experimented: more oil, whip the eggs, cook longer, bake in the oven. But nothing sufficed and the retching continued. He was repulsive and terrifying and I had taken to remaining behind in the hot kitchen, waiting for my ancestors to return and deliver the verdict, which they did by wordlessly setting the defective batch aside and reaching again for the eggs.


The women’s stress was more palpable than the heat.



“Can you believe we used to eat that stuff?” my mother said disgustedly. It was Sunday morning and I was toasting an Eggo waffle while reminiscing about how we used to pair our waffles with corned beef hash, the canned kind that looked just like dog food.


“Do you know how many calories that had? How much sodium?” She gagged exaggeratedly. She was standing at the counter with her clothes billowing around her gaunt frame. She wouldn’t buy new ones because her thinness was more evident when juxtaposed with the excess fabric.


Since Grandpa died, we never made waffles from scratch. We didn’t eat anything unhealthy, actually. Mom blamed it on Dad’s newly diagnosed high cholesterol, but that didn’t explain her own obsessive calorie counting or her constant disparaging remarks at the sight of another person’s dimpled flesh or lumpy silhouette. She hadn’t been able to control her father, she hadn’t been able to control his death, but she could control her food intake and chastise anyone who wouldn’t do the same. We all grieve in different ways.


Dad had left for golf much earlier that morning, since he didn’t need to wait around for a special family brunch anymore. However, I liked to imagine that he’d probably eaten an Eggo waffle, too. There were new flavors invented seemingly every day and I tried them all: buttermilk, Nutri-Grain, chocolate chip, mini break-apart cinnamon toast. But even the Homestyle flavor was the ersatz version.


Mom separated an egg, dumped the yolk down the drain, cooked the white and ate it plain with dry wheat toast while still standing. I toasted my waffle twice: the first run to defrost, the second to harden. It ended up chewy, like waffle jerky, but I pretended it was just that crunchy instead. With enough peanut butter and syrup, I could choke it down. I sat alone at the new solid oak table and stared at the vacant chairs where Mom and Dad would sit for dinner. Just not for Sunday brunch anymore. The macramé quilt was gone from the wall, replaced by a matching new oak china hutch that was still empty.


“I don’t even know how we’re still alive after eating like that all those years,” Mom said.



The college cafeteria had a Belgian waffle maker running on Sunday mornings. My new friend-family flocked there en masse where we took turns at the ancient iron floating mid-air on a metal rod. You ladled batter from a giant bucket onto the iron, locked the two halves together, and gave it a flip. This was my first exposure to Belgian-style waffles, and the resulting exotic pastry was an inch-and-a-half thick and the size of a dinner plate, with a pattern of deep square wells in need of filling. Our standard salad bar had been transformed into an ice cream shop’s buffet of assorted toppings, but strangely there was no peanut butter to be found. I hadn’t realized that was a quirk of my family rather than standard practice. I was forced to branch out and try everything: mini chocolate chips that softened after they snowed down into the hot wells, thick whipped cream that was a few churns away from butter, fresh fruits galore, and hot apple pie filling so decadent it seemed naughty.


Sometimes we couldn’t wait till the cafeteria opened and found ourselves in the wee hours at the 24-hour Waffle House, soaking up the night’s alcohol with thin, greasy waffles only made delectable by the thrill of a seedy part of town and the glow of finally fulfilled camaraderie. It was there that I first discovered truly crunchy waffles. But as we watched a cockroach trundle under the cash register, we wondered about the origin of the black crispy bits in the batter and I decided this might not be what Grandpa had in mind.


We laughed drunkenly, poured on more syrup. Took another bite. The waffles made me feel more euphoric than the alcohol.


Same time next week?



“Wouldn’t you rather stay here with me than go to church?” I asked, rolling over languidly in bed to face my boyfriend as he stared at the ceiling, one hand still on the alarm. I put my hand on his bare chest, bit him playfully on the earlobe.


“I’ll make waffles,” I whispered.


I was the devil on one shoulder, promising pastry and sweet nothings, battling the invisible angel of his past on the other side. Somehow I had fallen in love with an evangelical, for whom skipping church was anathema to his family of origin. I’d tried attending with him, but couldn’t understand how listening to arcane stories and singing incoherent songs in a musty building while wearing uncomfortable clothes was supposed to fill my soul better than brunch (we always topped with the sinful apple pie filling) and a stroll around the little jewel of a lake on campus where we occasionally surprised child-sized blue herons hiding in the reeds.


He shouldn’t even be here. When I’d first met him, he was reading a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye that prescribed a chaste courtship and swift marriage, with no physical contact until after the ceremony… and we sure weren’t married. I was such an “inappropriate” mate choice―foul-mouthed, atheist, biologist, non-virgin―that it took him a year to even realize I was interested in him. Of course, it took me about that long to realize it, too: why this guy? He was everything I didn’t want―evangelical, smug, clueless, pristine―but at some level I had decided that if I could make a guy like that love me, maybe I wasn’t so bad after all. Or maybe I was bitter and wanted to drag him down. Or maybe it was his more immutable characteristics: kindness, patience, empathy, strength… and eyes the color of a spring sky peeking around fluffy clouds of white cotton, with little crinkly laugh lines in the corners despite a face that would otherwise be considered babyish. Eyes disguising the fact that he’d been faking his faith since childhood by reciting dogma like a Christian robot, one superbly programmed to pass as the real thing lest his parents discover his secret and disown him. As they would, when they found out about us.


But by then it didn’t matter. We’d cleaved, in the biblical sense, into a union no one could put asunder.


“Well, if there are going to be waffles…” he said, and rolled toward me.



Back through the two little looking glasses. I retrieve the mixer from the back of a bottom cabinet and plunge the beaters into the bowl of albumin. And flip the switch.


The children take turns holding the mixer with me but despite the magical transformation, eventually they get bored and run off to help Daddy set the table. I never got bored, watching those beaters spin as a child, watching them spin now, watching them whip so much air into the slime that it looks deceptively like whipped cream, like the clouds that form shapes in the sky for awestruck children. Then I get my rubber spatula and fold the foam gently into the batter, just the way my mother showed me.


My waffle iron doesn’t beep, so I just have to listen for the little click as the green light comes on to alert me they’re done. They’re not. The waffle iron doesn’t know anything about “done.” I leave them for several extra minutes until they are perfect: crunchy and golden on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside. The cozy smell of vanilla fills my lungs as I call my family to the table.


My son likes to cut the squares apart and fill them with syrup, then pop them in his mouth like tiny swimming pools. We have to mop when he’s done. My daughter holds the whole waffle in a fist and dips it in whipped cream. My husband and I still prefer apple pie filling with a sprinkle of nostalgia on top. The toppings may change, but the base stays the same. They are crisp pillows of sweet steam, they are a satiating geometric sacrament, they are the safe childhood I am creating for my children.


I look across the table into my husband’s sky blue eyes, and the smile lines crinkle into place along with a few others etching their way into that still youthful face. I don’t know what the rest of the day will hold, but we will be together for all of it. He doesn’t even know how to play golf.


“Can we always have Big Breakfast Day?” my son asks happily around a mouthful, syrup dribbling down his chin and onto his pajama shirt.


“I can’t imagine why not,” I reply. But then, I suppose I had asked my mother that very same question once upon a time.



Jessie F. Carr is studying Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Nebraska Omaha, where she was last year's recipient of the McKenna Graduate Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, NebraskaLand, Slate, and From the Heartland.







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