Some of my best words to my children wind up in the trash, covered in the smears of messy mouths and runny noses. Wadded up and tossed out – but not wasted – these words are loving in the moment they are written and encouraging in the moment they are read. Mostly. Sometimes they are just plain goofy.

Notes on napkins tucked in lunches obscurely express my adoration without the flamboyancy of a smooch on the forehead before one of my kids exits the car in the school’s drop off lane. Even a whisper of “I love you” or “have a good day” is frowned upon here because someone might overhear and think my kid is a mommy’s baby. But the napkin note is not forbidden. It has long been a secret passage into my children’s hearts.

Every morning that there is a reason to pack a lunch – school or field trips or summer camp – I conjure up something witty (or not) to scribble on a napkin. I make up jokes, think up trivia, and count down the days to birthdays, holidays, and no-school days.

As the mother of four children spanning 13 years, I have penned hundreds of these notes. While my two boys (now grown-up) kept the notes’ messages mostly to themselves, my oldest daughter was not so elusive with hers. By the third grade, the teachers assigned to keep order in the lunch room also kept watch for my daughter’s note of the day.

Some of the riddles made it into the next morning’s intercom announcements to help set a light-hearted tone at the school I am told. When I learned that I had a larger following, I took a little more time with that cycle of notes then I probably have since. I’m told that the last-day-of-school poem I wrote for my daughter brought tears to the teachers’ eyes. Sadly, I can’t recall that rhyme because it’s lost in time, recycled into another paper product I’m sure.

I am a stick-figure artist at best, but my kids have usually gotten the general idea. If the art is especially important to the message, and if I have time, I have, for instance, laid the napkin over a label to carefully trace Peter Pan. I paired this particular illustration with the words: I made your sandwich with Crunchy Peter Pan Peanut Butter, so be careful that you don’t fly away OR go nuts!

On those mornings when my creativity is stifled, the messages may consist of the outline of an eye with big lashes next to a heart shape next to something resembling a baby sheep (I love ewe). In a real pinch, I Google inspirational quotes and then copy one down next to a curly-headed smiley face.

Like greeting cards, the message begins on the outside and completes by opening it up. I’d probably have a pretty good portfolio to submit to Hallmark by now if everything didn’t get thrown away. Out of the countless notes I’ve created, I’d like to think that a handful would have been marketable.

Regardless, there have been unexpected payoffs. My oldest daughter came home between college semesters and got up each morning after I left for work but before her younger sister was up for summer camp. She’d come to the kitchen to finish the coffee I brewed and sneak into her sister’s lunch that I’d prepared and set on the counter. She told me that she looked forward to the notes even though they weren’t written for her.

A few times I’d ask the girls to bring lunch to my office. Invariably when I opened the sack of homemade or fast food, I’d pull out a napkin note for me. Their jokes, with more detailed illustrations than I’m capable of drawing, not only made me smile, but my co-workers also chuckled when I showed them off.

Unlike Twitter that can call up my first Tweet, I have no recollection of the napkin note that started it all. My sons don’t recall either, though they also don’t remember a lunch without one. Asked about any particularly memorable messages from the notes, there is not one either of them can quote – but what does stay with them is the reliability of opening their lunch boxes to find positive words or even some corny knock-knock or chicken joke. They were like hugs to them then, and even now, crossing the road from their pasts to where they live hundreds of miles away today.

Not long ago, my youngest went through a phase of buying the school’s hot lunch like most of her friends had begun to do, hence, no napkin notes. When we moved to a new school district, she told me she wanted to bring her lunch again, confessing to me that she missed the napkin notes. Me too. And so I’m back at it.

Eye. Heart. Sheep. (Hug.)