Lunch Box Social

A preview from Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, Showalter's forthcoming memoir.

"Look at this beauty! Red roses on a pink velvet wrapping. Whew! Looks like Valentine’s Day.” The 4–H Club auctioneer was growing excited as he moved around the room. “What you say, fellas? Do I hear two bucks? I’ve got two. Who’ll give me three?”

I was nervous listening to the bidding during my first box supper social, the most exciting event of the year. All the other boxes seemed so much more spectacular than mine. Boys and girls were seated on opposite sides of the auditorium at Fairland Elementary School. Boys raised their hands to bid on their favorite boxes, but had to wait until the end of the bidding to find out whose boxes they had purchased. Then each claimed his reward, eating supper in a corner of the room with the no-longer-mystery girl who had brought the box.

I was about twelve years old, one of the younger girls in the room that evening. Mother, who knew what box socials were all about, had gotten a brilliant idea earlier in the afternoon as we planned for the event. Necessity was likely the mother of her invention, since we didn’t stock lots of glittery wrapping paper or bows at our house. Presents often came inside a plain box or a paper “toot” (bag).

So, how to make a box that would sell and attract a good buyer? Mother decided to go against the grain and turn our sow’s ear of ordinary wrapping materials into a silk purse. I watched in awe as she spun magic out of words, like she had done many times before.

“Shirley, take a grocery bag and open it up at the seams, laying it flat. Then wrap up your box.”

As I wrapped, she wrote, pausing to read aloud her words and getting me involved in choosing them. I had to admit it was a great idea, but it was risky, too. Here was a plain little girl with her plain big box. What if people laughed at me?

While I had doubts about Mother’s idea, I had no experience with what might entice a boy to pay good money for a shoebox wrapped in grocery bag paper.

Mother said, “Let’s catch his imagination. Help me write a poem.”

I can still see the 4x6 card with my mother’s distinctive handwriting—printing with a certain flair that looked almost cursive—in blue ink on white paper. I made several little Scotch-tape circles and affixed the poem atop the box. To emphasize the counterglitter point, we may even have used bailing twine as string instead of ribbons.

Voilá! My box and I were ready for the social.

With trepidation, I carried my brown rectangular representation of self into the social, where a small mountain of colorful paper-wrapped boxes with carefully curled bows was already growing on a table next to the door.

When the time came to bid on the boxes, the auctioneer started at one end of the lineup and worked his way through, holding each lovely box high: “Some young lady in this room must have put a lot of time into this. Don’t let her down. What am I bid?”

“Fifty cents,” cried out a freckle-faced sixth-grader.

“That’s what I like,” said the auctioneer, warming up his rhythm. “A big spender starts us off. Glad you dumped out that piggy bank before you came!”

As the bidding and kidding continued, I grew increasingly uneasy. What kind of wisecrack would the auctioneer make about my box – such an easy target for a joke. My mind worked overtime, until I saw the auctioneer reach for the lone brown box.

“My, my, my, ach du lieber, what have we here?” he asked, as he turned the box to read the attached card. Stalling for time, he pulled a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket.

“Why, fellas, it’s a poem,” he said. “Want me to read it?”

“Sure!” cried one potential bidder who had already lost to a few of the high rollers in the crowd, thus getting a little edgy. The boys were under their own form of pressure.

The auctioneer cleared his throat, paused for dramatic effect to scan the poem, and then began reading my mother’s writing:

I know that I’m not fancy

I can’t be very proud

Among these other pretty ones I’m quiet, not so loud.

I hope you’ll like me anyway

I hope that you’ll agree

My plain outside may not compete;

But inside out I’m very sweet.

“Okay, boys!” said the auctioneer, warming to the challenge. “Just think of what’s inside the box. Poetry! Must come from a pretty sweet girl, don’t you think?”

Evidently the idea of hidden beauty appealed to some of the farm boys in the room. A little kidding ensued. With each bid, I felt my cheeks get hotter. My heart beat faster. Finally, the gavel came down when the price was just under $5, one of the higher bids.

“Sold,” the auctioneer cried, “to Tom!”

Now my anxiety shifted—to the other extreme. Before, I worried that my brownbag box would make me a laughingstock. Now, however, the stakes had been raised by the price. Could the inside live up to its promise? Tall, brawny Tom was one of the oldest and most respected of all these earnest youth. I guessed he might be a senior in high school, since I didn’t know him.

What would he do when he found out he paid $5 for a sixth-grader’s box?

Suddenly I saw the real question: It was not whether the food would be good enough, but rather would I be good enough?

Thoughts like these traveled through my mind like milk through a pipeline as the auction came to an end. Each boy paid for his box and then looked around the room to locate his supper partner.

Tom appeared hopeful as he scanned the crowd of girls in front of him. I took a step forward, trying to act confident. Then I saw his face fall. If he had been in a cartoon, the balloon over his head might have said: “What a sucker I was even to bid on this box. I wish I had stopped at $4.75 like my gut instinct told me to. Not only did I buy a plain box, but here is a plain girl—and she’s only a sixth-grader. Geez!”

I tried to pretend I hadn’t noticed my supper partner’s glum demeanor. I let him scout out a place for us to sit down—which turned out to be as far away as possible from the other high school boys.

I waited while Tom opened the box, eager to dig into what I thought was an outstanding supper: cold fried chicken, pickles, buttered bread, chips, pretzels, apples, and sugar cookies (Grandma Herr’s recipe).

Tom’s eyes did not light up, though. He picked at the food in front of him. I offered him his choice of drumstick, thigh, or breast—careful to inquire, “White meat or dark meat?” Then I began gnawing on a drumstick.

I asked him a few questions such as what grade he was in, what school he went to, and where he lived. He answered politely, but his eyes roved the room. We both listened to the laughter of some of the happy couples who had arranged to beat the box social anonymity through some kind of secret language on the box itself to assure their pairing. The more they laughed, the more Tom and I felt the dead silence between us like air in a coffin.

Finally, I couldn’t stand the quiet, so I rushed in to fill the vacuum. I told Tom about each room in this building, how if he walked down this hall, he would find all my teachers’ rooms—on the right were Mrs. Gibble, Mrs. Rothenberger, and Miss Frey, while to the left were Miss Gibble, Mrs. McCardle, and Mrs. Lochner. I talked about the assemblies we had in this room, how I loved the smell of the white paste we used for all our art projects, and how much fun it was to be on the safety patrol. Blah, blah, blah.

Tom’s eyes never landed on mine, and his ears seemed otherwise occupied, too. When the 4-H sponsor stood up, signaling the end of the social, Tom quickly did the same. Visibly relieved, he couldn’t wait to mumble thanks, get into his car, and drive off into the darkness.

When I returned home, Mother was all ears, and I was eager to release the pressure of all that adrenalin by telling her the story. She smiled as I described how the brown bag box had started a bidding war and that the buyer was a tall boy. Mom loved tallness.

Then I told her about the look on Tom’s face when he saw the box belonged to me and how he hadn’t talked except to answer questions.

“Is this how dating is going to be?” I asked, fear creeping into my voice.

“No, not if you like each other,” she answered. “It’s never easy getting to know someone new, but I’m sure you’ll be ready when your time comes.”

I looked down at the box in my lap. There were two pieces of chicken, two slices of bread, and two apples left inside. My cheeks flushed one more time.

“Oh my goodness,” I said. “Tom paid $5 for this box, and I forgot to give it to him before he left! He only ate bread, chips, and cookies. What do you think I should do?”

“Just put the food in the fridge,” my wise mother counseled, “and take the leftovers in your lunch box tomorrow. I don’t think Tom will mind. It won’t be the last time he pays too much for a meal.”

Excerpted from Blush (forthcoming September 2013, (c) Herald Press). Used with permission. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Shirley H. Showalter

Shirley Hershey Showalter is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and earned a PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas. She began teaching history and literature at Goshen College in 1976. Showalter went on to serve as president of the college from 1997-2004 and Vice President for Programs at The Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan from 2004-2010. In 2007-2009 she won five prizes for memoirs in Kalamazoo and California. Her memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World is her first book. Visit Showalter’s website at www.shirleyshowalter.com.