I know what certain return addresses on incoming mail can do to the psyche and flow of adrenaline. A whole year has passed since I resolved some convoluted negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service, but I still clearly recall how the arrival of one of those official envelopes served momentarily to snuff out the sun.
I didn't see my son's face when he arrived home alone today to an official notice of his own - from the state bureau of motor vehicles and bearing a foreboding "open immediately" stamp. Back in September my 17-year-old had gotten a speeding ticket on the road linking his high school and the nearest Subway shop, where he often has an early or late lunch, depending on his schedule. It was a late-lunch day and Tim must have been a bit too keen on a midafternoon tank-up. He was pulled over for going 44 mph toward a 12-inch ham and cheese in a 35 mph zone - and presented with a $94 fine.
I lent him the money to square things and to avoid a court date. We had the certified check in the mail to the county clerk the next day. And that, aside from parental lecture No. (oh, I've lost count) and Tim's indebtedness to me, was the end of the matter. Or so we assumed until today's notice arrived citing a "failure to comply" and suspending his license two weeks hence: incomprehensibly bad tidings to a teen driver with miles to go before he sleeps.
Hearing a young driver's plea over the phone that he has complied (he'd even settled that debt) didn't turn the bureaucratic wheels his way. Tim hung up from his fruitless effort to protest the suspension, sunk in dejection. Even when I found a copy of the money order (which we could present to the county clerk as proof of compliance), he failed to brighten. Who can be certain of anything with the loss of one's freedom lurking? Collapsing on the sofa, Tim asked morosely for tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches - the Tennessee Ernie Ford of comfort foods.
From his days as a toddler and new solid-food citizen, this simple combination has appealed to him like no other supper when the day is raw or the chips are down. The sandwich needn't be stuffed with extras or browned to perfection. The soup can be canned. Served with an ample cloth napkin and a few encouraging words, the classic unadorned duo works its quiet magic the way no other or finer food can. It's a simple recipe for revival that has passed from one generation to the next in our family, evoking for me memories of walking home from school under a leaden Rochester, N.Y., sky to find my mother spooning up three steaming bowls and flipping hot sandwiches onto plates. Lunches often accompanied by Tennessee Ernie himself, crooning from our black-and-white TV.
Tomato soup and toasted cheese can't take the edge off all of Tim's coming-of-age woes. But it still does the trick now and then. So when he asks for this almost-too-easily-delivered meal, I know better than to hesitate or offer anything more upscale or nutritionally balanced. When last night's bowl was scraped clean and the crumbs brushed up, my son drove off into the night. The potential disaster of losing the privilege to do just that still pressed on him, but the soup's steam and the melted cheddar seemed to have blunted his angst.
I've no doubt he's driving well within the limit now. I'm not necessarily crediting the soup and sandwich with that, given the ticket's expensive lesson and today's reminder of it. But it wouldn't take much to convince me that the crème de la crème of comfort food helps to lighten the foot along with the mood; that tomato soup and cheese sandwiches actually make the world a little safer - and not just make it feel that way.