The most creative school lunches were made after my parents purchased a sandwich maker. One of my mom’s coworkers had raved about hers, and my mom took her coworkers’ raves very seriously. The convenience of the sandwich maker only further confirmed her faith. Preparing lunch for me and my brother became so much easier with a machine. Two slices of bread, ketchup, mustard, and butter smashed together with a surprise filling. One week it was frozen hash browns, the next week it was falafel, another it was just sliced cheese.
The sandwich was complemented by a morning snack, fruit and a juicebox. The morning snack was either crackers packaged with a rectangular red stick and processed cheese spread or the classic granola bar, and the fruit was either an apple or an orange.
I am not an orange person.
Oranges are an impractical and exasperating food. The first peel is the greatest challenge. Getting in far enough to reach the top layer of the fruit but not accidentally thumbing into the fruit itself and getting juice sprayed in the eye. Or not peeling in far enough and being stuck working against the defensive white rind. Then there is the work of the peeling itself. When you finally get to eat the fruit, you end up biting seeds. Who doesn’t love a crunchy fruit? And just so that you don’t forget all that you’ve endured, there is that orange smell that refuses to leave your hands. You will smell orange for the rest of the day—as you type, when you scratch your face, even after you wash your hands with soap. This is a reminder that in the battle of Orange vs. Human, you may have trespassed through the peel, secured the fruit, and even found a way to ignore the annoyance of spitting out seeds in the midst of your citrus pleasure—but the orange, by marking you with its odour, always emerges victorious.
And what can I say about granola bars? As an adult, it is no surprise to me that the word granola has now become synonymous for boring or bland. Even the premium granola bars—chocolate chip—made me wish for chocolate chips on their own.
Around Grade 8, I decided that I had had my fill of oranges and granola bars. But I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out in the giant metal garbage bins that lined our school hallways. I had been taught at Sunday school that Food is God. How could I throw God out?
It was perhaps Sunday school that also provided the sacred solution: why throw God out when I could feed the birds? The food wouldn’t be wasted and I could feel good about my humanitarian efforts (another Sunday school teaching: Love All Serve All).
I began stockpiling the oranges and granola bars in brown paper lunch bags under the stack of audaciously patterned sweaters I had borrowed from my dad. After a month or two, when the sweaters could no longer efficiently conceal the bumpy shapes the stacked food made, I carried stuffed bags of now moldy oranges and granola bars to the field in between my school and my home and left them as an offering to the (presumably hungry) winged creatures of the sky.
Occasionally, I felt guilty about my moldy offerings, worrying that perhaps I was poisoning the birds. But I told myself that birds likely picked around the mold. That’s what beaks were for! Besides—mold probably didn’t affect birds the way it affected humans.
One spring, I had a particularly large stock and had to make two deposits. The snow had started to melt and create shallow ponds. I dropped my first bag of food into one of these ponds. If the birds didn’t find the food in the water, perhaps other wildlife would. Either way, I was comforted knowing the food wouldn’t be wasted.
As I left my house for the second time that afternoon, carrying my second offering, my mother’s grey Topaz pulled up into the driveway. I hurried back into the house and reburied the food in my closet.
“How was your day?” she asked.
(harmless question stay calm)
“It was good, Mom!”
(it was a good day this isn’t a lie I have nothing to hide)
“What were you doing just now?”
(oh God she knows she knows she knows she knows she knows)
(oh God why is she looking at me I hate when she looks at me when she knows)
(you are such a bad liar she knows she knows she knows)
(you are SUCH a bad liar she knows she knows she knows)
“You looked like you were up to something…”
(how does she always know just don't look at her don't say anything)
“You had something in your hand,” she continued, “something brown… where were you going?”
(how did she see that from her car how does she see everything she knows don’t say it don't say it)
“Oh. Um. I was going to feed the birds.”
I said it. There was no other way this could play out. I had never been good at lying, especially not to my mother. I adored her, but I was terrified of her too. Her parenting style was fierce—both in the way she loved and in her punishments. I also believed she might be moved by my well-intentioned efforts to give back to the planet.
So when she asked, “What do you mean, you feed the birds?” I told her everything—about the moldy oranges and the granola bars in my closet, how I didn’t like them, and how I thought the birds could benefit from my dislike.
She listened and then asked me to bring to the kitchen the food that was left in my closet. While I was gone, my dad came home and I heard her filling him in an even tone. That’s when I began to worry. The disappearance of melody from her tone never boded well.
“Can you show your dad where you left the food for the birds?” she asked, when I came back into the kitchen. “And bring the food home.”
“But,” I said, “it will be wet from the pond.”
“That’s ok. Just bring it home.” Then she turned to my dad. “Make sure he brings all of it home,” she said, as though she hadn’t just instructed me to do the same.
My dad and I walked in silence. This wasn’t unusual, but this time the silence felt deliberate on his part and I was grateful.
When we got to the field, I pointed to the bag.
“There it is.”
I reached into the cold, brown water and pulled out the full bag.
“Is there anything else?” He questioned the water, ignoring my No. When he seemed satisfied by not being able to see any more food himself, we walked home. Again, in silence.
“Did you get it?” my mother asked when we returned.
“Yes,” we answered in unison.
My mom was sitting at her usual chair at the dinner table. The oranges and granola bars from my closet were now laid out on my placemat. She took the wet bag from my hand and laid the soaking contents next to the dry ones.
“Sit down,” she directed. Even tone.
I sat and waited for a lecture. It never came.
I looked up at her.
With the repetition of that one word, she conveyed the futility of protesting. I knew I could say anything at this point (I have to go to the bathroom… I was trying to help the environment… What if I get sick?) and her response would be a single word: Eat. I started with the dry granola bars. Maybe these weren’t so bad after all, I thought, prompted by the sight of a dozen moldy oranges waiting to be consumed. Then I moved to the wet granola bars, which were only slightly more moist than usual inside the drenched wrapping. My mother continued to sit with me, watching me eat. My dad washed the dishes.
Eventually, it was the dreaded orange time. I began to peel, knowing that these oranges, largely covered in creamy white and blue bruises, would have to enter my mouth, be tasted by my tongue, and pass down my throat.
“Can I have some water?” I had been known to swallow whole other foods I didn’t enjoy at dinner (onions, beet roots, cabbage), forcing them down with large gulps of water. It had become a running joke even—There he goes again… swallowing…
Not this time.
What I remember after this is the gagging. Gagging and more gagging. My mom watching me gag. Me gagging more. And then, strangely, being grateful. Being grateful for my body’s own water, saliva, which helped me swallow. Being grateful that those awful orange peels were surprisingly water resistant. Being grateful when twelve moldy oranges became eleven, then ten, and eventually zero.
My mother stood up.
“Your dad works hard,” she said. “Every day. To feed you. And this is what you do?”
“But Mom, you pack the same thing every day,” I said, quietly.
“So? It’s what we can afford.”
Since that day, my family and I have never discussed me throwing out food, nor my mother’s response, though occasionally a joke is made about how I used to like to feed the birds. She seemed confident her punishment would ensure that I never threw food out again, and I now had a new story in my arsenal of Crazy Mom Stories to share with friends. Looking back, understanding now just how hard my immigrants parents did work, how much they did to provide for me and my brother (my mom worked a full-time job and went to school part-time), I almost feel as though her punishment wasn’t severe enough.
The next day at school, when I opened my lunch bag and found the predictable, yet purposed, granola bar and orange, I thought of my mother’s face and of mold and gagged, remembering the lesson I had learned only twelve hours earlier.
Then I threw the granola bar and orange into the garbage.
© 2015 Vivek Shraya