09/08/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The School Tradition I Can't Believe I Actually Started

I'll begin with the obvious: packing school lunches is tedious, thankless, repetitive (but never meditative) and always a little disgusting. To this day, when I take a whiff of an empty Thermos, I experience a wave of morning sickness so strong, I forget that my final baby is not only fully gestated, she is now in her first week of second grade.

For years, my husband was the lunch chef, bringing a short-tempered, short order flair to the operation. When I gave him a year's furlough as a gift for his 39th birthday, he acted like I had given him tickets for the Cavs season opener; meanwhile, I reminded myself of a know-it-all mom from a 1980s laundry detergent commercial. Make way for the real expert.

Two of our three kids immediately aired serious grievances about my lunches: "Daddy knows I like my roll-up with the salami on the outside" and "Mom? FYI? I prefer macaroni in the shape of Arthur." Our youngest didn't even bother with low ratings; her feedback came home in the most literal form: an untouched lunch. Only eight days into the gulag of matching lids to containers, locating absent water bottles and haphazardly sorting everything into the correct Built bag, I gave up. My husband returned to the cutting board, smugly slicing Granny Smiths with the fancy knife I offered as a gift in lieu of my catering services.

I didn't make another lunch until last fall, when my husband was in London for a week. Now that our kids can dress and bathe themselves, I find that a few solo days can be a nice breather; I welcome the opportunity to eat cookies in bed and arrange the shoes in the front hallway in size order. But I dreaded -- dreaded -- the lunch prep. I told my husband how my mom used to freeze casseroles for my dad to eat when she was out of town -- would he consider assembling the lunches ahead of time? He laughed.

On my first morning as head chef, I woke up early, blundered into the kitchen and created a Vivaldi station on Pandora, willing the allegro soundtrack to grant me the serenity I needed to remember my kids' lunch requirements. Then I lined up my tools and took a deep breath. By the time the New York Times skidded onto the front porch, I'd assembled two sandwiches, crusts intact, and filled two metal containers with cheddar bunnies. Add grapes, add water. Done. Somehow, miraculously, I managed to get through the process without retching. Why was it so easy this time? I did have one less lunch to corral, now that our oldest prefers to pack her own. Suddenly, low level nausea made way for the euphoria I used to feel when one of our babies drifted off to sleep without the usual bedtime watusi of rocking, pacing, patting and a serenade of "You Are My Sunshine."

With a few extra minutes before my troops slunk grouchily downstairs, I grabbed two postcards from the junk drawer and wrote each of them a quick note. The messages were simple: "Good luck on your social studies test" and "Have fun on the class trip." I'm familiar with the suburban legend of the parent who pens a daily cartoon for his kid on a banana peel; please trust me, I am not that mom. I'm no more likely to take a heart-shaped cookie cutter to a sandwich than I am to mill my own flour from scratch. I specialize in shortcuts, not perks.

I tell you all this because those original two postcards blossomed into a full-blown, banana-peel level daily program of lunch cheer that surprises nobody more than me. When I came home that night, my younger two kids were waiting for me at the train station, leaning dreamily on their Razor scooters. "You packed notes for us," they said, wonder in their eyes. Pathetic, yes, but that enthusiasm was the wind beneath my lackadaisical, lunch-averse wings.

I started packing postcards every day, introducing daily themes such as Trivia Tuesday (The average American eats 20 pounds of onions per year), Wacky Wednesday (Did you know that the strongest muscle in your body is your tongue?) and my own version of #TBT (What condiment did [cousin's name redacted] pour over his head in a restaurant last summer?). I bookmarked a handful of websites featuring weird facts and G-rated jokes for Funny Friday, and amassed a collection of postcards spotlighting fine art, national landmarks and animals doing wacky things. Last spring, I even ran a contest, where the kid who correctly recited the tongue twister I packed in his or her lunch earned points towards a hot fudge sundae. True to form, I still haven't actually come through on the hot fudge sundae, and resentment is building.


Of course my husband was happy to permanently pass his apron to me when I went into lunch-packing overdrive. As for my kids? Assuming you haven't already forwarded this post to your sister under the subject line "How insane is this mom?," I will tell you that the younger generation isn't half as thrilled by my postcards as they were in the beginning. The 7-year-old is appreciative in an off-hand way; there are so many perks to being the youngest, including inheriting a dozen American Girl dolls, so lunch notes are just another way her life is coming up roses. My 10-year-old started to lose interest and gain embarrassment as fourth grade marched on. He asked me to reserve the flowered postcards for his little sister and he has requested only LeBron-themed messages for the upcoming school year -- a request that will be easy to accommodate since we have two biographies of King James on the premises. As for our 13-year-old, she doesn't want postcards in her lunch, but she's still miffed by her exclusion from the program. I don't lose a lot of sleep over this because she's the only one of the three who has both a baby book and a passport.

So why would a mostly sane, frequently frazzled parent willingly add an extra step to an onerous process? I'm not sure, and I would definitely roll my eyes if I weren't the person who is doing just that. But I do know that the postcards lend an organizing principle to the most hectic moments of my day. They give me something to think about while I jockey Oreos and baby carrots, claw my way into a Ziploc pack of provolone and scrub grape jelly off the sash of my bathrobe. Of course, there are plenty of other things I should be thinking about first thing in the morning, but the time I spend with my coffee and my postcards and a Sharpie is infinitely more pleasant than mapping out the day's battle plan: who will go where after school, how they'll get there, who will pick them up and what they'll eat when they get home. Not to mention the endless drumbeat of meetings, spelling words, orthodontist appointments, soccer clinics, swim team practices and outgrown shoes. For one peaceful moment, everything else can wait while I Google amazing facts about pigs. The details will be revealed -- or concealed -- in the lunchroom, but the thrill of discovery is all mine, and the silence in our kitchen is sweet.

This post first appeared on Dinner: A Love Story.

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