“Do you want peanut butter and jelly, or cream cheese and jelly?” I ask, heading toward the fridge.
“Cream cheese and jelly!” he shouts. My five year old’s smile is wide, his energy contagious. He gets to the refrigerator first and pulls the cream cheese out for me. Then he hands me the jelly. I reach next to him and get out the bread, and he pulls out a butter knife from the drawer. Our plates are arranged side by side. I’m having one too. A cream cheese and jelly sandwich. A kindness sandwich, I think to myself, and a bittersweet smile spreads across my face as white and red swirl together under the motion of the knife.
I’ve thought of this particular kind of sandwich as a Kindness Sandwich for probably twenty or so years. The way I first heard the story was that my mom’s teacher shared her cream cheese and jelly sandwich with her when she was young.
Little by little, more of the truth was revealed. This is the way things go when there’s a checkered past in the family tree. You don’t hear it all at once. Much of it is too tragic to be shared, too difficult to explain to a very young child. So first I heard that Mom’s teacher shared the sandwich with her. And that sounded nice.
Over time, I heard more about Grandma’s drinking. And Grandpa’s drinking. And the fighting. The shouting. My mom and her brothers, who were just little kids, commonly laid awake listening to the sounds of thrown dishes shattering against the walls. My mother told me she often laid in bed, wishing her parents would just stop so she could finally sleep.
One morning, my mother, who was then only a tad bit older than my son is now, walked outside with her kindergarten class for a picnic, and she had no lunch. Her mother never made her any lunch, and of course, in those days, making lunches for children didn’t fit into a father’s job description. So, since she had no food at all that day, her teacher invited her to sit next to her and share her lunch, handing her half of her cream cheese and grape jelly sandwich.
My mom has told me that story many times. Sometimes I still ask her about these things, so I can remember, too, and carry on some of her tales of the past, the way stories are passed down by generation. By now, I can hear her voice tell it in my head. I can see her in my mind’s eye spreading cream cheese and jelly on bread for me, many times over the years, back when I was little. What I didn’t realize then, that I know now, especially now that I’m a parent, is that, in those moments, she held in her hands not just two pieces of bread stuck together with filling, but the the embodiment of kindness manifested in physical form. She passed it to me: a torch she never received from her own mother. A legacy she created from absence.
In the absence of happy memories, she vowed to make a safe, loving space for her own children to form their own…
In the absence of nurturing care, she vowed to be there for her children…
In the absence of food, she vowed to always feed her children…
“I’ll never do this to my children,” was the mantra of her formative years, and with that promise, she invented a new life, one she’d never experienced firsthand, for all of her children, one in which we knew we were loved, above all else, through good times and bad. And though she may never have thought that far ahead, it is a gift she created for her grandchildren, too.
My son bites into his sandwich and jelly spreads out, a smudge of red in the corner of his lips. I smile and lick my thumb, and wipe it away. We finish our sandwiches together.