I was a picky eater as a child. One of my stand-by foods, suitable for all occasions, was a bowl of Cheerios. My grandfather used to tease me that I’d turn into a Cheerio one day. With six kids in the household, our food closet held an array of cereals. On our shelves, Sugar Pops, Trix, Frosted Flakes, and Sugar Smacks abutted Shredded Wheat, Rice Krispies, Puffed Rice, Raisin Bran, Cornflakes, and, in winter, Wheatena and Cream of Rice. But I never went in for the sugary cereals so sweetened you might as well be eating bits of paper. I occasionally veered to Shredded Wheat, the only other person in the family besides my father who did, but a bowl of Cheerios was my go-to breakfast and often my Friday night dinner, when we kids were left to fend for ourselves while my parents scandalously scorned fish and indulged in liver and onions at the kitchen table after having cashed my father’s paycheck and done the week’s grocery shopping.
In that house, dinners could be lively, even contentious, but breakfast was always a quiet time, due, in part, to a curious custom among the four of us in elementary school. My father was gone by the time we kids were breakfasting, and my mother was often busy in the kitchen with a toddler or two. Meanwhile, at the dining room table, my sisters and brother and I ate our cereals, hot or cold, behind individual barricades built of cereal boxes. Snagging three boxes was ideal — you were then able to form a U-shaped wall in front of your place — but you could make do with two, which I sometimes had to do, as I was often the last one out of bed. Two boxes could only form a V, which gave you a smaller enclosure and less back-of-the-box literature to read, but it still sealed you off, which was the main object of the whole enterprise, though no one ever admitted that, or, with the probable exception of my mother, even imagined any larger meaning than being able to read (and re-read) about special mail-away offers.
The breakfast wall-building disappeared by the time the three oldest of us were in high school. We were on different schedules, had to leave the house earlier. Perennially running late, I usually ate alone. But my affection for Cheerios never waned. It persisted through college and into adulthood. Nowadays, I only buy them when the grandchildren come to stay overnight, but I’m always glad for the excuse.
Recently, I spent a week visiting my three sisters. We four are what’s left of my original family. My Ohio sister and I went to see our two Georgia sisters, who live together, and then I stayed a few days with my Ohio sister in her home. It was a deep trip, in spite of the fact that I’m not particularly close to any of them. Alcoholism has kept me cut off from my Georgia sisters for years. Now they are newly sober, which made our time together easier. But one of them is dying of cirrhosis and cancer, and the other is in major denial about it, deflecting her OCD into manic housekeeping, while the Ohio sister has begun to slip away into dementia. I am losing all my sisters at once, and with them, a bulk of my past. I try to help, with money, advice (mostly ignored), and a listening heart, but I’m limited by distance, history, and the inexorable might of the forces arrayed against us. We had some hard conversations during these visits. We had some laughs, too. In Georgia, we fed ducks at a pond. In Ohio, we walked my sister’s dog down streets lined with huge, full-leaved shade trees. I accompanied one sister to an appointment with her liver doctor and another sister on a tour of an assisted-living facility. I took the sister who had lost her license because of a DUI to the optometrist, the dentist, and the supermarket.
Finally, I found myself in the small Toledo airport waiting for my flight home to L. A. with maybe a dozen other people. There was only one waiting area, only three gates. Ours was the last flight of the day. In bed the night before, a wave of sadness had surprised and overwhelmed me, and it had persisted through an appointment that morning with my sister’s lawyer and through my long, solitary drive to the airport. I was still in its tenacious clutches. I was also very hungry. The only options were an unappetizing Subway sandwich stand and a bar without food. Then, in a dim, shuttered coffee kiosk, I spotted a single-serving cardboard bowl of Cheerios. The teenaged girl at Subway retrieved it for me, I bought a cup of milk at the bar, and took my treasure to a little table facing a large picture window with a view of a completely empty runway. Eating the Cheerios was comforting, their familiar oat taste and rough texture strangely intimate, and swallowing kept the tears at bay, but at the same time, the Cheerios carried me back to my childhood, back to the family that was gone and going. Because the airport’s wide, impersonal space was so sparsely populated, there was no one near me. If I looked straight ahead, I couldn’t see anyone. Like being surrounded by a bright wall of boxes.