After-School Feeding Competition: We Always Lost

Right before Mother’s Day, I was walking the hike and bike trail with one of my best friends.  This is a time we normally reserve for analyzing important topics such as the flaws of the male sex, politics, gossip and other forms of social criticism.

This time, she surprised me by saying she thought I was one of the best mothers she knew.  Me?  One of the best mothers she knew?  I was so touched and surprised I almost had a coronary. 

“Well, I admit,” she said later, “that I used to wonder about you — why you never made lunches for your kids to take to school.”  (This had been rather memorably pointed out when my next-door neighbor once asked me, in all seriousness, when I had stopped making lunches for our kids.  Given I’d never started such a tradition, I felt like it was a trick question and refused to answer.)

“But you’ve always been very clear on what you can and can’t do for your kids,” she said.  “I think you’ve done a good job.”

Well, fortunately, our kids weren’t around to be polled about this particular judgment.  Thank God.  I mean, I like to keep my illusions alive for as long as possible.

But I do know that both my husband and I were kind of slipshod when it came to the whole feeding-the-kids matter.  They were regularly well-fed, of course.  But when I hear new parents yammering about organic this and that and no sugar at our house for our kids, I just want to lapse into a coma or at least be rendered temporarily deaf.  What’s wrong with a little junk food now and then?

Fortunately, my husband was the sole author of the most egregious occasion at our house concerning kids and food.  It happened several years ago, when our daughter was part of some Odyssey of the Mind group.  (I should have known the group was a bad idea when one of the other mothers quizzed the group of five kids about “creative” uses for a rope and she kept obsessing that all their answers were “common,” instead of “creative,” according to the Odyssey of the Mind pamphlet she was sweating over.  If you need a pamphlet to divide creative from common uses for a rope, I tend to think you’re a hopeless case to begin with.)

But, anyway.  At the beginning of the after-school group meetings — and long before all the parents had a big falling-out and were barely speaking to one another — the mothers who hosted the meetings were trying to outdo one another with the refreshments they served the kids.  All kinds of clever little sandwiches cut in weird shapes, exotic vegetables, mixed fruit drinks.  Naturally, I was dreading having the little herd head to our house for the inevitable culinary disappointment.

“Leave it to me,” my husband said.  “I hate this kind of crap.”

So I left it to him.  The afternoon the meeting came to our house, I later heard (since I was hiding out at work, where my services were deemed much more useful), the kids stormed the house, ready for some mouth-watering refreshments.

“We’ve got bread and we’ve got water,” my husband told them.

As the story went, one of the boys was outraged.  “Just bread and water?” he demanded.

“No, we’ve got brown and white bread,” my husband said.  “And you can have ice in your water, if you’d like.”

The story made the Odyssey of the Mind rounds for weeks.  At the end of the year, the kids gave some god-awful little dramatic presentation that involved store-bought costumes and came back without a prize and most of the parents never spoke to one another again.  But memories linger on.

“I still can’t believe,” the same boy said to our daughter, a few years later, “that your father gave us bread and water.”

You see: You can impress kids with memories in all kinds of ways.  I bet they don’t even remember the sandwiches some of the mothers spent hours preparing.  But bread and water: Now that was an occasion, more creative than common.

(Copright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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