Rabbits and Horses and Bears

One local dad shares his story on the little gestures we as parents do that turn into a unique family habit.


The bus to Wakefield Elementary

I forgot to put a joke in Bobby’s lunch the other day and had to email it to his teacher (“What do you get if you spill coffee on rabbits? Hot cross bunnies!”) It’s not like this was a longstanding tradition or anything; I’d only done it a few times before that. One day a couple of weeks ago, he said out of the blue, “Will you put a joke in my lunch tomorrow?” And just like that, I’m on the hook—hunched over the laptop while he’s brushing his teeth, Googling frantically to find one that’s actually funny, every no-school-lunch morning for the rest of his childhood. At least I get Pizza Fridays off.


My own brown-bag experience amounted to a single semester of sixth grade, when I was uprooted from the cozy little school my sister and I had both attended since pre-K, and from whose high school we would ultimately graduate, and dropped into an even smaller elementary school in a town of 400 in the province of Québec. It was the same thing every day: peanut butter and jelly on brown bread, little red box of raisins, apple, literally in a brown paper bag. I ate at my desk and tried to avoid the attention of the kids on the other side of the room—members of a tiny English-speaking community in the hills of separatist French Canada, isolated even from the national capital just an hour’s drive away. Which is why we were there: my mother was doing research in Ottawa for her doctoral dissertation on the intellectual origins of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a Canadian political party. My sister took a bus into Hull for high school, my parents spent the day at the National Archives (Dad was on sabbatical from the seminary), and I endured another day as the first new kid in the history of Wakefield Elementary, teased, bullied, picked on, pushed around, and reminded of my American citizenship from first bell to last. There were no jokes in my lunch.


But I did get little notes when I got home. I’d ride the short bus around the bend in the river that defined the town, up the winding road through the trees, all the way to the last stop, then walk another half mile or so to the last house in town, a red and white farmhouse in a clearing at the crest of the hill. I was always the first one home. I’d open the front door and head straight back to the lit kitchen, trailing the usual dark cloud. On the island counter in front of two bar chairs would be two small bowls of party mix with half an unruled index card folded like a place card behind each. My sister’s always had oval-and-stick drawings of the family of horses we liked to imagine lived on the other side of the road by the old graveyard. Mine had a character who came to be known as P.B., short for Performing Bear, a whimsical figure who would make observations about the weather or season, discuss his plans for the day, offer topical comments, express excitement about a family trip the coming weekend. Then inside, of course, the little note from Mommy—just a sentence or two of love and encouragement. Boy, did I ever count on those notes (and that party mix).


I don’t think my mother necessarily thought through the burden she was taking on the day she sat down to create that first pair of cards. She’d already spent three years commuting several days each week from Indianapolis to Bloomington for her classes, a thermos of tea the only source of heat in the rattletrap green Beetle, and I knew even then how much she hated spending the time away from the family. Now, as we embarked on this glorious but daunting family adventure, she must have seen the notes and snacks as a way to ensure happy homecomings for us when she couldn’t be there to greet us herself. But every morning (or did she do them the night before?), in the middle of everything else, to have to come up with something new for the horses to be doing, and yet another performance for P.B. …


More than three decades later, I’m still living with the effects of my mother’s impulse to take a blank index card from the stack, cut it in half, and start drawing. The notes are a prime memory of our time together in Wakefield, and really of my whole childhood; they stand in for countless other ways she made her love known to us whether she was there or not, and lined our daily paths with caches of motherly support. And of course, I couldn’t help thinking about them as I wrote that first riddle for Bobby. Thankfully, his days at PS 295 are infinitely happier than mine were at Wakefield Elementary. Each day’s joke is a confection, not a life saver. I don’t imagine he’ll be remembering them years later but you never know. Add it to the long list of things I learned from my mother: sometimes a little scrap of paper makes a big difference.