This was my mother-in-law's favorite story. She was 65 by the time I met her, and older still when I first heard the story. I hope I can do it justice.
My mother-in-law's name was Charlotte, an old-fashioned name. Her grandparents immigrated from Scotland to western Maryland, and as is so often the case their children lived nearby. An old-fashioned setting.
Every morning, little Charlotte's grandmother fixed two boiled eggs for her grandfather's breakfast. Sometimes her grandmother would say, "I'm sorry, Jordie, I made the eggs too soft this morning." Her grandfather then said, "That's all right, dear. I'll harden them with butter."
Other mornings her grandmother would say, "I'm sorry, Jordie, I made the eggs too hard this morning." Her grandfather then said, "That's all right, dear. I'll soften them with butter."
The first time I heard this story, I laughed uproariously at the infinite power of butter to fix any botched food. I grew up with Julia Child's cooking show, after all. But subsequent retellings of the story revealed a greater lesson: the belief in the infinite power of love.
Charlotte was a small child when these little breakfast events took place. Decades later, the delight she felt in the loving relationship that was expressed by this ritualistic conversation lit up her aged face to reveal her own ideals of a marriage.
Her parents' marriage did not measure up to this ideal. Her father was a coal miner (yes, she was a coal miner's daughter), and a drunk in his time off, and he was killed in a bar brawl when she was 16. Her mother, two younger brothers, and Charlotte then had to move in with her bachelor uncle Jim, her mother's brother.
Her mother went to work at a minimal wage to support her children and contribute to her uncle's greatly increased household expenses. They subsequently had to move again when her uncle announced that his wife, whom he had married in secret, was pregnant and would have to move in with him, while Charlotte's family moved elsewhere. Several years later, Charlotte's younger brother George also married secretly and started a family. And still later, Charlotte's suitor Bob, asked for her hand in marriage. Charlotte wanted to take care of her mother, since life had already dealt her such terrible blows. Her youngest brother Fred reassured her that he would take care of their mother, and that she should accept Bob's proposal. That she did, but after she was married, Fred revealed that he too had married in secret, so that the fate of their mother was not his primary concern.
Part of my reaction to this very complicated story was "What kind of witch was Charlotte's mother, that her brother and both of her sons felt they could only marry without her knowledge?"
But my reaction was tempered by knowledge of the man Charlotte had married. Bob was a drunk, like Charlotte's father. He drank at home, so a bar brawl was never in the offing, but the brilliant, gifted, educated man he was turned into just another mean, abusive drunk every evening. Charlotte herself was smart, funny, self-directed, generous, and lived a rich life both before and after the arrival of children. Yet divorce, as she said repeatedly, was unthinkable.
How ever did she square the lovely relationship she observed with her grandparents to the misery of her mother's life and of her own with a hopeless alcoholic? I never really understood that; neither did my husband, her son. But after Bob died and Charlotte put together a memorial service for their extended families back in western Maryland, she talked for the first time to me and her grandchildren about what a brilliant, gifted, well-educated, as well as striking and charming man she had married all those years ago. Their marriage didn't measure up to that of her grandparents, but she never forgot the promise that it might.
Butter both hardens and softens the eggs.