I USED to believe that family rituals were of necessity passed on from generation to generation, rather like old photographs, special birthday-cake recipes, treasured books. If we take our children to the beach or serve waffles for Sunday supper, it is because our own parents did these activities with us when we were small. Most of us have a strong loyalty to our childhood and to the way we did things then, and we often discover the strength of these loyalties when we become parents and have to negotiate the shape of celebrations. Recently, though, I've had to qualify this theory because of Saturday mornings.
Like most families, we have things we do together that let us know that we're a family, and Saturdays we always go out to breakfast. Only illness or snowstorms of the furious sort that guarantee school cancellations on weekdays keep us home.
This has become so much a part of our life, that it was only the other day that my husband and I realized that the deeper origins of this ritual are unclear to us. Neither of us ever went out for breakfast when we were children; we weren't even passionate breakfast-eaters when we met. But two or three years into our marriage, eating breakfast out on Saturday morning became an essential part of our life together.
We'd been living in Maine two years then, and became friends with another couple who liked to look for unusual things to do on the weekends, activities they couldn't do in Brooklyn, where they had come from - attend a Lebanese church supper, for example, or a French-Canadian dance. They suggested we meet them for breakfast one Saturday morning at the Coffee Pot in Oakland, a town so small and untraveled that there has never been a single traffic light within its borders. For our friends, this was a one-time experience, but for my husband and me it was a discovery.
We liked the drive, which took us from the town of Waterville, where we still live, along the Messalonskee River, a landscape which we discovered shifts evocatively with the seasons - red oaks in the fall, fog creeping in from the river in the spring, snowmobile tracks across the fields in the winter.
The Coffee Pot was small and unpretentious, and from the outside looked like a converted railroad car. There were about eight stools at the counter, three or four tables, three booths. Even when the caf'e was redecorated with new red-and-white-checked curtains and plastic plants hanging on the walls, it remained stubbornly itself: a diner that catered mainly to local residents, to policemen on their breaks, electrical repairmen, housewives, the occasional college professor.
While the Coffee Pot had a proper menu, most customers ordered one of the specials that were listed each week on a chalkboard. My husband and I always ordered ``the No. 1,'' which consisted of two eggs, toast, and, depending on the week, ham, sausage, or bacon. Al, the cook and owner, was a wonderful baker and once we discovered his cinnamon rolls we asked for them instead of toast. After we had been coming and ordering the same thing for a while, we became known in the Coffee Pot, and the waitress, Jane, would put our order on the grill when she saw us getting out of our car.
When our son, Greg, was born, there was no question but that Saturday mornings at the Coffee Pot were to be part of his life, too. We set his infant seat on our table in a corner so he could look out, and fed him baby cereal which we had brought from home. He became something of a regular as well, and if Jane wasn't too busy she would sometimes take him off to greet the other customers.
The Coffee Pot was the sort of place where you saw the same people week after week. Rarely did we learn names, but we knew where people worked, exchanged comments on the weather, and worried about one older couple when they didn't show up for a couple of weeks. (Jane didn't know their names either, and confessed that she and Al referred to them by their standard order, ``Blueberry Muffin and Bacon.'')
Saturday breakfasts assumed such a place in our life that in the three separate years when we have lived out of Maine we've searched, with varying success, for a substitute caf'e. It had to be a certain sort of place: where the local paper is left out on the counter and the eggs are done just the way you like them, where the waitresses (or waiters) are friendly and efficient, where the cook may come out and ask how the muffins were this morning. Only one year, when we lived in England, did we have to forego our Saturday routine: The English never go out for breakfast. Restaurants open for lunch, and the noted English breakfast of tomatoes, bacon, eggs, grilled mushrooms, and cold toast is one you find only in hotels.
One summer we came back from our vacation to find that the Coffee Pot had been sold. Al explained that he'd become tired of finding a crowd waiting at the door when he arrived at 5 a.m.; he wanted to play golf on the weekends. Under the new ownership, the cinnamon rolls were burned. The Coffee Pot was sold yet again, and reopened under a new name.
Sometime later, we discovered that Al was baking for a caf'e on the edge of Waterville, across from one of the paper mills. It was what we had been looking for during the previous months of Saturdays, and we've been going there ever since. As at the Coffee Pot, there is a bulletin board on one wall where customers can post their cards and advertise their trades - snowplowing, carpentry, accounting.
Here, too, the menu hangs on a nail next to the table, and the specials are listed on a chalkboard near the kitchen. Sometimes there are more elaborate offerings. The weekend San Francisco played in the Super Bowl the caf'e offered a ``49ers Special'' - four eggs and nine strips of bacon. Again, we fall into conversations with people whose names we don't know, exchange friendly greetings, bits of advice. Everyone knows our kids, and when one of them spends the night with a friend, questions are asked.
Our children indulge us in these conversations and make intricate drawings on the red and white paper place mats when they finish before us. Will they continue this ritual with their own families? Perhaps, perhaps not. They aren't always thrilled to be putting on their boots on a rainy spring morning and would sometimes rather stay home in their pajamas and play. Yet Saturday breakfasts have become an expected item in the rhythm of their week, like music lessons, riding the school bus, and family dinners in the kitchen. They understand that it's time that we have set aside for the four of us to be together.
Just the other day I overheard Erica, who is six, explaining all this to a friend. The friend suggested they play together that weekend, and Erica indicated that anytime later in the day would be fine. ``Saturday morning,'' she explained cheerfully, ``we always go out to breakfast.''