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The Lunch-Box Chronicles

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Pantheon, 1998
Vintage, 1999

Child Magazine Best Parenting Book of 1998; Developed by CBS/Universal Studios for t.v. pilot.

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Marion Winik, The Lunch-Box Chronicles

The first page...

In school portraits tacked over my desk, you can see them at seven and five: Captain America and his little brother, The Refugee. Hayes makes a smirky Captain in his blue Cub Scout uniform and shiny helmet of hair, arms folded statesmanlike on the desk before him. Poor Vincent could qualify for social services on the basis of this photograph alone, I fear, eyelids half-mast, face covered with boo-boos, one ear blending with some books on a shelf in the background so that it looks outsized and deformed, like a leaf of radicchio. How is that these school mug shots can turn the most photogenic little angel into a sickly goon who seems to be smiling despite the matchsticks wedged under his fingernails? And then the prices! I'll take the Bargain Bonanza Package for forty-five bucks, of course. Couldn't pass up those two dozen bonus wallets.

"Dear Mom," says an old Mothers' Day letter, posted beside the photos, written in shaky, fresh-minted cursive handwriting on a piece of blue-lined paper. "I really like when you take me to the movies. You are special because you cook what I like. I want to help you clean the house. I really like how you smile. I have a surprise for you. Love, Hayes."

He wanted to help me clean the house? That was surprise enough. Another missive is pencilled on a bunny cut out from yellow construction paper: "Dear Mom. I love you Mom. Happy Spring Break Mom. When can Will come over."

Vincie, who doesn't write letters yet, is represented by artwork – a crayoned depiction of a Martian and his pet shark, living in a castle full of fax machines and Nintendo controllers; another sheet printed all over with a rubber stamp of Vincent Winik's return address, some wobbly pink hearts, two figures with big smiles and bifurcated flippers for arms, and one word: MOM.

Some days – like maybe three out of a hundred – I am just so busy riding a tsunami of productivity in this home office of mine, I wish I didn't have to drop everything at 2:40 in the afternoon to go pick up my little pals at school. Far more likely, I start checking the clock at eleven, if not before, and count the minutes until it's time to go. Not only because it means I get to escape the solitude of the so-called creative process for a few hours and resume my role as household drudge, math tutor, and nuthouse warden, but because I can't wait to see them, to re-possess them, to get them back on my territory, whole, healthy and breathing – in part, the same impulse that used to drive me to check their baby cribs mid-nap. Of course, this feeling of anticipation involves a bit of willful tiptoeing around the possibility of The Awful Afternoon With The Devil Brats From Hell, but hey, why not be optimistic.

I fly out the door and into the jeep and have to force myself to slow down to 20 miles per hour as I reach the speed bumps and blinking lights of SCHOOL ZONE. I pull into the circular drive of the brick elementary school behind the minivans and Volvos and pick-up trucks, and my personal favorite, the flower-power printed Volkswagen Beetle that belongs to a local family doctor, reportedly equipped with a car phone but no air conditioning.

On the bench under a live oak tree, a mom with a Keith Haring button and black leggings is chatting amiably with a dad in a three-piece suit. Baby brothers and sisters mill around as their mothers stand in clusters, deconstructing last night's PTA meeting with the earnestness of Harvard graduate students, and representatives from various after-care programs stand ready with clipboards to gather up their broods. I spy the fundraising co-ordinator and wander over to find out when I'm scheduled to sell grocery certificates but am waylaid en route by the soccer coach and the plant sale chairwoman. BRYKER WOODS ELEMENTARY, says my mental bumper sticker for this place. WHERE PARENT INVOLVEMENT IS A SICKNESS.

Excerpted from The Lunch-Box Chronicles, Marion Winik (Vintage Books, 1991). Reprinted with permission of the author.

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