Last week, my brother, 23 and in his first apartment, invited us over for dinner. My brother's repetoire includes approximately four meals, most of which originate in a box labeled "Kraft" or a can labeled "Chef Boyardee," so I was pleasantly surprised when he presented us with a Stouffer's lasagna, garlic bread and a dessert.
While waiting to eat, I peeked in his refrigerator and was appalled at the emptiness. The shelves were bare, save for a few grapes, a package of sliced cheese, and three beers. I found bread and chips and donuts elsewhere in his kitchen, and to a casual observer it appeared that he either orders pizza five days a week or subsists on snacks and cheese sandwiches.
The gaping whiteness reminded me of my own early-twenties refrigerator. I recalled the near-desperation of my post-college years, stretching loaves of bread and gallons of milk, living without the luxuries of salt or pepper or napkins, using paper towels as coffee filters, and staring longingly at fresh produce I could not afford.
When I was 23, my grocery budget was $25 a week, and there were weeks when I ate ramen noodles for lunch and tortillas with butter for dinner. On my 24th birthday, I was snowed into my home with cereal and a beer. It is jarring when you spend 20 years with readily available food and are suddenly standing alone, staring at a deserted icebox, wondering if it would be at all appetizing to mix rice, peas and barbecue sauce.
That year, my brother sent me a "Rations Box," filled with non-perishables. I never opened it. Instead, I kept it on the counter in case of an emergency, carried it with me to each new home, and eventually stored it in a kitchen cabinet as a reminder of my food-poor days. I still have it, and whenever I see it, I am grateful that there is no ramen in my cupboards.
What began as a joke, however, transformed into a lesson in determination and appreciation. I stared down that Rations Box when times were tough, intent on saving it for a time of great need. I keep it now so I will not forget the popcorn dinners and will always appreciate the rush of relief when I open my full refrigerator.
Perhaps it is time for me to return the favor and make my brother a box of his own.