“Seventeen across: ‘Meaning of happiness,’” my dad said, reading out a clue on this morning’s crossword puzzle. “How does that work? Doesn’t everyone have their own unique meaning of happiness?”
“I agree with you,” I said. “Leave it blank for now and move on.”
We were seated at the kitchen table before breakfast, the golden smell of baking dough wafting throughout the room.
My dad was wearing a blue sweatshirt over his red plaid pajama bottoms. His salt-and-pepper hair was sticking out in all directions as he filled out his crossword puzzle. He was also trying to keep one eye on the oven, where this morning’s loaf of pumpkin bread was baking.
“Do you want some eggs to go with your bread, Katie?” my dad asked.
“Yes please,” I said.
He put his pen down and walked over to the fridge. He pulled out two brown eggs, deftly cracked them into a pan, and tossed in some cheese and chopped ham. I love it when my dad cooks because he loves it, and that joy shows on his face.
My parents, John and Ada, work together. My dad bakes breads and pastries and my mom travels around selling his creations in farmers’ markets near where we live, in McMinnville, Oregon.
As my dad brought our finished omelets to the kitchen table, I inhaled deeply and watched the bread rise through the glass door of the oven. I was pleased that this loaf would stay in our kitchen and not go out to a stall in a market. Sometimes my dad’s too busy baking for the market to make baked goods for our family.
“Mom isn’t up yet?” I asked.
He shook his head and smiled. “No.”
I laughed. “She’s a night owl, for sure.”
I swallowed a bite of omelet and watched as my dad worked away silently at his crossword puzzle. I gazed out the window at our backyard. I watched the weeping willows sway ever so slightly in the crisp breeze and listened to the deep coo of the mourning doves on the telephone wire.
The rich smell of espresso seeped into the kitchen, mingling with the cheerful smell of bread. The coffee pot began to bubble. My dad hopped up from his chair and poured himself a cup of coffee, then sat back down at the table, sipping it and filling out his crossword puzzle.
I was hungry for one of my dad’s stories.
“Tell me again how you and Mom met,” I said.
“OK,” he said.
And here is the story my dad told me.
* * *
My mom and my dad met at the Portland Farmers’ Market, halfway through March, 1997, on a brisk spring day. The market was outdoors, filled with soft smells and candy wrappers in the gutter, the sun glinting off the myriad canvas stalls. My dad was running a stall there, selling his flaky pastries and succulent chocolate cakes. No one was taking any notice of him because my dad is terrible at selling anything. He’s far too modest to be a good salesman. He eats too much humble pie.
My mom was at the farmers’ market solely for the free samples. My dad and I like to joke that every single one of Mom’s teeth is a sweet tooth.
It was about noon that my dad noticed her, standing outside his stall, checking something on her cell phone. The market didn’t close until two, but he wasn’t selling anything. He was frustrated, and he wanted to give up and go home. After a minute or two, my mom put the phone back in her purse and glanced up at my dad. They locked eyes and watched each other for a while. My dad said she looked smart and mysterious, in a red trench coat, with her brown hair in a long ponytail.
“Listen,” she said, striding up to him, “you see that booth over there, the one selling cinnamon bread?”
He looked over at the booth. It was run by a small Russian woman with a wispy blond bun. There was a group of people clustered around it, eating free samples and buying armfuls of cinnamon bread. The woman was grinning. Her pockets were filling up with cash with every loaf of bread she sold.
“Now, you know why there’s a demand for her cinnamon bread?” asked my mother, leaning on the table in my dad’s stall. “It’s because she’s not afraid to tell people her bread’s good.”
“OK…” said my dad.
“I’ve got a proposal for you,” said my mom. “Anything you can bake, I can sell. I know what people who go to farmers’ markets like, and I know how to sell to them. I’m not afraid to tell people that your cakes are rich and moist, and that your pastries are golden and flaky.”
For the first time since he started a stall at the market, my dad smiled. A shy little smile, but it was there.
He stuck out a hand. “John Cooper.”
She shook it vigorously, grinning. “Ada Smith. Glad to be in business with you.”
They hit it off and dated for several months. They became best friends, trading secrets and slices of shoo-fly pie. On my mom’s thirty-first birthday, my dad got down on one knee in the middle of the farmers’ market, right on the spot where they first met. He held out a small blue cake box to my mom, and inside was a tiny ring made of sugar-coated pastry.
“Will you marry me, Ada Smith,” he said, “and be my wife through sickness and through failed crumpet recipes?”
“Yes, John Cooper, I will marry you!”
My dad slipped the little pastry on her ring finger. He never bought her a real ring. They both believed bonds of bread, and not bonds of gold, were what brought them together and would keep them together.
* * *
“Was it love at first sight?” I asked my dad once he finished the story. My dad took a sip of his coffee and pondered the question.
“It was. For me,” he said carefully. My dad always takes great care in answering questions. “There she came, all swaggering up to my stall. She smelled like cookie dough, and I thought it was the sweetest smell in the world.”
I thought about this for a moment and finished up my omelet. This was very deep conversation for breakfast.
“Why did you say it was love at first sight, for you? Wasn’t it love at first sight for Mom, too?”
He sighed. “I don’t know. I used to think so.”
I smelled smoke and glanced over at the oven. The pumpkin bread was starting to burn. My dad never lets his bread burn.
“We had an argument last night,” he said, “about work, and our marriage, and everything in between. We’ve been having more and more disagreements lately. We used to work so well together, but… I don’t know.”
“You can fix it,” I said. “I know you can. You two can solve anything.”
I wanted to believe this was true.
“You know,” he said, “I didn’t tell you the ending to that story. As your mother and I left that farmers’ market, I glanced back at that lady with the cinnamon bread. Even though all her bread was gone and her pockets were filled with money, I knew I’d left the market with something much better.”
There were two soft footsteps. My mom was standing in the doorway, twisting the fuzzy belt of her bathrobe around and around in her hands.
“I heard you two talking,” she said softly. “I never knew that ending to the story.”
She was addressing both of us, but it was my dad she stared at, with such love and affection that she positively glowed.
And she smiled down at my father, and he smiled up at her, and that is the meaning of happiness.
I wondered if I should mention the burning bread.