Fixing Sandwiches

2008

The summer I turned six we moved, as usual. We had moved every summer from the time I was born. This time we drove a long way, from Detroit to Lake Stevens, Washington. Lake Stevens seemed like a pretty good place, until September.

In September my mother made me sandwiches, put them in a tin lunch box with cowboys on the outside, and walked me to Grade One. The door to Grade One was in the middle of a brick wall. When we reached the brick wall she left me and walked away. I passed through the door and sat at a desk in a room among strangers. For five hours each day I made myself small and quiet and did what the adults told me to do, intently waiting for bell that told me it was time for my mother to meet me at the brick wall and take me away from Grade One. After two or three days, my mother noted a problem in my lunch box. It contained untouched sandwiches.

My mother knew me as an indiscriminate, comprehensive consumer of any food presented to me. Untouched sandwiches caused her concern. She interviewed me about them but I was unhelpful. I said that I wanted to eat them, but when lunchtime came I couldn't do it. I could offer no explanation. It was a mystery. So she dropped the subject and asked me to explain Grade One, about which she said she knew very little. By this time I was expert on Grade One and I was happy to educate her. I taught her about the teachers and the kids and the rules. Finally she said she knew what was wrong. The problem, she said, was that my sandwiches were too big.

The next morning, instead of cutting my sandwiches in half, she cut them into quarters. She assured me that I would now be able to eat them. She was right. From that day, I had no trouble with sandwiches.

Half a lifetime later my daughter Clare was in Grade Three. Her mother and I had been separated for a few months, and Clare had been hugging me harder and telling me more often that she loved me. I saw her on weekends and Wednesdays. Sometimes I took her to school. She was doing well in school, but soon a problem developed. She began to balk at leaving her mother's house. Every morning for weeks she announced she was too sick or too tired to go, and begged to be left at home. One evening we discussed it.

Clare couldn't explain why she didn't want to go. She liked school, she just didn't like going to school. It was a mystery. So I dropped the subject and we talked about other things, about mothers and fathers and childhood and growing up. I told her stories about my mother, including the story about the sandwiches. Clare saw her grandma rarely, but she loved her and liked to hear stories about her. Clare and my mother had a kindred spirit. They shared a private understanding of certain secrets of life, and of each other. Maybe they rooted each other.

Like most childhood issues, Clare's problem disappeared as quickly and inexplicably as it had arrived. Soon she began leaving for school without complaint. Much later I learned later that, the morning after our conversation, she began asking her mother to cut her sandwiches in quarters.