My mom cooked with no directions and the finest ingredients. She liked to finish with a bottle of red wine aimed at the pot and an indeterminate pour. For the most part things turned out except when she made my school lunch.
She packed my Peanuts lunchbox with a weekly rotation of sandwiches made with exotic and pungent ingredients. Foods that would shock the senses of most fourth graders. On Tuesday, even though I knew what was coming, the smell of tuna sitting in a hot metal lunchbox floored me every time I opened the lid. Her recipe included capers, shallots, and a generous dose of mayonnaise. She had trouble draining liquid from the can so the tuna had a soupy quality which was dangerous for white bread. If the sandwich was a sponge it would have dripped when you picked it up. She also gave me thick slices of goose liver with cornichons and fancy crackers. Just imagine the California sun beating down on loosely wrapped paté in a tin box.
The lunchbox never completely lost the scent of the previous day’s menu, and I couldn’t get used to the smells. I assumed my classmates wouldn’t either. I ate lunch sitting in the grass at 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 box 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 ambition and habits. Now, it’s all seems 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 lunch my mom did had big dreams for us.