Every year around this time, when I’m about to embark upon a year of school lunches, I have the same thought: Have the girls outgrown the napkin note? Do I bother with it? I don’t know exactly how they feel about the message or picture tucked into the lunchbox saying “I Love You” or “I’ll Miss You!” or “Have a Great First Day!” but in my own mind, it goes a long way towards reminding them I am pulling for you. I am thinking about you. I am still holding your hand through the day even though I’m not even with you. (I have a hard time picturing where all this rah-rah-ing ends up: greasy, chocolate-stained, buried under a crumpled bag of Cheetos in the cafeteria trash can.) But the problem with the napkin note — besides the fact that it is one more thing to think about during the back-to-school madness — is that it feels like an all-or-nothing-proposition. Because if you go to the trouble of writing “xoxoxo” on Day 1, your kid will expect it on Day 2, and if she doesn’t find the same number of x’s and o’s, her heart might sink just a little. Which seems to be the opposite of the point. A few years ago, I got myself sucked into the napkin note spiral, dreaming up different messages or drawings every day for both the girls’ lunch boxes. When Phoebe was into Greek Myths, I signed them from Athena. When Abby was studying poetry, I wrote some verse. Do I even need to mention here that I was working full time and dealing with serious guilt issues?
If anything can chip away at the guilt, though, it’s the napkin note. I will never forget a story in Calvin Trillin’s book About Alice, eulogizing his wife. (If you haven’t read the book or the New Yorker essay that inspired it, please remedy this immediately.) Alice volunteered at a camp for sick kids, and one summer found herself captivated by a sunny young girl who was severely disabled. When Alice happened upon a note that the girl’s mom had sent her, she decided to read it. “I simply had to know what this child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular,” recalled Alice. “To make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered.” The note said this:
“If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, we would only have chosen you.”
Alice, the mother of two girls herself, took the note and handed it to Calvin, who was sitting next to her. “Quick. Read this. It’s the secret to life.”
I never found a note from my mom in my Holly Hobbie lunchbox. For a good chunk of my elementary school years, she was going to law school at night and was more interested in Civil Procedure and Torts than drawing smiley faces on three napkins five times a week. (Maybe she was smarter than me and recognized an all-or-nothing situation when it presented itself.) But later, with the advent of email, she managed to make up for this in spades. She always emails me on the day in April when we turn our clocks forward because she knows how happy an extra hour of daylight makes me (we are both summer fanatics); or sends me poetic missives about things like the 100-year-old Elm tree being cut down in my childhood back yard (“It’s so much sunnier — and I thought I’d grieve.”) And then there was the follow-up note she emailed after visiting my office, saying how proud of me she was. I could tell you what she wrote word for word — not only because it is pinned to my office bulletin board, but because it is seared into my memory. It was the napkin note equivalent sent when I was 35 years old, and when I re-read it last week, I knew what I had to do with the lunch boxes.