lies we've told

On Throwing Away the Lunches My Mother Packed

Photo: Ocean/Corbis

There are some lies you hold onto because they’re huge and terrible; this one is very, very small. Every day for lunch, my mom would pack me a whole red apple, and every day, I would throw it away uneaten. Every single day for what must have been years, I did this. Sometimes I try to picture what all the apples I threw away would look like; it’s a barrel-sized trash can, the kind they had in the school lunchroom, filled to the brim and overflowing.

In my defense, my mother was a tyrant. The early nineties were an unparalleled time for packaged, processed, and branded foodstuffs, but I was blocked at every turn from enjoying them. Sugary cereals, for example, were entirely off-limits. The one time we bought Alpha Bits, it was on condition that we get the kind  without the letter-shaped marshmallows, which were the entire point of the cereal. Pop Tarts were acceptable, but only without frosting. She didn’t understand why Sunny Delite was so much better than Minute Maid, or how Nesquik already mixed up was vastly superior to Hershey’s chocolate syrup in skim milk. Because of course they were better. Way better for lots of reasons, but especially because I wanted them.

Oakdale Elementary School in Omaha, Nebraska, circa 1995, had the classic café-gym-itorium, where the tables would fold down from the walls at lunchtime. Down the bench, the coolest kids would be holding court with their Lunchables. The magnanimous ones would dole out stacks of cracker, meat, and cheese to their less fortunate friends; the sadistic ones made a performance of squeezing out tomato sauce, sprinkling cheese, and placing pepperonis on their build-your-own pizzas before cramming them down in big bites. My mother never even looked at Lunchables; ditto Hi-C, Capri Sun, Zebra cakes, and the kind of Gushers that made your tongue turn blue. Inevitably, I was at the other end of the bench with a lunch bag containing a turkey sandwich with margarine on whole wheat bread, Pepperidge Farm cheddar cheese goldfish, a Minute Maid 100 percent juice box, and that apple.

Every afternoon when I got in the car, my mother would ask me, Did I eat my lunch? Yes, I said. Always yes. Never, Yes, except I threw away the apple. Not being a cool kid (obviously, because I never brought Lunchables) there were only a few ways for me to defend myself in the face of such indignity; tossing the apple was the one I chose. Not that I didn’t like apples — I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t have at least tolerated them under normal circumstances. Those turkey sandwiches were pretty good, too. Pepperidge Farm goldfish are extremely delicious. I had friends — not cool friends, but good ones and plenty of them. And my mother, she wasn’t really a tyrant. She was and is a great mom. I knew it was wrong. It was just … you know how kids can be.

I didn’t know whether I’d ever told my mom about this, so I called her the other day and said that I was writing a piece about a lie, and did she remember how she used to pack me apples every day for lunch? “I did all sorts of cruel things to you girls,” she said before I could finish. “That’s just one of them.” She reminded me of the time my sister and I tried Kraft macaroni and cheese at a friend’s house, and afterward complained about her homemade kind so strenuously that she actually caved and bought the stuff in the box. Then I told her about the apples. “Oh, Jill!” She sounded pained. I know!, I thought. I feel it too now.

“One time at your sister’s school, I saw a kid pull out of his lunch bag — I kid you not — a bag of chips, a thing of Ho-Hos, and a thing of candy,” she told me. “That’s it. As much as you guys resented your lunch, it could have been a whole lot worse.” I felt a little twitch of jealousy from 8-year-old me, but as always, she was right.

On Throwing Away the Lunches My Mother Packed