In the backpack was a brown paper bag lunch: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, a granola bar. And a note on a scrap of white paper. No words –this was a kindergartner who didn’t yet know how to read– just a smiley face and X’s and O’s.
In the beginning there was a photo of a little curly-haired girl getting off the school bus on that first day –huge smile– running up to her tall mother and throwing her arms around her legs.
In the beginning there were days and days when the kindergartner demanded elaborate hairdos of her non-hairdo-doing mother: multiple pigtails, barrettes, braids and butterfly clips.
In the beginning there was the year or three of striped shirts and flowered pants and polka dot socks.
Always, there was the brown paper lunch bag.
There were brief forays into School Lunch, forays which usually happened after careful study of the week’s forthcoming School Lunch menu. Italian Dunkers, that was a good one. Pizza Day, another good one.
But the forays were brief, and then it was back to the brown paper lunch bag.
Years passed, and each fall brought with it a regular-sized backpack in a different color, shopping bags full of requested school supplies for an underfunded classroom, an agenda book covered over with hearts and flowers and swirly patterns and the names of all her friends.
Years passed, and so did the demands for a different hairdo each day. Soccer and tennis entered into the picture, along with the two-wheeler, the rollerblades, the ice skates, the skis.
The brown paper bag still held the usuals. A granola bar. A piece of fruit. Cut-up carrots or bell pepper. A cookie or two. A sandwich: peanut butter and jelly, turkey and cheese, a cream cheese + pickle roll-up.
The mother made the brown paper bag lunches in the early morning, while the girl was still asleep. Sometimes she turned on NPR, those soothing early morning voices muttering on about the weather, the wars, the stock market. Sometimes she worked in silence, the paper bag open on the counter behind the heavy wooden cutting board.
Wash the apple. Bag the sandwich. Which kind of granola bar today, chewy or regular?
The tiny notes continued for years —good luck on the history test! have a happy day! I’ll see you at Poetry & Punch!– until one day the mother sensed that maybe it was time to stop sending notes in the lunch. That maybe the girl was a little too old now to want her friends to see her with a lunch note from her mother.
But the brown paper bag lunches continued. And the mother still made them. Occasionally this fact became known.
Wait, your mother still makes your lunch?
The girl liked her mother to make her lunch, and the mother, although she would not always admit it, liked to make her daughter’s lunch.
The years went by, and then came a day in spring, just two days ago, in fact, when the girl came zipping down the stairs. I’m late! I’m late! she sang, I need my lunch! and she plucked up the brown paper bag from the kitchen table and raced to the front door.
Then she turned –tall girl with those hazel eyes and those dark curls tumbling down her back– and looked back at the mother standing in the kitchen doorway.
This is my last school lunch, she said. Confusion and wonder spread over her face. This is the last school lunch you’ll ever make for me, isn’t it?
The mother nodded.
Later, when she opened the brown paper bag, the girl would find one last note inside, buried at the bottom beneath the bag of peeled and sliced carrots.