• October 2011

What Do You Put in Your Kid's Lunchbox?

Courtney Garton is an ex-hippie, former owner of the popular hat shop Hats in the Belfry, and a divorced dad who had a few key goals for raising his two daughters.

On his list: Make sure they survived until nest-leaving age, stayed healthy, didn’t get pregnant, got a college education, and maintained a good relationship with their dear old dad.

A father with part-time custody, Garton began putting notes in his daughters’ lunch bags—rhyming notes, written on napkins, reflecting the ups and downs of everyday life, notes that maintained the lines of communication even when times were tough. (“The woods are full of trees, / The sky is full of clouds. / But do something for me please, / Don’t play your music so louds!”)

When Garton’s daughter Cara left home after college (like her older sister, she was alive, healthy, and not pregnant), she handed him a box of 150 of the napkins she’d saved. “Hey Dad, why don’t you write a book?” she challenged. And Garton took her up on it.

Cara’s napkins, the poems written in silly, sometimes poignant verse, make up the backbone of “Napkins,” but it is Garton’s self-revealing, loving tales of life as a father that really make this book a winner.

Below is our Q&A with this dear old dad. Talk about the fact that the best stuff in life is often free.

Be Inkandescent: You wrote a book called “Napkins” for your daughters in 1997. Tell us about that.

Courtney Garton: I was a divorced dad, with two young daughters, Adrienne and Cara. I knew how easy it was for divorced dads to lose touch with their children, and I didn’t want that to happen with me. I arranged for the girls’ visitations with me to be longer than the normal weekend.

So, on those school-day mornings when I had the girls, I’d be making their lunches, and thinking of ways I could stay connected to them, ways to tap into their world and let them know that I cared about them. I decided to write some silly poems on the napkins that I would put inside their bag lunches—poems about them and their journey through life. I started writing the poems when the girls were 6 years old, and continued until their last day of high school.

The poems covered all subjects, from boyfriends to their lacrosse games, to their being mad at me, to the frustration they felt having to pack a suitcase each time they came to visit me, to exhortations and just saying that I loved them, to fatherly lamentations over their arrival at the teenage years—all kinds of stuff.

Each day at school, the girls would open their lunch bags and read their poems to their classmates. I wrote the poems for 12 years, for each daughter.

Unbeknownst to me, my younger daughter Cara was saving her napkins. One day, when she was 21, she was set to depart home in Annapolis for a new job in Philadelphia. I had helped pack her car, and she was about to leave when she handed me a shoe box, full of old, wrinkled, yellowed napkins and said, “Here Dad. I saved them. Why don’t you write a book about them?” And then she left.

I went back inside and began to leaf through the box. As I read the poems on the napkins, it was like reliving the girls’ lives with me again. All the dad-daughter memories came flooding back to me. It was an intensely emotional moment. And then I thought, “Well, she saved these for 12 years, so the least I can do is write that book about them.” So I did.

Be Inkandescent: You sold about 18,000 copies—do you still have any left?

Courtney Garton: A few. I now give them out as little tokens of appreciation for a job well done to plumbers, electricians, handymen, delivery people, especially if they are parents of young kids. Maybe the book will help young moms and (especially) dads connect better with their kids. Who knows? I’m not preaching. I’m just offering.

Be Inkandescent: What did your kids think about it back then?

Courtney Garton: Cara (the one who saved the napkins) thought it was very cool. After all, she got to appear with me on the Oprah Show back in 1998. After my book was published, I decided that I was going to be on Oprah.

My friends and family scoffed. But I wasn’t discouraged. I bought a kid’s lunch box, and put in it: an apple, a granola bar, a copy of my book, and a silly poem on a napkin which basically exhorted Oprah to have me on her show. Then I mailed the lunchbox to Oprah. Two weeks later, one of her producers called me and asked me to come to Chicago to tape a show.

It was a show on parenting—how parents use novel ways to stay connected to, and in tune with, their children, as their children grow. Cara and I were flown to Oprah’s studio in Chicago (I took my Mom along, too, because she just loves Oprah), we got to be in the famous Green Room, and of course we met Oprah herself. It was pretty heady stuff for my 25-year-old daughter (and for me!).

I asked each daughter to write a brief chapter for the book, to give her take on it all. My older daughter, Adrienne, the one who did not save her napkins, was constantly being asked, “So Adrienne—why didn’t you save your napkins?”

I thought that Adrienne’s response was right on, as she described in her chapter in the book: “So why didn’t I save my napkins? I don’t know. I suppose it’s because I was a typical kid who didn’t see their future value. I loved reading them. I shared them with my friends and sister every day. But then, I used them for what they were intended, and they eventually got thrown away.

“But I don’t have to have an old shoe box full of faded, crinkled napkins to remember their messages. I think that who my sister and I are today is proof enough that they worked in the way my dad intended.”

Be Inkandescent: What do they think now that they are parents themselves?

Courtney Garton: Adrienne says, “I can see now the importance of daily communication with the kids, especially when they are engrossed in their daily routine at school. This little way of staying in touch, of saying, ‘No matter what is going on out in the big, bad world, don’t forget that I’m thinking of you and I love you,’ goes a long, long way. I wish I could do this on a daily basis, but I do try to surprise my four children (ages 4, 9, 9, and 13) every once in a while with a silly little note or rhyme. Anything I can do to keep them guessing shows them that I care. Just like Dad showed us then, and even now.”

Cara says, “As a parent of three young kids, I cannot imagine writing a poem every morning for my daughter before school. How did my dad do it? The thing is, the napkins showed me that my dad cared about my life and that he was paying attention to the things that mattered to me. While I may not write poems, I do practice connecting with my kids on a daily basis.”

Be Inkandescent: Your daughters must be very proud of you.

Courtney Garton: I hope so. I sure am proud of them. In fact, speaking of entrepreneurs, Adrienne started a business called the Annapolis Language School. She manages Spanish teachers—putting them into local elementary schools to teach kids in after-school programs. She’s also starting a summer Spanish language camp for kids this year, and she teaches adult Spanish classes at Zu Coffee on Thursday nights. She’s quite the entrepreneur.

And Cara founded her own acupuncture practice, called the Still Water Fertility Clinic, which specializes in helping women increase their fertility. I had never heard of such a thing. But she does it! Her success rate is very high, and her fees are quite reasonable. Her patients rave about her.

Be Inkandescent: Thank you so much for sharing your words of wisdom with us, Courtney. Congratulations on creating such great and lasting relationships with your children.