(Dear Readers,  I’m exploring the Dear Charlie/Jack format.  Here’s the first.)

Dear Charlie,

This morning I asked you what you wanted for lunch at your preschool and you said, without hesitation, “Gusto ko sinigang.  With talong and spinach and green beans.”  So I pulled the left-over sinigang from the fridge, spooned a serving of the soup with a pork rib, eggplants, green beans, and spinach into a pot, heated it up on the stove with some white rice, and then poured everything in one happy mix inside your lunch pail.  You asked to try just a little bit of the soup.  I gave you a spoonful and you smacked your lips in approval.  We were both satisfied with today’s lunch.

There was a time when preparing your lunch was agony.  It still is an onerous task these days, don’t get me wrong, but you and I have come to an understanding:  I need to feed YOU, not the other kids, and certainly not the other kids’ parents, so I should do just that.   This may seem like a no-brainer but it was actually a tough lesson to learn.  I’m still learning it.

Before you started attending your preschool during the summer, lunch as you knew it was not really such a public and social event.  You ate your lunch with me and baby Jack and your Papa, and sometimes with your close friends like Dev and Zoe and Maia.  At your preschool, however, you started having lunch with your twenty other classmates.  Across and next to each other, you all opened your lunch boxes and ate while talking about the sand river you just dug or the Lego robot you just built.  Food wasn’t really the main attraction.  Lunch was, instead, time to gather and socialize.

Lunch time was a different experience for me, however.  On days when I participated in your classroom and had to stay for lunch, I noticed other kids’ food, I presumed that other parents also looked at your food.  All of a sudden, I felt very self-conscious.  Most everyone of your classmates brought with them smorgasbords of finger food:  pre-packaged yogurt; cheese sticks; energy bars, five different kinds of fresh fruit, crackers…  You, on the other hand, brought rice and chicken adobo; pancit; stir fried vegetables with noodles; sinigang (!)…  You would open your lunch box in your usual flourish, while all the other kids looked on, and the intense soy sauce and garlic smell would escape out of the lunch box.  “What’s that, Charlie?” your classmates would ask.  You would casually respond, “It’s chicken adobo.  You want some?  It’s good.  My mama made it.”  You would grin at me and the kids and their parents would look at me expecting an explanation of some sort.  And a part of me would feel apologetic, want to look away, and pretend I didn’t notice the kids’ and the parents’ open curiosity.

It was ridiculous that I felt embarrassed because I packed for you food that I considered “real”, food that we actually ate at home.  We were not the energy bar-and- dried-fruit kind of family so why give you those?  So, despite my self-consciousness, I insisted on giving you your chicken adobo.  Still, I started looking at your lunches through someone else’s eyes and judged them messy and stinky.  The more self-conscious I became, the more I adamant I became about giving you the stinky food.  The stinkier, the better.  It was as if I was rebelling against some critic that was judging me and the food I packed for you.  Of course there was most likely no one who was judging me and my food but me.  I, unfortunately, am my own worst critic.  The end result was agony.  Preparing your lunch was a miserable self-destructive task.

What helped me get over this agony was you.  None of my private battle registered with you, fortunately.  You ate what I prepared with so much gusto that all the parents and teachers commented on how well you ate.  Parents wished their kid would eat as joyously as you did.  You became known in your class as the one with a “voracious appetite.”  That encouraged me.  If you were eating and liking the food, then that was what mattered.  It didn’t bother you that the food smelled like soy sauce or fish sauce so why should it bother me or them?   (I have to admit though that one time you asked for fish.  I said no to that request.  Fish is in its own league and I have yet to work my way to that level.)

I’ve been thinking about this, why this was such a big deal for me, and I’ve realized that this is self-revealing.  What you have to understand is that food, like most things in my life, is a private matter.  Of course I eat in public and share meals with friends and strangers.  We often have friends over for meals or parties.  But your Papa cooks most of the time.  (Frankly, I don’t know and remember how I survived before I met your papa.)  I almost never cook.  I never bothered figuring out why I don’t cook.  I used to think that it’s because cooking is so complicated, that if a recipe requires more than five ingredients and has more than five steps, my eyes gloss over the words and my brain stops to function.  But now that I think about it, I think it’s that fear and loathing of being judged.  If I make food and someone else eats or even just sees it, I feel that I’m opening myself up to the possibility of being judged.  So I don’t cook.  End of the story.

But now I have to  cook your lunch.  Like I said, I’m a very private person, I am not one to open my lunch box in front of others and voluntarily show the rest of the world my lunch.  But you, Charlie, you bask in other people’s attention.  And because of this, you bring me, your mama and the one who cooks your lunch, out of my shadowy shell and into the periphery of the spotlight you train on yourself.   It’s not such a bad place to be but I don’t love it as much as you do and now I have to learn how to deal with other people’s attentive stares without assuming that I’m being judged or without being overly self-critical.   It’s a very tough lesson to learn.

Happy lunching, kids!