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Lunch-taker becomes lunch-maker

Lunch: It was a time of desire or a time of dread, depending on what was in the bag. I knew my mother intended to pack interesting lunches for school. It was just that making 25 portable midday meals a week for five children had a way of diluting inspiration. I didn't fully appreciate her plight until I had children of my own.

Having been both a taker and a maker, I have learned a few truths about the scholastic sack lunch. I've found that not all bad lunches are created equal, hardship is a valuable resource, and every other kid's lunch looks better than your own - but you can't always count on appearances.

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I learned the latter the hard way in second grade, as I enviously eyed my friend Karen's tuna salad on white. It boasted crustless bread and a clean diagonal cut that split the sandwich into two perfect isosceles triangles. She sensed my desire. "Want to trade?" she asked.

"Sure!" I said, without hesitation, offering in exchange a package of cream-filled sponge cakes that had appeared in my lunch for the third day in a row. To my surprise, she agreed.

As I took a reverent first bite, I was horrified. Mayonnaise! I choked down the bite and watched Karen happily polish off one of the cakes.

Worse than a boring lunch is an untradable one. A sack bearing an apple, wrinkled from a week's travel, a beaten bag of potato chips, and a soft-skinned banana black with age will only attract the interest of those with comparable fare to unload. Yet even an undesirable lunch is preferable to a laughable one.

It happened only once. Obviously, it was one of those desperate times in a mother's life when a convergence of crises pushes one's imagination to its outer limits.

In any case, to my surprise and everyone else's amusement, my mother had constructed a makeshift bologna sandwich out of thinly sliced hot dogs lined up like pickets across a slice of bread, doused with catsup. The kids at the lunch table pointed to my sandwich and voweled a long "Ooooooo," as if they were gazing upon the horrors of a dissected frog.

I didn't want to hurt my mother's feelings, so I didn't complain. Besides, she had her own horrific lunch tales that I had come to know as well as my own. My mother's school days were linked by the hope that the family hens would lay enough eggs for sandwiches for 10 children. If not, it meant a layer of lard on homemade bread.

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I never asked, but I always wondered why anyone would add a layer of suffering to a scrumptious slab of plain, homemade bread. To have posed such an inquiry, however, would have been akin to questioning a commandment. Only when I began to make lunches for my own children did I discover the importance of hardship in making the current generation feel fortunate by comparison.

While I've always taken lunchmaking seriously, over the years, I must admit to a few stale chips, recycled pieces of fruit, and, at times, a shortage of imagination. At least my daughters have had the security of knowing that they'd never end up with sandwiches containing cold hotdogs, lard, or mayonnaise. Still, one day, my younger daughter announced plans to make her own lunches.

I watched discreetly as she assembled the contents to suit her preference for fresh, plain foods: five queen-size olives with pimentos, a half-dozen baby carrots, a toasted sourdough bagel, and bottled water. Though it was hard for me to admit, she was much better at doing lunch than I ever was.

I had long forgotten that lunchtime in the teen years is not really about eating. It's about casting social roles and playing out teenage politics. In such settings, particularly in middle school, the world doesn't always know how to respond to its more quiet, sensitive dwellers who tend to decipher its workings through poetry.

While my daughter kept the details to herself, I could tell that lunch wasn't the best part of her day. I knew there was little I could do to help, but I wished with all my heart that I could sponge away the day's small hurts. Instead, I did what I always do - I reached for a pen. I scribbled a note and dropped it in her lunch bag - a few quick words to let her know how much I valued her as an individual.

"I got your note," was all she said that afternoon, with the briefest hint of a smile. The next two days, I did the same thing. After a while, my lunch notes became regular fare. I figured they were read, then tossed with the crumpled foil and cellophane into the trash. That was fine, as long as the thoughts had reached her.

One afternoon, I watched my daughter slip a note out of her pocket and place it in a small, floral container. She noticed that I noticed. "It's one of your notes," she said with a smile, "I keep all of them."

I smile when I think of how this will play out in the next generation. I'll likely be the strange mother who packed words instead of sandwiches in her daughter's lunch, and never ever used mayonnaise.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society