Carefully stored on the top shelf of my closet among the sweaters that never get worn sits a small brown paper lunch bag decorated with sixteen tiny red hearts. Unlike the crisp new bags just out of the package, its edges are worn and have been folded over several times. It’s a very special lunch bag given to me by my five-year-old daughter. I have cherished this little memento for seven years. It reminds me of how thoughtful my little girl was at a very difficult time in my life.
My children, Kali and Jack, were five and three when their father and I separated. My sudden independence forced me to get a full-time job. This was difficult for Kali and Jack to accept since they were used to having me around all day. Now their father was gone and their mother had to leave for work eight hours a day for reasons they did not understand.
It wasn’t easy adjusting to single parenting. I hated leaving my children with the babysitter, even though I had carefully screened and selected her. I remember pulling out of my driveway one day and looking in the rear-view mirror; my three-year-old son was running down the sidewalk, crying, and screaming for me to come back. I didn’t turn around; instead, I made my job the first priority and kept on driving. I sobbed all the way to work and still feel like the world’s worst mother for not turning back.
Kali seemed to understand somewhat. She hid her tears when I left and reminded me to call on my lunch break. I always did. One particular day she was busy in the kitchen while I was getting ready for work. I didn’t bother to ask what she was up to. It was always a little chaotic in the morning as I ran around gathering my time badge, keys, and purse before heading out the door. I never forgot to kiss both children before leaving, reassuring them I would be back. That day, Kali ran after me carrying a small brown lunch bag that was carefully decorated with sixteen little red hearts. “Mommy, I packed your lunch for you,” she said as I took her precious little gift and kissed her again. I rarely ate lunch at work, but this time I looked forward to it.
On my drive to work, I looked over at the little lunch bag on the seat next to me, admiring the four rows of half scribbled hearts. It brought tears to my eyes and a wonderful feeling of being loved. I can’t remember what I did to deserve such a gift. Sometimes I think this small gift was her way of saying, “It’ll be all right—don’t worry.” Then I reached over and picked it up, wondering what maybe she could have put inside. Not wanting to spoil the surprise, I didn’t peek. I carried my lunch into work with pride that day. It didn’t matter if she had not put anything in that bag; I was already satisfied by the love that filled it.
I hurried to the cafeteria at lunch break. Through the glass door of the refrigerator directly on the middle shelf was my lunch, plainly visible for the other employees to see. I slid open the door and snatched my prize. I sat down at a small round table by myself and gently unfolded the top of the bag. I smiled as I peered at its contents. It’s a good thing I rarely ate lunch because all that was in the bottom of that brown paper bag were three cherry tomatoes and a single can of Coke. Oh—and a tiny piece of paper folded over just twice that read, “Mommy, I love you.”
I savored the sweetness of all three cherry tomatoes, washing each down with a gulp of my Coke. I wouldn’t have traded that lunch for a five-course gourmet meal.
I will never part with that tattered little bag. It has no value to anyone but me. It sits on the top shelf of my closet next to my sweaters that never get worn. Three cherry tomatoes have been digested and are gone, and one can of Coke is missing. Inside it you’ll find a tiny piece of paper folded over just twice that reads, “Mommy, I love you.”