Irishness is packed into my New York children’s lunch boxes

Michael Fitzpatrick attempts a Tricolour lunch: green grapes, white cheese, orange carrots

Emmett, Fiona and Liam Fitzpatrick

Emmett, Fiona and Liam Fitzpatrick

 

A lone pigeon was cooing on the window sill as a fire truck wailed in the distance – somewhere in Brooklyn, perhaps. Four storeys below, my neighbours were going about their mornings oblivious to my (temporary) despair and loneliness.

The boys, Liam and Emmett, who were nine and six at the time, had returned to school after their summer break, bringing with them our four-year-old princess, Fiona, for her first day within the confines of the United States’ public school system.

Looking about the apartment, I spotted something that, were I poetically-inclined, may well have been the muse for a piece entitled “The sadness and the cereal”, which would have conveyed my feelings about love, loss and Cocoa Krispies. I didn’t write it, though, as I’d have sounded like an awful eejit.

Amid the quietness of that American morning were our unoccupied kitchen table and its three vacant chairs, all adding to that sense of solitude. On the table were three empty breakfast bowls. Each had its own tiny puddle of milk and the occasional cluster of the previously mentioned chocolate-flavoured breakfast delight, slowly hardening thanks to that rising autumnal sun, which beamed through the kitchen window and gave a false sense of warmth on that crisp September morning.

Fall colours. Food colours even. Outside, the leaves changing. Inside, the krispies fading, from dark brown to light beige, setting the mood on 54th Street that morning. Colours accompanying my path to perfection of kid-friendly cuisine. See? I mentioned that I’d sound like an awful eejit.

Colours, like the green, white and orange in our lunch boxes. The colours of the flag. My flag, anyway, not theirs, not really. Just sometimes, especially when visiting Nana and Grandad “back home”. Their flag, the kids’ one, is red, white and blue. The stars, the stripes. That banner, supposedly spangled, by those aforementioned stars.

I had tried – extraordinarily unsuccessfully, I may add – to combine the two. National pride and school lunch. A discreet thread of Irishness woven through their American afternoon snacks.

It was intended to be my flag of flavours, my Tricolour of tastes

I’d included green grapes for our republican heritage. Vertically sliced, of course, just as Margaux and her moderators on that dreadful mommy blog I had followed for about 11 minutes advised. Cutting the grapes any other way was dangerous for little throats, apparently.

A white cheese – Swiss, perhaps, as Calvita is thin on the ground in New York, and I’m not fancy enough to go looking for an artisan-cheese store for some Greek feta or Italian asiago – would represent peace. Then a few baby carrots, innocent as they look, would epitomise those Orange lads.

It was intended to be my flag of flavours, my Tricolour of tastes. But, just like a session of 1990s-era interparty political talks, during the school day the carrots would storm off, the cheese would simply vanish, and the grapes ... Well, they’d probably just blame the carrots.

So it would be back to the 1980s staple that my siblings and I enjoyed for years. Sandwich, crisps and a chocolatey treat. Real chocolate, a Penguin, Club or even a Busker – if I could find one, seeing as it’s not 1987 any more. Not granola, though, or any of those items borne of a place far from where I was raised.

All for my kids, my little New Yorkers. My prides, my joys. Their lunches, my labours.

It was a morning after a night before, which I had spent choosing and laying out clothes for the tumultuous day ahead. Two sets for the hims, one for the her. Not the “Fortnite” shirts, as I used to have, because “Fortnite” sucks now. It didn’t on Tuesday, but, sure, tastes and times change pretty rapidly around here. Unicorns, glitter, prettiness and pink, for her.

The food, though, the lunches especially. I’d wonder, if Messrs Einstein, Asimov and Hawking were locked in a room, would they figure out a way to get my kids to eat all their lunches, and be health-conscious while at it? Not a chance. Those lads were geniuses, not children.

You have to make the effort, though. For whom, I’m unsure. The kids? Ourselves? The other mammies – sorry, moms – as they blog their lives away, Facebooking, Instagramming, Tweeting their workouts, their schedules, their opinions? Their packed lives versus my packed lunches.

The disappearance of hunger,the sore tummies, as settings are laid out, only for health to resume once ice cream is mentioned

But they eat it all, the kids, our Big Apple boys and our American girl. They’ve had pizza in Paris and lunched in London. Enjoyed noodles with their Asian grandma in California and burgers with their grandparents in Dublin’s Eddie Rockets. They sample, experiment and eat. They play, fight and laugh. Three kids, three distinct palates, three very different favourite foods. Pizza, shepherd’s pie and sushi.

There have been tears, of course. The local pizzeria, the one with not too much sauce and cheese that isn’t that weird shade of yellow and the crust that doesn’t have that burnt stuff on it, inexplicably closes on Tuesdays. The sushi guy once brought the wrong noodles. The Irish bar served cottage pie rather than shepherd’s pie. This stuff is noticed, and remarked upon. Often quite loudly.

The frustration when the meal one of them orders – just as I’ve begun serving the one they’d asked me for two hours earlier – isn’t available at eight seconds’ notice. The disappearance of hunger,the sore tummies, as settings are laid out, only for health to resume once ice cream is mentioned.

Sometimes I absent-mindedly go online to check if my cooking capabilities have been awarded any one-star reviews by a trio of mysterious under-12s.

Still, you have to, don’t you? Put up with it. Even if just to keep sad poems about chocolatey breakfast cereals from seeing the light of day.

Michael Fitzpatrick, a playwright and journalist from Lucan, Co Dublin, lives in New York with his wife, Mei, a nurse practitioner at a Manhattan hospital, and their three children, 11-year-old Liam, nine-year-old Emmett and six-year-old Fiona

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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