A Mother’s Day tribute to a woman who scooped out the American chop suey in the cafeteria while her son pretended he didn’t know her.
Shortly before I entered sixth grade, my mother Barbara took a job working in the cafeteria at the junior high where I was about to make my debut. Being 11, of course I had no choice in the matter. First lunch period in September, there was my mom: White uniform, hairnet, beatific smile. The lunch lady. Welcome to my nightmare.
For three long years, I kept my distance. If she was running the hot lunch line, I was in the a la carte line, and vice versa. No exceptions. I gamed the system, peeking into the service area each day to see where she was, and only then getting into line at the other doorway to receive my meal.
My mother remembers this. I never acknowledged her, she says. Never said hello. Rarely, if ever, even glanced her way. I was horrified by her presence. Because what could broadcast the fact that you were poor more loudly and clearly than your mother being a school lunch lady?
This is not something I’m proud of now. In fact, I’m not very forgiving, in general, toward my younger self. He was obsessed with class. There are things I want to tell him now. You’ve got food in your belly and clothes on your back, kid. Your parents bust their humps providing you with such, and they don’t need you slinking around all day ashamed that they can’t afford to buy you Air Jordans.
Short of inventing time travel I’m unable to communicate those messages to the 11-year-old me, and in any event I’m not sure they would have much effect. He remains, for eternity, what he was: shy, sensitive, and dedicated to the belief that there’s something inherently shameful about who he is and where he’s from.
I did all the things poor kids do to make money—shoveling snow, delivering newspapers, picking bottles—but whereas the other children in my neighborhood also did these things as a matter of course, and didn’t seem to think much about it one way or the other, for me there was always a bass note of shame vibrating beneath all our little moneymaking ventures. Walking the neighborhood with a shovel, knocking doors and asking if people wanted their driveways cleared for $5 a pop, felt akin to being a beggar. I liked the paper route because I could do it under cover of darkness, before anyone was up to see me pushing a grocery cart full of the Sunday edition around. And as for digging in convenience store trash cans for sticky returnables, well, let’s just say that was resorted to only after all the less-degrading options had been exhausted.
To this day I don’t understand why I cared so much about being poor. I have no idea why it was the transcendent preoccupation of my early years. There is this: many of my friends had parents who worked as lawyers and doctors and accountants, and they lived in nice clean houses in better neighborhoods than mine. Was I hyper-aware of class differences because I had friends who were better-off, or did I choose friends who were better-off because I was hyper-aware of class differences? Either way, I rarely if ever invited those friends to come hang in my neighborhood, let alone my house. Even our municipal basketball court was an embarrassment, at least to me: crumbling pavement, busted rims.
Saying hello to my mother, acknowledging her in the cafeteria? That was not going to happen.
Sitting with my mother at a coffee shop in Waterville, I ask if it hurt her feelings that I so studiously avoided her for so long. She tells me no. I’m surprised, but I believe her, because she sees it totally differently than I did: to her, I was just self-possessed.
“You always kept to yourself,” she says, meaning, apparently, not just at school, but at home as well. For a moment, I feel a blush of pride. She saw me as independent, not paralyzingly self-conscious. But the pride fades quickly, because I realize the implication of her misunderstanding: I did such a good job of hiding from everyone that not even my own mother really knew who I was.
Back then, she did her best to respect my evident desire for privacy. She didn’t follow me around the school, didn’t inquire with my teachers as to how things were going, in part because she wanted to avoid hovering, and in part because she was just too busy—she had work to do, and that work did not include keeping tabs on her son.
There was another guy at the junior high, Scott, whose mother also worked in the junior high cafeteria. Unlike me, he would go up to his mother most every day. Sometimes he needed extra money for lunch, because he’d somehow squandered what he’d been given that morning. Sometimes he just chatted her up, because he was that kind of kid. Scott seemed to have no misgivings about his mom being a lunch lady, no misgivings period, in fact. He was always confident and good-looking and gregarious. The opposite of me, in short.
I barely remember that Scott’s mother worked in the cafeteria, let alone that Scott was always talking to her. My mother reminds me of this. We have a laugh about it, the contrast between me and Scott.
I hadn’t thought about him in a long time. I remember how he had such a big personality and was a good athlete and popular with girls. But after my mother reminds me of Scott and how he would chat up his mother in the cafeteria, I get to thinking, too, about how when we were in our thirties, Scott committed suicide. There seems something of significance embedded in these facts: Scott, self-assured, friendly, and dead by his own hand. Me, reserved, self-conscious, and still drawing breath. I’m just not sure what the significance is. Maybe it’s something about the way shame moves and takes new shapes over the course of a life. Or maybe it means nothing at all.
At the coffee shop, I tell my mother that the worst thing, for me, was feeling that to a certain extent she was doing the bidding of my peers (and never mind that she did mine on a regular; that was different). If they said pizza, she provided pizza. If they wanted a chicken sandwich, she made with the chicken sandwich, and hop to it. When they were done making a mess of the tables, she came out and cleaned up after them. As the adult she ultimately held the power in these interactions, but still: they were issuing orders, and she was taking them, a fact I didn’t like then, and don’t especially care for now. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m of the opinion that children should never be allowed to mistake themselves for the people in charge. And yet, at least in my 11-year-old eyes, that was the case: my classmates were telling my mother what to do, and she was doing it.
She’s the reason I understand and appreciate how hard most women work just as a matter of course.
However overblown my own preoccupation with the class aspects of mom being a school lunch lady, the fact is that class did figure into it for everyone. She tells me this herself. The sons of lawyers and doctors—always the sons, mind you—were sometimes arrogant and haughty with her. They demanded more than they were allotted, grabbed food instead of asking for it, ignored and laughed off her admonitions to behave and ask for what they wanted. She was just a lunch lady, after all. They didn’t have to listen to her.
For her part, though, and to her credit, she simply called for the principal and didn’t let any of it get to her. Because as cynical and misanthropic as her son can be, she did then and does now seek and see the best in people, particularly children. She did not confuse providing meals to kids with being their servant—even if sometimes they did. And though some kids could be a pain in the ass, as kids sometimes are, she still enjoyed the work.
Really?” I ask. I’m not sure why I find it so hard to believe, but here we are.
“Really,” she says. “Besides, whether I liked it or not was beside the point—I just needed the work.”
When I think of the bill of goods called trickle-down economics, of people who work too hard for too little money, of jobs that seem almost designed to break your body and give you little in return, I think of my mom. It’s not overstating it to say that watching her work had as great an effect on my political and moral convictions as anything (and when I say “work” I mean the labor she did in addition to parenting, which she covered about 80 percent of). She’s the reason I understand and appreciate how hard most women work just as a matter of course. She’s the reason I believe labor unions are the only entity that has done a damn thing for blue-collar people (and more specifically, blue-collar women) in this country. She’s the reason that, even though I make my living sitting at a desk, I still endeavor to have calluses on my hands, as ongoing proof that I know what it is to labor, and that I understand its value and its cost.
My mother has a more substantial and permanent reminder of the cost of labor than mere calluses. Her right thumb is fixed and rigid, more like the bony appendage pandas have on their forepaws than an actual human thumb. This is attributable to decades of hard work with her hands—carrying sheet plans, lifting stock pots, emptying garbage cans. Over the last couple of years she’s had surgery on the thumb so many times that I’ve lost count. Each procedure has taken places in Portland, where I live, and afterwards I’ve picked her up at the surgical office, listened to and signed off on the post-op orders, gotten her situated in her hotel room, brought her to dinner and checked to make sure she’s taking the right meds at the right times. She’s got other problems, too, that constitute the legacy of her working life—a bad hip and feet, the result of years standing on the tiled floors (and underlying concrete) of service kitchens. Her back is a little wonky as well, which, ditto.
But it’s the thumb I come back to as emblematic of a life spent making and serving food to others. Hand and wrist issues are epidemic among food service workers, particularly waitresses. In her case, the lower joint of her thumb had been worn down until it was bone-on-bone, and it got worse from there, the damage cumulative and implacable. The only silver lining is she’s a lefty, just like her son.
Because watching her work through my childhood turned me into a class warrior, my first inclination is to view the state of her hand through that lens—like so many others, she worked too hard and too long for too little, and the inevitable physical cost of that labor is now hers to bear alone. It’s unfair, even immoral, the way our economy commodifies and exploits the bodies of the poor.
But there’s another, more generous way to look at it, and that’s the way I’m choosing now, in part because I’m no longer the cowed, self-conscious boy mortified by the fact that his mother works in the school cafeteria. Blue-collar men often go on and on about how this or that on their body hurts, lest anyone should fail to notice how hard they work. Blue-collar women, in my experience, sacrifice their bodies, bit by bit, year by year, with more smiles and fewer complaints than their male counterparts. And “sacrifice” is the operative word, here. My mother Barbara did work for which she was paid a wage, that much is true. But the state of her thumb is evidence not just of the jobs she had, but also of the fact that she was happy to provide for both others and her own. She liked making food for kids, plain and simple. That it happened to be something for which she got paid was almost beside the point. She wouldn’t change it, even with the panda-thumb.
By contrast, there are a few things I would change—starting with choosing to get into her line at lunch on the first day of sixth grade.
Ron Currie Jr. is a novelist and screenwriter. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon and elsewhere. He lives in Portland.