The Napkin Note

September 6th, 2011 · 34 Comments · Rituals

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.

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34 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pam // Sep 6, 2011 at 11:50 am

    I was just looking through a box of old things when I found my mom’s last ever lunch note to me, on my last full day of high school. I read it and cried and felt all of the love in the world. Never stop doing them, even when your kids tell you to. They’ll remember them fondly for decades to come.

  • 2 Jan @ Family Bites // Sep 6, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    My son is in grade 6 this year. He doesn’t want napkin notes anymore, mostly because he fears he will be teased by his classmates. He recently got his first email account, and he checks it every morning, so now I will be emailing him notes like “have a great day” and “good luck at football” and hopefully it’ll be as nice as the ones I put in his lunchbox.

  • 3 Nicole // Sep 6, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    As the mom of a teenager, I wrote a note last week. I hesitated for all your same reasons, plus the possibility of being chided by the obviously wiser 15-year-old. But she was feeling worried about a new venture she had taken on in sports and I just wrote “you can do it”. Very small, on a corner no one else could see – she could rip it off and wrap her gum in it if she wanted. Later, she said “that note, well…thanks.” Those brief, awkward words I will cherish for a long, long time. Write the note. :)

  • 4 beth lehman // Sep 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    THANK you for this post – LOVE it.

  • 5 Torrie @ a place to share... // Sep 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    What a wonderful post… Makes me teary-eyed (in a happy way) :) .

  • 6 MemeGRL // Sep 6, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Jan, thank you for that next-step equivalent. Great thinking.
    Awesome post. My mom always wrote a note, and her favorite was on a banana (because she liked how a ballpoint felt writing on the skin…strange but lovable).
    Now our school is going to no-trash lunches (next year!) so I have one last year of the notes. But–a great idea I saw on another site–tye-dye or otherwise decorate together the napkins your child will take. Nothing beats a note, but it doesn’t have to be on a napkin, and even the napkin can hold fun memories.
    Happy school year!

  • 7 Jennifer // Sep 6, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    My mom put little notes in my school bag or lunch all the way through highschool and at 31 and a mother of two, I still have most of them saved in a box. She had these great little cards that were only about 1in by 1.5 inches and they were easy to slip into my pocket. I had no idea I had saved so many until recently…and they still mean the world to me. I cannot wait to do the same for my girls.

  • 8 Courtney // Sep 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Just before my girls dashed out to 6th and 1st grades this morning I remembered just in time the lunch box notes. I felt the love notes would guarantee them a happy year. For me too.

  • 9 Meg // Sep 6, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    I do these- not just for my daughter, but for my husband! But they’re not an everyday occurrence- notes are for first days, big tests (or presentations/meetings), special days, etc. I know my husband actually keeps almost all of them- I found them in a file folder one day :)

  • 10 Jane // Sep 6, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    My boys are still too young for lunch notes, but I do leave them (sometimes, not all the time) for my husband. I like to make them a little saucy so his fair face will turn beet red in the lunch room. But I know it makes him smile, who wouldn’t want to open up lunch and have a note flutter out reading, “Hey sexy, see YOU tonight! xoxxx!”???

  • 11 Julie // Sep 6, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    I’m a firm believer in all notes: any day, anywhere, about anything. They make all the difference.

  • 12 Jamie @ the unseasoned wok // Sep 6, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    This is the sweetest post. I’m still in the infancy of motherhood and I’ve never been really maternal, which is all the more reason why I treasure your blog! The note Alice found actually made me choke up a bit. These little tips are things I would have never thought to do, but now I am so going to implement the napkin note as soon as the lunchbox makes its debut in our lives!

  • 13 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag // Sep 6, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Thank you for this lovely post Jenny. My daughter starts her first day of Kindergarten tomorrow and guess what will be going in her lunch. I loved the story about your mom’s emails — so so sweet. Having been through the horror that is law school :) , I can’t imagine doing it while having a child to take care of as well — her emails to you serve as a wonderful reminder that a thoughtful note from a parent even to a grown adult child is still cherished and important!

  • 14 Vanessa // Sep 6, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    I wrote the guilty ‘Mummy is on an early flight to Atlanta but have a lovely first day’ notes this morning. Got a little bit concerned about whether I had been even-handed with the amount of kisses and love, but hopefully got it right. No actual response, but fingers crossed, by the time they are in high school, they will remember the love ;)

  • 15 Allison // Sep 6, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Never to old for the napkin note. I got them all through high school as well with my mom’s signature smiley face guy with one piece of hair on top of his head. I loved it!

  • 16 A Little Yumminess // Sep 6, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    I am so copying this. What a neat idea!

  • 17 CookiePie // Sep 6, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    This is so, so sweet. My little one is only 2, but you can bet I will do the napkin note! I know it’s all-or-nothing, but I think all wins in this case :) Thanks for the inspiration!

  • 18 Erin @ vie balance // Sep 7, 2011 at 6:08 am

    So true! We never out grow words of love and encouragement especially from our mothers. I actually had somewhat of a reverse situation happen to me. Ever since I was about middle school age, I would write my mom a napkin note on occasion. She was a nurse and usually left the house before we woke up. As an adult, I have found some of these notes in old purses she still uses, her jewelry box, etc. It is very touching to see how much my words of love and encouragement mean to her!

  • 19 Karen // Sep 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    This post is so timely because as my boys were helping make the first day of school lunches , I was having a dilemma about “the note”. My oldest is starting 4th grade, his brother is starting 2nd and I wondered if it would just be a source of embarrassment to have a note from mom. They both told me later that night that they’d liked the note! So glad I didn’t stop doing this and I will probably be one of those parents that continues with notes (little and discreet) in lunches even as they get older.

  • 20 Jamie // Sep 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    I read this late last night and put an I LOVE YOU note in my 5 year old’s snack container. I don’t think he got it but someday he will!

    Also, can’t wait to get the book you mentioned.

  • 21 theresa // Sep 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    I’ve been doing this for years…my now 4th grader saved all the notes from the last year & 1/2! After reading this I may start sneaking notes back into my 8th grader’s lunch box too :)

  • 22 Lee // Sep 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Not only do I put in notes (after first checking with my sometimes very grown-up 8 y.o. if it was okay, and getting the reassuring response “yes, I like them”), I even give them the same flavor of Trader Joe’s dried fruit strip.

  • 23 Michelle @ A Little P // Sep 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    I love napkin notes. I got them in my lunchbox when I was little and I hope that we have little ones who I can give notes to when they’re in school in the future.

  • 24 654carroll // Sep 7, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    i write this as someone who never got a napkin note in my life (my mom, a woman of few words, goes so far as to wrap birthday-money checks in *blank pieces of paper* when she mails them) so i love stuff like this. and was in awe when i met a woman who received in the mail a post card from her father every single day of her four years of college (do I even need to add this? at Harvard). Maybe it’d be cool, too, for those trash-less lunch schools, to get a fabric pen and write a note each day on a rotation of cloth napkins? and then you have the insta-collection/memory maker at the end of the year?

  • 25 Caitlin // Sep 8, 2011 at 11:47 am

    This made me teary in such a sweet way. I loved my napkin notes from my mom but when I started high school I told her it couldn’t happen anymore. I knew I hurt her feelings and that was probably the point (oh I was not a very nice daughter for a few years there). So she stopped writing napkin notes but still left me post-it ones on the kitchen counter each morning since she left for work before I woke up. Even as a scary moody teenager I loved those notes and still have some of them saved in my don’t throw away folder. When I went away to college it continued in the form of letters and cards every week for years and now they are emails. She was/is not the best at everything, but she was/is the best at making me feel like the most loved and important version of myself. I am glad you went for the “all” part of all or nothing.

  • 26 Stephanie // Sep 8, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    I too have fallen victim to the guilt-trap of the napkin note. This year I have a new strategy. My 8-yr old LOVES jokes. I found a little book of riddles made just for putting in lunches. I pull one out each day, fold it in half and put it in his lunch. Victory! The book is called “Lunch Lines” by Dan Signer. It is turning out to be the best $9.99 I spent for back-to-school.

  • 27 Brooke Reynolds // Sep 9, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    We love napkin notes.. and there are also great jokes you can print out. I just printed these and will tuck one in my 2nd graders lunch with a note on the back. http://www.allfortheboys.com/home/2011/8/4/free-printable-school-lunch-notes-jokes.html

  • 28 Jessica // Sep 10, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    This is so great. My mom would put notes in my lunch bag sporadically, not every day. So it was always an exciting surprise when I would find one. I loved it! I will absolutely leave notes in my kids lunch bags if/when I ever have one.

  • 29 Debbie // Sep 14, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    “If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, we would only have chosen you.”

    EVERY child should be able to hear such words! My youngest left for college about a month ago so I sent each of my children a REAL, hand written, snail mail letter with a similar sentiment. Thank you SO much for sharing this.

  • 30 W // Sep 14, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Growing up, my mom would get those “one-a-day” tear out calendars, usually with some funny cartoons or trivia, and put 1 or 2 in my brother’s and my lunchboxes. Cute way to show you’re thinking of your child, without being embarassing (if anything, people were jealous and wanted to read the cartoon/answer the trivia question/etc!)

  • 31 Jenny // Sep 25, 2011 at 3:11 am

    After a visit with my mom a few years ago (she lives in a different city) I found that she’d left little notes in the pockets of a couple things I’d worn during the week. They were just tiny “I love you”s and “xoxoxox”s on little scraps of paper, but I took them out whenever I did laundry, and made sure to put them right back. They lasted about two years. And I was in my late twenties…

  • 32 Sherry // Oct 7, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Just stopping back here to say…this post inspired me to start this ritual with my kindergartener as she started school last month. It was an instant hit within 3 days and she now askes me to “do it every day for the rest of my life”. To be fair, some days she cannot recall what I wrote to her, and a few times I have forgotten in the morning rish (and lived with the guilt). Suffice to say it has become a wonderful new tradition in a harried family that hasn’t made too much time for traditions. Thank you.

  • 33 Amanda // Mar 29, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    Oh man, my mom only occasionally put notes into my lunchbox, but on the days when she did, I felt like the luckiest kid in the cafeteria.

  • 34 April Grippo // Mar 6, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    I clicked on this link because it was one of the “recommended” posts that I would like…and I am so glad I did! Beautifully written, and I’m inspired, as usual, by this blog!

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