When I was in high school, Mum devised a really clever way to sort our school lunches. The context was that Mum had six kids and a husband, and it was a big job to look after us all. So once a week on a Saturday afternoon, Mum would load the kitchen table with a whole lot of bread, along with blocks of cheese, pats of butter, piles of ham, slices of roast beef and other sandwich-related items. Then she called all her kids together, and we all lined up into a kind of sandwich-making production-line.
We knew the drill. One kid would butter while the next sliced cheese; one would add fillings while another cut the sandwiches into halves. The last person would cocoon the final product in gladwrap, ready to be stored for future consumption.
I loved being on the Reale sandwich-making production-line: I had my little job and I knew how to do it. Sometimes I would even make a suggestion to improve overall efficiency: for example, if things were bottle-necking at the sandwich-filling area, I might suggest a light restructure to get things moving again. But it was Mum who really oversaw the end-to-end process, making sure that everybody had the required tools, insisting that people did not eat all the ham before it went in the sandwiches, and coming up with creative solutions when we ran out of key ingredients before the job was done.
The end goal was to produce five bags of sandwiches for each day of the school week, and to have each one filled with one sandwich per Reale kid (with the occasional addition if Dad was working off-site and needed a packed lunch). Sometimes a particular child needed to be specifically catered for. If Wednesday was cheese and vegemite day, for example, I would get something different, as it was well-known that Andreana hated vegemite. If Friday was peanut butter and sultana day (one of Mum's creative go-to options when both the ham and the cheese ran out), Pete would get a special edition because of his famous aversion to all types of nuts. Small stickers were produced and positioned on the gladwrap encasing the special sandwich, with appropriate initials written in biro to avoid any confusion.
The five bags would then go into the deep freezer, ready to be conveniently pulled out on each respective morning. Mum would then line up six lunch boxes on the kitchen bench, and deposit a frozen sandwich in each.
The theory was that the sandwich would defrost inside your lunch box and be thawed and ready to go by lunchtime. This was generally the case, except on particularly cold days when one might have a bit of icy ham to gnaw through. Also, the bread rolls tended to come out of the freezer less fresh than when they went in, resulting in a kind of shattering effect when one bit into them, followed by a shower of breadcrumbs all over one's uniform. These small glitches aside, the system worked remarkably well, and I'm impressed with Mum for inventing it and maintaining it for so many years.
The other weekend I listened as Mum reflected back on the Reale household's sandwich system, and for the first time I saw it through her eyes. For me, the sandwich-making production-line was just a normal part of life, as well as the occasional source of embarrassment when I endured the breadcrumb-shower at school. But for Mum, the devised system was a means of survival. Mum had to figure out a way to keep six kids fed on a shoestring budget, and in a way that preserved her sanity. She found a means to do that, while getting us kids to take a bit of responsibility for feeding ourselves.