Story Corner

The Shoebox Lunch

Inside a precious metal box are remnants of history that reveal a family’s story of resistance, resilience and love.
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Illustration by Richard A. Chance

Eleven-year-old Jordan sat on the attic floor, lost in memory. While digging through his grandfather’s things, somehow the nickel-and-dime Superman comics, the shoe polish and brushes, and the aged tea-soaked-looking photos, combined with the sunlight streaming through the window, had whisked him away in thought. Pop and Jordan together again on Sunday drives to church, getting ice cream and rocking in the porch swing.

But Jordan pulled himself out of those memories. If he remembered too long, he’d cry. Pop was gone, six months now. And Jordan was helping his grandmother clean out her attic before she moved in with his family. Though excited, Jordan knew Nana found it hard to leave this house, with its reminders of Christmases, barbecues and the endless laughter. “She’ll be giving that house a long hug goodbye,” his mother had said.

Jordan stacked the few items in his lap into the black toolbox he’d found, then carried it downstairs. His grandmother sat at the kitchen table, seeming faraway, and Jordan wondered if she was lost in her memory too.

Nana looked up from her steaming coffee and waved Jordan over. “Hey, baby.” She squinted at the toolbox. “What’cha got there?”

“Just a few of Pop’s comics, some stuff, pictures. They’re in this toolbox.”

“Let me see,” Nana said. Jordan began to open the toolbox, but Nana interrupted him. “Not the pictures, the whole thing.”

Jordan placed the metal box on the table. Nana turned it around and smiled.

“Boy, this ain’t no regular toolbox. It’s your Pop’s shoebox!” She laughed. Jordan hadn’t heard Nana laugh in months. “I can’t believe he kept this,” she said quietly. “I thought it was long gone.”

Jordan tapped the box. “What kind of shoes went in this?”

More laughter. “Not actual shoes!” Nana nodded to the seat across from her, and Jordan sat down. “Your grandfather used to take the train every two weeks to North Carolina with his first boss, Mr. Vann. You know he built furniture for him, but Mr. Vann, a white person, also gave a Black woodcarver a chance not many would and made Pop a business partner. Mr. Vann was expecting a baby, and as a gift, Pop built Mr. Vann’s sweet baby girl a crib. That cradle later held each of the five Vann babies! After that gift, Mr. Vann brought your Pop along to all types of auctions because Mr. Vann trusted him to choose furniture for the store to resell. But they were traveling in the 1950s, and 50 years ago, those were hard journeys for your Pop.”

“Why, Nana?” Jordan asked.

Nana took a deep breath. “As a Black person, your Pop experienced bad treatment—segregation so awful it kept me awake at night. He couldn’t sit in the same train car as white passengers, had to look down as he walked in the street, and Mr. Vann couldn’t always make sure Pop had a place to eat when they traveled. So, I used to pack Pop a shoebox lunch.”

“Tell me it didn’t include shoelaces?” Jordan said, and they both smiled.

“No, it had fried chicken and sometimes my spiced ham. Your Pop’s favorite. Maybe some hard-boiled or deviled eggs, always fruit, and the almonds your Pop loved. Also, a nice slice of my pound cake. My Mama and I used to make shoebox lunches for church members who were going on trips. She always wanted me to tie the bows of yarn around the boxes. Mama made those lunches with sour cream pound cake. But I like apple butter pound cake better. So did your Pop.”

“How come you don’t send me to school with cake?” Jordan teased.

She smiled. “You don’t need all that sugar. But I sent it with Pop because…” She stopped.

Nana’s eyes filled with tears, and Jordan grabbed her hand. His eyes stung too.

“Because my husband needed to eat with dignity. Out there, in a mean world, the least I could do was make sure he could eat the best I had to give him.” Nana smiled at Jordan through tears.

Jordan looked down at the metal box, imagining it filled with Nana’s fried chicken and pound cake. If it tasted like Nana’s Sunday dinners, Jordan knew it was better than anything Pop could ever get on a train ride. “I bet it was the most delicious lunch in the world.”

Questions for Readers

In The Text
Why was Jordan helping his Nana pack things up in the house?

Think and Search Text
Why did Jordan’s grandmother make sure the shoebox lunch was always filled with the best food for Pop?

Author and Me
Why was what Pop experienced—segregation—so wrong?

On My Own
What would you do to make sure everyone in our country is treated the right way?

About the Author

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