A Love Letter to Wonder Girl, on the Eve of First Grade
The daily notes Thao Thai tucks in her daughter's lunchbox are more than drawings and words—they are an expression of boundless love.
My Wonder Girl,
I’ve been writing you letters before you were born—all delivered to an email address that I’ll present in the future, like a time capsule of love—but this letter feels different. For one, you’d be able to read some of these words. At night, instead of playing with dolls or drawing, you now curl up with a book. Yesterday, you read a picture book version of “Anne of Green Gables” to a friend, acting out the scenes with such vivacity that I could identify them from downstairs, where I sat unabashedly eavesdropping. (You remain convinced Gilbert deserved to be smacked with a slate.) Being your mother is humbling, because every time I think I understand what it means to be proud of someone, you show me a new way.
First grade is now on our horizon. It should be less daunting than kindergarten, when we were both filled with such anxiety. Back then, my worry narrowed down to the lunchtime hour, of all things. I worried that you would not know how to open your brand-new bento box, though we practiced at home. I wondered if you would eat your lunch, or be too distracted by the people around you. Most of all, I was afraid that your homesickness would overwhelm you.
What’s a word for homesickness, when your home is a person? That’s what I felt on that first day, watching your ponytail swish back and forth as you walked through the doors of your big-kid school.
Because I have always worked from home, we never ate lunch apart. Even if it meant that I just popped in to say hello while your nanny prepared your blue-boxed macaroni and cheese, we always sat next to each other, even briefly, to talk about how the day was going.
"What’s a word for homesickness, when your home is a person?"
After you went to kindergarten, lunch became the only meal of the day when I did not sit next to you at the big round IKEA table. Since you were tiny, you’ve always reached out with your feet to touch me under the table. First my knees, nudged by your little toe pads. Now, with your lengthening legs, your feet layer mine on the table rails, like a secret language. An effortless seeking of the other. I wondered whose feet you would reach for in the cafeteria and whether you felt the lack of my limbs, as I did yours.
But we had our lunchbox notes. Inside your fairy-themed lunch sac, I filled your bento box with your favorites: bread and “yellow” cheese, warmed-up pizza, PB&J, and of course, pancakes. Chocolatey, peanut-buttery buckeye pancakes that make our family think of Saturday mornings spent making ambitious plans we rarely followed through on. I liked thinking that you’d be able to taste home in your lunch. But to you, our notes were nearly as important as the lunch itself.
“Did you remember the note?” you asked anxiously as I zipped up your lunchbox.
Even today, I include a new drawing of your favorite character. Sometimes I color it in with crayons late at night, while watching television with Dad. Other times, I paint using watercolors. Always, someone new, no repeats, which has gotten difficult after hundreds of notes. There have been masked superheroes, Super Mario Bros. characters, villains, princesses, unicorns, and everything else that you have come to love. If I look at the stacks of drawings, I see a timeline of your interests. Right now, you can’t get enough of “The Greatest Showman,” belting out the soundtrack at all hours, though I have no faith in my ability to render Hugh Jackman with any accuracy. Along with the picture, I add “I
Your friends have come to expect these notes. Around the lunch table with its speckled gray top, they lean over, wondering who will appear next. Sometimes, they add requests of their own—Minecraft! Pokemon!—but these notes are just for you. Other times, the kids don’t recognize the character on the note, because it’s so obscure, like Tom Nook from “Animal Crossing,” but you do. I imagine you smiling as you tuck the note back in your lunchbox. Another secret between us.
The note collection is so large that I tried to throw some away. But you’re indignant, snatching them back to hoard with the rest. Sometimes I ask if you really want a lunchtime note. I tell you we can stop anytime. I’m worried that you’re doing this more for me, because it means more to your sentimental mom than for yourself. But again, that indignation: Of course I want them.
A teacher once brought up the notes and I sheepishly said that I’m sure that you would forget them in a few years. But she told me, “My daughter just graduated from nursing school. When I went to her apartment, I saw a cork board above her desk. She’d pinned notes that I wrote for her back when she was in grade school. Your daughter will remember.” I hope you do. But even if you don’t, even if these notes become extinct in our collection of rituals, I will remember. I’ll keep the archive alive for us.
When I begin to create a new batch of notes for first grade, I’m able to write more—not just our usual pictogram—confident that you’ll be able to read my thoughts. I can tell you how proud I am of you. I can wish you a good day. I can tell you how much I miss you. It’ll be fun. But I think that you knew all that already, even with the simple drawings I included throughout kindergarten. So here’s to another year—of learning, of growth, of pancakes and notes and a boundless love that continues to nourish us both.