“Pack this lunchbox,” I heard the voice say. And there, before me was a wicker box, square, woven securely together, deeper than it appeared when I first opened it and peered inside.
It never occurred to me that I should be handed any other sort of lunch box – not the metal barn-roofed ones that the men on the street of my childhood used to carry back and forth to the pulp mill every day. Those, too, were spacious containers with room enough to hold a thermos of soup or coffee, thick buttered sandwiches, maybe a banana.
Nor was I handed a bright pink Barbie lunchbox, or a red one, the plastic dyed to match superman’s suit. My mother never packed our lunches in boxes, choosing instead tidy brown paper bags, with just enough room to hold a slim sandwich of bread and processed cheese slices, an apple, and maybe, on weeks when she’d baked, a couple of chocolate chip cookies.
“Where am I going? And what will I pack inside this?” I asked.
“Use your imagination. The possibilities are endless. But you will know what you need. Just begin,” the voice stopped, perhaps taking a pause of perspective because when the words came to me again, this is what I heard:
“You will be alone. And for some time. Consider that.”
I peered inside, seeing this time the square fold of a red-and white checked cloth, faded from all the years my mother draped it over the picnic table in our back yard. She’d given it to me when I left home for good and was setting up my own apartment. I never minded that it had faded over the years or that faint tea stains smudged one corner, that mustard added a splash of yellow to another. The stains told stories of casual picnics, the splashed tea and mustard splurts all part of the fun.
A small metal fork, spoon and knife, ingeniously designed to fold in half and fit into their own case, glinted a familiar grin in my direction. I’d purchased them the summer I first began heading out on weekend canoe trips with my high school youth group friends. The cutlery was nestled inside a collapsible plastic bowl I’d purchased that same summer. My friends always made fun of it because although it took up little space in my backpack, the bowl leaked when I ate soup from it. I developed a manner of sitting, legs spread eagle, arms extended and head tipped forward, so the soup seeped out onto the ground instead of my lap.
The bowl would do wherever I was going, as long as I didn’t take soup along.
There was a thermos in the basket, which I knew I’d use for coffee, not tea or soup. I made it all the way through university without drinking coffee, but when I graduated and started my first job, my brother bought me a Mr. Coffee, capable of brewing 12 cups at once.
“You’re an adult now,” he said, “You should drink coffee.” Over the years I’ve come to realize that he wanted me to drink coffee not so much because I was an adult, but because it would define many of our visits together.
“Want a cup of coffee?” he invariably asks me when I arrive at his house. And I say yes, because it signals we’re about to sit down together, letting conversation spill out between us.
I will pack coffee in this lunch basket. And a small bottle of milk, like the one my Whitehorse friends handed me the first night I visited them. I’ll trust the milk doesn’t sour, but instead stays fresh and cold, the way it did when I set it on my windowsill in Yellowknife. It was mid-June and the days were hot and the nights sunny. Cool air settled against the screen of my open window and when I awoke in the early morning, the jar of milk was cold against the palm of my hand. I added it to the coffee I made each day in a small French press and drank, sitting in my bed, high above the Yukon River, looking out the window on birch and fir trees, wondering what the day would bring.
I will pack coffee because, far more important than the caffeine that I honestly crave, the ritual of drinking it is one that brings me back to time well spent, often by myself, but also on so many porches where good friends, brothers and sisters, sit with me looking over lakes and rivers, oceans and fields.
But I need more than coffee. And so I will add a bottle of wine — merlot because that is my preferred taste. There’s a small glass in my basket and it will serve two purposes wherever it is that I am going. Like coffee, a glass of wine takes me to places of quiet contemplation that so often unfold as I sit alone in my living room at the end of a weekend, mentally preparing for another week.
But wine has another purpose in my life, one that I need on any journey.
“Drink this,” said Jesus. “Remember me.”
The sacrament of communion is best practiced with others, but if needed, I will pour the wine into my glass, liberally, not meanly, the way it is so often done in churches where the first priority is to ensure everyone gets a sip. Why can’t we just believe there will be enough regardless of how much pours out from the chalice? I will pour a full glass and commune with Jesus and every other friend I’ve loved along the way.
I tuck a bottle of water into my basket. With all that caffeine and wine I will become dehydrated. And I begin to think about food. What should I pack?
Apples. As a child I somehow fell into the habit of eating them all the way to the stem, seeds and all. I should have died years ago of arsenic poisoning. But I have not. Apples leave no waste. I eat every morsel.
And vegetables, cut into the letters of my name, because that is what my father did one Sunday morning when he was tasked with looking after sick kids and getting lunch ready while my Mom went off to church. When she returned, nothing was prepared, but we all had our names spelled out in turnips and carrots. My dad loved whimsy. And I like the idea of opening my lunch basket and discovering whimsy.
Since this lunch basket appears to have mystical properties, I imagine it can contain anything I want, hot or cold. No spoilage to worry about. So I slip a plate of Sunday dinner, the kind my mom made every week – mashed potatoes, waxed yellow beans from a can, slices of well-done roast beef and thick brown gravy.
For fun I’ll toss in a couple of Yorkshire puddings, because they remind me of the Sunday a blind Messianic Jewish preacher came to dinner with his beautiful German Shepherd seeing eye dog. He – the preacher — loved Yorkshire pudding and my mother decided to make them for him even though they weren’t her speciality. My mom makes excellent pie pastry, flaky and buttery, but her Yorkshire puddings left something to be desired – that day they were black, crispy and tough. I think she hoped the blind preacher wouldn’t notice, but I suspect his tongue saw every burnt edge.
Fresh olives. I’ll put those in my basket because they remind me of a magical evening in France with friends. Sitting in a park, breaking wedges off a fresh baguette and scooping olives in herbs de Provence, we feasted on friendship and sunshine. It’s a good memory, but it’s not the only one olives stir for me. I’ve eaten bowls and bowls and bowls of olives since I moved to Toronto. It seems to be one of that staples that binds my friendships in this city.
I slip a couple of bars of chocolate into the basket – dark, 80 per cent, with a hint of orange zest. I do this because it’s the only way the chocolate will last. And who knows how long I’ll be using this basket for provision. I am not a disciplined woman. I would eat a milk chocolate bar in one sitting. But dark chocolate is not my favourite. And so it lasts. It also pairs nicely with red wine.
My basket should be full, but, strangely, it is not. Food and drink stirs so many memories, and as I tuck each one into my basket, space opens up for even more.
The voice said I would be alone. But I think it might have been mistaken. This lunch basket was never meant just for me.