My two kids have never eaten school lunch. Food allergies, highbrow tastes, lowbrow tastes, we cover the waterfront. That means 10 bag lunches a week through the school year, and until the teenage years, most of summer and school breaks as well. I’d ballpark it at 400 to 500 lunches a year, all but a fraction prepared by my wife, Amy.

Our day starts early, because school begins at 7:30 a.m. It’s not easy, before it’s even light, to have much of a conversation about the day ahead with a sleepy teen or an emotional adolescent or a grade-schooler in a TV trance. So Amy has found a different way to connect.

The most notable item in each child’s lunch box is a recycled paper napkin; we buy them by the hundreds. They don’t stand up to much, especially a felt-tip pen, but it is the chosen medium their mom uses to send a message each day, a tradition she learned from her mother, who passed away last summer.

They are notes of encouragement before an exam, a confidence-builder after being excluded in a social setting, words of affection when there’s nothing else to bring up. On the rare occasion when I make lunches, I write the napkin notes, intuitively knowing it is something I must do. (I try to be humorous or vulgar, lest I trample on my wife’s territory and come off as inauthentic.)

I got to thinking about the napkin notes because our eldest, our son, graduates from high school this week and his final school lunch was last Wednesday.

Childhood slips away gradually, but from a parent’s standpoint the end comes abruptly and the “lasts” cascade down on you like hailstones, each landing just as you shake off the sting of the previous one.

Our son leaves for college in California in August. I know he will return home many times before full-on independence, but we know from our own experience that it is never quite the same. Each time the young adult checks in, he will be more his own person and less the child for whom you drew pooping ducks on a napkin, knowing it would bring a smile.

Last week, I wondered how Amy would approach our son’s last napkin note. If I had to guesstimate, she’s written about 3,000 to him (maybe 2,000 to date to his little sister). The last one, she told me, was a low-key exhortation to enjoy his final day of school. She seemed rather nonchalant about it.

Perhaps I fixate on the napkin notes because more than anything I can come up with this spring, they embody the banal constancy of parenting. Tiny, even tiresome acts that barely register while you’re doing them accumulate into something hard to measure.

The irony, of course, is that it’s mostly lost on the child, especially eager-to-emancipate high-schoolers. They will not understand the meaning or impact of the napkin notes until they are fortunate enough to shepherd their own little ones through the gauntlet of joy and sorrow and terror and tedium that is parenting.

Most of us become parents for an array of self-motivated reasons and then are rapidly disabused of the notion that life is about us anymore. I could make a cogent argument that we invest too much attention and effort in parenting nowadays, sacrifice too much of what is fulfilling about adult life to the obsessive grail of raising well-adjusted children.

But not this week.

If you’re decent at parenting (and lucky), you end up with a young adult whose company you enjoy and with a lifetime of warm memories to fill the absences. But mentally scanning a list of just my extended family and friends illustrates that it doesn’t always work out that way, despite best intentions and perfect attendance at soccer games.

I’m grateful that my wife completed her last volume of our son’s napkin notes knowing that few were used to wipe up tears or salve the pain of real suffering. His face was frequently wiped on a sleeve — the napkins mostly trashed or unused — though not before momentarily registering the commitment behind the message … Love, Mom.

So here’s to the parents in this season of accomplishment and transition. We balance our pride and gratitude with the somber reality that a long and substantive chapter in our lives — one that in the agony of a child’s infancy looked endless — is now in the rearview mirror, with little but a worn lunch box and crumby plastic containers to show for it.

Our household is not out of the napkin-note business yet, not for another six years. But the next time my son wants a bag lunch, it will be one he packs for himself, in a distant city or a home we won’t recognize, at a time and place he probably can’t even imagine today.

When he packs it, I doubt he will write to himself on a napkin. But I hope just the sight of one reminds him of a love so deep his mom wrote him 3,000 letters trying to express it.

 

Adam Platt is executive editor of Twin Cities Business.