On Mornings

tea tray
My daily tea

I am not a morning person. I often don’t sleep well or enough, and frequently wake up feeling exhausted, unwell, or in pain.

Yet I’ve settled into a daily a.m. routine that not only reconciles me to waking up but reminds me pointedly of my blessings before leaving me blissfully alone to work. One day I’ll look back on these mornings with fondness, which I guess makes this post an exercise in prospective nostalgia.

Waking begins, at least in these cooler months, by fumbling about for my Japanese hanten, a quilted, hip-length, kimono-style jacket. If I can just find it and put it on first thing, getting out of bed doesn’t seem so ghastly. I’ve owned a hanten since my early 20s. My current one was a 40th birthday present from my mother and would be one of the first things I grabbed if the house were falling down and my family was already safely outside.

Properly hanten-ed, I shuffle through the house to the couch in our sitting-dining area. My husband Dan is in the kitchen fixing the boys’ lunches; the boys in question are either well into or done with breakfast (two bowls of Cheerios each). Everyone seems delighted and surprised to see me. Sometimes I sleep through breakfast and the departure of one or both boys for school, but more often than not I do manage an appearance. I accept their surprised delight, however unjustified; it makes me feel I have already done something good with my day simply by getting up.

When Dan sees me, he puts on the kettle. In a few minutes, he’ll bring me a tray on which the following are arrayed: teapot, tea cup, teaspoon, tiny pitcher of milk, and sugar bowl. He does not like tea; he does not even like the smell of tea. And yet he does this for me every morning. I know.

Tea is miraculous. No doubt it’s the caffeine that wakes me up, but there’s more to it: It’s the ritual pleasures of pouring and stirring, the weight and smoothness and warmth of the cup in my hand, the steam in my face, the bitterness of the tea mellowed by a little sugar and milk. It’s the closest thing I have to a Eucharist these days. After that first sip, I feel human. After that first cup, I can speak with coherence and kindness.

I usually read over my tea. Next to my favored spot on our battered couch is an unruly stash of books and magazines. This morning, for instance, I sampled the delights of MFK Fisher in “Once a Tramp, Always…” I also began Seneca’s essay “On Clemency” (addressed to Nero; I guess it didn’t really “take”) and read a poem by Galway Kinnell, who, to judge from this particular volume of verse, was obsessed with hens. My reading is often interrupted—by a kid plopping himself next to me, which I love, or needing to find that homework that “I know I put right here last night!,” which I don’t mind, or fighting with his brother, which I do.

But then my older son is leaving for school. I manage a few motherly queries—“Brush your teeth?” “Have all your homework?”—to which the answer is always a barely tolerant “Yes.” He’s in his last year of junior high, but takes his first-period French class at the high school. So he rides off to the east, but in an hour he’ll ride west past the house on his way to the junior high.

Dan is often getting ready to bike as well, but his commute is longer and his bicycle fancier, so the preparations are complicated. In his full biking regalia, he looks quite athletic.  He also looks funny. His favorite bike jersey is a gaudy advertisement for the local Jelly Belly Candy Company. I always feel obliged to tell him to ride safely although I suspect the bike route is safer than driving down Route 80. In 45 minutes, my cell phone will chirp to let me know that he’s arrived and texted me a smiley face.

And then I get dressed to walk my younger son to school. It’s his last year of elementary school, which means my last year of walking a child to school. The walk has gotten shorter and shorter. First I was allowed to walk him all the way to the crossing guard in front of the school; then, it was to the fire hydrant a block short of the crosswalk; now I get just over 100 yards, to the first turn-off from our street. Sometimes when he walks away from me, I realize with a shock how tall he’s getting. It’s somehow less noticeable close-up.

Home again, I put the hanten back on.

One ritual remains before my work day officially begins. Sometime between 8:53 and 8:58, my older son will ride by the house. I sit on the front porch with my tea (second or third cup at this point) and my essayist or poet du jour. When my son pulls up to the curb, I run out to the sidewalk. He hands me his French textbook and, if it’s getting warm, his jacket; I hand him his lunchbox and whatever textbooks or assignments he needs the rest of the day. Then he rides off.

This system began a few weeks into the school year so he didn’t have to schlep everything for the entire day between two schools, and also to address a propensity he had for forgetting his French book in his junior high locker (thus making it unavailable both for homework that night and for use in French class the next morning). I don’t really need to be out there: he’s perfectly able and willing to run up to the front porch, drop off his French book, and pick up his lunchbox on his own.

But I wouldn’t miss it for the world. This ten-second glimpse of my son in the middle of his school day makes me absurdly happy.

I love having a reason to sit on my front porch, surely one of the most under-used features of American residential architecture. I love having an excuse to indulge in my morning reading for just a few more minutes before I go in to do battle with my latest story or grade the next batch of papers. I may also like feeling that I have some role in dispensing the lunches that, due to the steadfastness of my husband (who is a morning person), I almost never have to prepare.

But mostly I just love seeing my son. I love the look of restrained happiness (and maybe even relief) in his face when he sees me yet again on the porch with his stuff. I love the urgency of the transaction. Second period starts in 10 minutes, so he’s eager to get going, but there’s also a little anxiety lest this exchange with his mom be seen by a classmate riding by. He’s terribly efficient in the way he unloads one set of items from his bike basket and receives the new set and pedals off before I’ve even started making my way back to the house. But he always mutters “Thanks” as he rides away. The mix of appreciation and embarrassment is charming.

Once, when I’d slept through his initial departure but woke up in time for the daily trade-off, he said to me as I handed him his lunch and his math book, “Hey, this is nice.”

Me in my hanten

After a morning like this, the day can seem, not only endurable, but full of bright possibility. I will be alone till school lets out. Sometimes I make a second pot of tea. The hanten stays on unless I have to leave the house again.

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