My mom cooked with no directions and ingredients we couldn’t afford. She liked to finish with a bottle of red wine aimed at a pot and an indeterminate pour. For the most part things turned out well except when she made my school lunch. She packed my Peanuts lunchbox with a rotation of sandwiches made with frightening ingredients. Foods any normal fourth grader would call gross. On Tuesday, even though I knew what was coming, the tuna sandwich I took out of my hot metal lunchbox looked like a fresh crime scene. Sitting inside a clear plastic bag was lifeless white bread flattened by the weight of water. On a scale of 1 to 10 for bad food smells, the tuna sandwich was a nine by noon.
My mom’s tuna salad recipe included capers, shallots, a generous dose of mayonnaise, and the water in the tuna can. She never managed to drain it so the mix bled through the bread and all over the Baggie. She also gave me thick slices of goose liver pate with cornichons and fancy crackers. The problems with this lunch were the intense smell, which grew like an exponent when you opened your lunch box and the taste. Pate is very rich and dense. It’s designed for trained taste buds, not fourth grade tongues.
The lunchbox never lost the scent of the previous day’s menu. It was so disappointing, like seeing the babysitter you don’t like at your doorstep. I couldn’t get used to the smells so I assumed my classmates wouldn’t either. I ate in the grass, sitting a safe distance from the other kids.
My mom joined the nascent health food movement in fifth grade and her school lunch program changed dramatically. There were Tiger Milk bars and licorice bark locked inside my Partridge Family lunch pail along with sandwiches made on dark and nutty organic bread. Overall, it was an improvement as far as smell went, but I remained the only kid with freaky contents inside her lunch box. When I got brave enough to eat at the picnic tables with other kids, I kept the lid up so someone sitting across from me couldn’t see what I had in store.
My mom’s eccentricities and enthusiasms manifest in my activities as well. Most of my toys were handmade and foreign. I got a loom for Christmas when I was six. When she signed me up for an activity you could count on it being avant-garde and slightly beyond my reach. Most memorable were the semi-private oil painting lessons I received in fifth grade. The teacher did most of the painting.
When I think of my mom back then, I imagine ducking from her designs and ambitions. Now, her habits seem funny and interesting. Later in life you can add your parents’ intentions to the outcomes. They become whole people with dimensions beyond your point of view. My mom was very far from perfect. She could steal, cheat and lie while balancing beautifully on four-inch heels. Those details remain clear, but I also recognize that someone who made the school lunches my mom did had big dreams for us.