It’s the night for fighting, if you listen to Elton John. If that’s not your thing, John Travolta would happily take you out on the dance floor and “fever”ishly shake his hips to The Bee Gees. Perhaps you’re more low-key than that and would spend the evening with your feet up, watching comedy sketches on SNL.
Me? Saturday will always remind me of my dad. Pick a random one on the calendar of my youth, and odds are that it followed the same routine as every other one before and after it, which was not a bad thing at all. Far from it.
Immediately upon opening my eyes and seeing that it was morning, I’d run out of my bedroom and into the living room, flipping on the TV for Saturday morning programming. I can’t for the life of me remember which cartoons I watched during that time, but I *loved* the old black-and-white episodes of The Little Rascals and Laurel & Hardy that played at that time. While the Rascals were always up to something, I mainly watched to see what happened to Buckwheat that week. His panicked, (literal) hair-raising expressions always got me. But, for my money, comedy didn’t come any better than the short Laurel & Hardy episodes. My brother and I would laugh at their hijinks until we had tears streaming down our faces.
[“Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”]
After an hour of that, my brother and I would get dressed and head upstairs to find our dad for what had become the cornerstone of our Saturday mornings: a big breakfast at a local restaurant. Our usual haunt was called The Prairie House, mainly because it made these incredible sausage patties that were the size of a small dinner plate. Damn, they were good.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we had to actually get to our table, which was no small feat. One reason is that we had to wade through the haze of blue cigarette smoke like an ocean liner navigating a foggy night. I mean, seriously…who thought up this idea, as if a sign was enough to somehow keep the smoke on one side of the room from entering the other side?!
[Makes sense to me.]
More than that, it took us 5-10 minutes to filter through the tables of people that my dad knew and stopped to speak with. As a wee tot who was more worried about the empty pit in my stomach as opposed to socializing with “old” people (many of whom were probably as “old” as I am right now), this annoyed me at the time. You see, my dad knew damn near everyone in our town, and he worked the room with the fervor of a politician seeking last-minute votes from his constituency. In hindsight I can see that this is a major part of his makeup – he enjoys speaking to people. He respected the people in that room, and vice versa. It was a testament to how well-liked he was in the community, which is something to be proud of now that I’m older and (maybe?) more mature.
Pleasantries out of the way and seated at a table, we placed our orders with the waitress. To this day I can remember what everyone chose, creatures of habit that we were:
Two eggs, scrambled
World-famous sausage patty
Coffee (with a packet or two of fake sugar)
Two eggs, scrambled
World-famous sausage patty
OJ (which changed to black coffee as the years went on)
World-famous sausage patty
[I know, I know…my brother was a weirdo.]
The breakfast was always delicious, and was the catalyst that brought us together, but the food was always a minor character in our production. What made those days special, and created lasting memories in me, was the time we got to spend together around the table. We were two young boys hanging out with our dad, a guy who was larger than life to a kid sitting across the table from him. As seen when he walked in, he could have been having breakfast with any number of people, but he always carved out that hour of time on Saturday morning to share it with the two of us. It may seem like a minor thing, but considering our family didn’t have a ton of resources early on, I have to assume the breakfast money could have been used to fill up a car’s tank with gas or buy some groceries or help pay a larger bill. Yet the tradition and time alone together were more important than those items, and I’ll forever be appreciative for those moments.
[Makes me hungry just thinking about it.]
With breakfast in the rearview mirror, and assuming it was a nice day outside, we would head to the shores of the Crow River, a shallow, muddy stretch of water that bisects my hometown. The reason for the trip will likely sound blasé to you — throwing and skipping rocks in the water – but I partook in the activity with zeal. The three of us would see how far we could launch our projectiles into the river, or see how many skips in a row we could achieve. I’m surprised I didn’t dam the river with as many rocks as I threw in there over the years (I meant to look at some of my hot spots when they drained the river to do some work on it years ago, but I never got back there). Later, we’d move down the river to the wildlife sanctuary, looking at the deer, turkeys, ducks, and geese that were housed therein. Again, simple activities, but no less important to me during my youth.
Inevitably we’d end up down at the fire station, which became ho-hum over the years, but as a young boy it was about as cool as it got. My hometown had a volunteer fire department, and my dad was one of the firefighters. As such, we had unfettered access to damn near everything in the building (something that probably isn’t possible these days, but we’re talking about different times in this instance). My brother and I would put on all the gear, climb around inside the trucks, play hide-and-seek throughout the firehouse, play tag with each other (including the fateful day when I took a corner too fast and slammed my face into the edge of a table, slicing myself wide open and needing five stitches to close it up). As a treat, we’d get to snag a soda out of the old-school pop machine — me choosing a Squirt, my brother taking an Orange Crush.
[These things were so cool. Plunk in some coins, open the door, and grab an ice-cold soda in a glass bottle. Heavenly.]
That’s a lot of background and walks down memory lane to get to my point, which is…I’m proud of my dad, and I’m thankful for all of the little times we’ve shared together to this point. Little times that, when added up, become the basis of a loving relationship between the two of us. There’s more to us than those Saturdays spent together – he encouraged me to enjoy books and supported my success in school, no matter what I chose to read or study; he celebrated my victories and helped me during times I’ve struggled; we bowled together, attended sporting events together, watched movies together; he coached some of my little-league teams – but those Saturdays encapsulate everything that was good between us during my upbringing. Breakfast, rocks at the river, firehouse shenanigans: they’re just a backdrop for the relationship he built with me from childhood to the present. These days our Saturdays look different – he’s retired and enjoying his time off; I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off, working a job and raising seven kids while trying to carve out time with my wife – but we still come together periodically and share those moments with one another. If we’re together on a Saturday, we’ll be at a local diner, eating the same breakfasts, drinking the same coffee, spending that same one-on-one time together. We still stop by the fire station, this time with the next generation of Monges in tow. We’ve forsaken the river, but fill our time in other ways – sitting on the front patio and watching the world go by or playing fierce games of euchre – but the important thing is that we still share those moments.
And I’m hoping we get to for many more years to come.
With Father’s Day looming on the horizon, I want him to know how much I appreciated those Saturday mornings and afternoons. I look back at them with fondness, wishing I could be annoyed by him taking so long to get to the table, wishing I could relive the feeling of being a “grown-up” when I ordered the big breakfast or my own cup of coffee for the first time, wishing my brother still lived locally so the three of us could share a breakfast together again, wishing I had some rock throwing and hide-and-seek waiting for me after the bill was paid. Those seem like wistful thoughts, and they *are* to a degree, but don’t mistake me: they are very happy thoughts above all else. They were good times, and I will hold them close until my dying day.
Thanks, Pops, for everything.
Now about our next breakfast date: I’d like to take you to the Uptown Diner right outside Minneapolis. They make a plate of breakfast that boggles the mind and tingles the taste buds. I just *know* you’d love it…
[The Carnitas Benedict from the Uptown Diner; honest to God, the best plate of breakfast I’ve ever eaten.]
Until we meet again…