One of the most difficult parts of being a parent who worked for periods overseas was the sadness I felt at leaving my two daughters behind in British Columbia. Thankfully, they had (and have) a wonderful mother who would point to the moon at night and tell them that I was looking at the same moon way over in Africa, and then she would get out maps and talk about the countries I was in. At night, they would count off the nights until I returned home.
Much of my work in Africa took place more than 25 years ago when my kids were small (Farish is turning 30 and Melissa is 36), and it was heart wrenching for all of us when I would get into the car and head to airport to fly to Ghana or The Gambia. I loved my work, but I missed my daughters terribly, and I worried about losing touch with them when I was gone for weeks at a time.
Even when home, I had begun the practice of drawing and writing lunch bags for my kids to take to school. Most were jokes, a picture drawn on one side with a question, the punch line on the back:
What do married snakes do after they’ve had a fight?
Hiss and make up!
Why did they put the ghost in jail?
Because he was haunting without a license!
But sometime the bags reflected events in the girls’ lives. When Farish was going skating with her class, I drew a picture of her slipping with this helpful suggestion:
But here’s some advice
Try to keep your bum
Off of the ice
And the day after Melissa was elected president of her elementary school, I sent this message to school with her:
We’re happy you won
And you’ll be good everyone says
But how long do we have to
Keep calling you prez?
I made the bags after the kids were in bed, and the process of finding or making up a joke just right for Melissa or Farish, edit it for the lunch bag format, come up with an illustration and colour it with the set of pencils the girls gave me for Father’s Day became a nightly ritual while they were in their mid-elementary years. I was no illustrator, but I had a lot of fun drawing the pictures to go along with the jokes. And I always got a smile out of it, thinking about the girls opening their lunch, laughing (or groaning!) at the joke and sharing them with their friends.
It took time, but the practice to me was a kind of meditation on my daughters: their interests, personality, sense of humour and the events that filled their days. The whole process made me think about who they were, and how their lives were unfolding.
But things got more complicated when I was about to head over to Africa for a month or so (I was the director of my college’s International Development Centre and managed a number of development projects in West Africa). By this time the lunch bags had become a fixture in the kids’ lives, so much so that they brought each one home after school and saved them in cardboard apple boxes (eventually we accumulated over 1,000 bags). So there was no way they were going to put up without bags for the duration of my trip. That meant frantic lunch bag production, 20 or 25 at a time to be doled out while I was gone.
And they became a link between us as each bag reminded them that I was thinking of them and made them feel I was not really so far away.
Often the bags I drew and wrote for the day I left included messages about my upcoming trip:
Why did the little chocolate chip cookie cry?
And when I got back, I would sometimes make references to the places I’d been – and African jungle animals would often prowl the bags for a while:
What steps should you take if you are attacked by a lion?
After The Lunch Bag Chronicles (Playfort Publishing, 2010) was published, I discovered that there is a whole network of fathers who illustrate their kids’ lunch bags (who knew?), and I have had the privilege to share the book (and hundreds of bags that didn’t make it in – I figure I’m good for about 10 sequels) with kids and parents at readings and in classrooms. From parents, I have heard over and over the ways they stayed in touch with their kids while at school – notes in their kids’ lunch boxes, photocopied poems taped to bags, bits of fatherly and motherly advice tucked in with a sandwich.
Whether 5,000 or five miles away, school is a time when our kids learn healthy life lessons and develop values and attitudes that will sustain them for the rest of their lives. Knowing that their parents care about them and think about them enough to brighten their school day with a joke, note, or picture connecting them to their homes and parents is a reminder of how special they are and the importance of family, love, and laughter.