I attended my neighborhood elementary school during the 60s. School lunches were not memorable. During those early years, I walked home for lunch with my little sisters in tow. We crossed Merrick Highway with the help of the crossing guard. My mom or babysitter, Josie, (if Mom was substitute teaching that day) welcomed us home.
Pastina, tiny little star macaroni, were almost always on the lunch menu. Steam rose from the bowls as a pat of butter, and a shallow puddle of milk were warmed through. We’d carefully ate the hot pastina along the edges so as not to burn lips or tongues. There was always a fruit—an apple, section of an orange, and a share of Oreo cookies. Satisfied and cleaned up, my sisters and I walk back to school ready for an afternoon of learning.
By third or fourth grade, walking home for lunch fell from our routine. Perhaps the crossing guard was accessed in the mid-afternoon or more likely, my sisters and I preferred to gobble down food in the noisy lunchroom, then race outside with our friends Getting in on hopscotch and double dutch jump rope was the top priority. Brown bags and, later, a Yogi Bear lunch box held a salami sandwich between two soft slices of Wonder bread. The sandwiches were cut in rectangle or triangle halves, making it convenient to trade. Trading was a big deal at the lunch table-mostly for cookies or PopTarts. Occasionally, I swapped half of a salami sandwich for a gooey peanut butter and jelly half. Everyone ate the soft Wonder bread that stuck to the back of the front teeth. You had to do a milk swish to unstuck the glop.
When I was in fourth grade, my mother had an opportunity to join an expedition to complete her master’s degree in Marine biology. The trip involved scuba diving, sampling, and cataloging marine life in Bermuda. Dad, never wanting to miss an adventure (or be left alone with his mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law), volunteered to go along.
My maternal grandmother and great grandmother swooped in to take over the housekeeping and childcare for five days. They arrived in a cyclone of Sicilian commands, stomps, and gestures, cleaning everything that dared harbor dust or crumbs. Our house was normally noisy and rambunctiousness—typical of a small house with a lot of kids. But with Grandma and Great Great Grandma in the mix, the volume and intensity were deafening. Grandma ironed, vacuumed, and mopped, Great Grandma scoured the copper bottoms of the Faberware, hung laundry, and swept the stoop and driveway, Throughout the flurry of activity, they complained, argued, and gossiped.
My sisters and I were extra vigilant in doing what we were told. We scrubbed our hands and face and put in extra force while brushing our teeth. We saw first hand what poor dental care could do. Grandma kept her dentures in a glass of water, and Great Grandma had three teeth.
Both Grandma and Great Grandma were not remembered for their cooking. They pan-fried chicken cutlets and eggplant. Spaghetti was covered with a thin sweet marinara. Anything they cooked had to be sopped up in thick Italian bread. Each day the women put my baby brother in the pram and walked to the nearest deli (they didn’t drive) to buy a loaf or two of thick-crust bread.
They prepared our school lunches. They were untradeable. Great Grandma baked thick hard cookies that were terrific dipped in hot tea or coffee, but no kid was interested in a cookie without icing or chocolate. Worse yet, the sandwiches were seamless. Grandma dug out the insides of a quarter loaf of bread, stuff it with fried artichoke hearts, or peppers and scrambled eggs. It was not possible to eat a seamless sandwich in less than five minutes like the soft white bread sandwiches. So many games of hopscotch and jump rope turns were forfeited. One afternoon, my sister Mary caught up with me on the playground.
“How are we supposed to eat this lunch?”
We did. The grandmas would not entertain complaints, and we were raised not to waste food.
Looking back, I now would pay good money for a seamless sandwich stuffed with fried artichokes or peppers and scrambled eggs.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.