Dietary Aid Mission

Travel Stories: A boy in Hong Kong missed his grape jelly. Maura Weber flew halfway around the globe to bring it to him.

06.11.01 | 1:06 AM ET

Mom, can you make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Maura brought me jelly!Photo illustration by Jim Benning

“The weather has been warm, so you don’t need to pack any winter clothes,” read Susan’s e-mail. “And one other thing—do you think you could bring a plastic bottle of Welch’s grape jelly? The stores here don’t carry it, and Nicholas misses his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Nicholas is 4. He’s in Hong Kong because Susan, his mom, was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work there for six months. While this may seem like an exciting challenge for many, for Nicholas, moving to Hong Kong represented little more than a test of his ability to get his mom to recreate the familiar patterns of home. Luckily for him, the Hong Kong TV system carries Cartoon Network, and McDonald’s is ubiquitous. However, even Nicholas can’t live on Happy Meals alone; he needed another, more humble dietary reminder of home: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Long before Susan left the land of the white-bread sandwich for Hong Kong, she had extended me an invitation to visit. It seemed too rare an opportunity to pass up. Susan is a born wanderer. When she provides me with her latest new home address, she always reminds me to write it in pencil. Nicholas already has a more geographically complex biography than I do; he’s lived in four different states and has learned from his mom the art of being an accomplished traveler. The two of them form a complete, if small, mobile unit. In her quest to perfect the art of traveling light, Susan left her husband behind two moves ago: too much baggage.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Nicholas’ experience in calling new places home, he insists on having an identical diet no matter where he goes. I interpret this as his desire to exercise direct control over at least one aspect of his life. Move to Asia? Nicholas complies. Say goodbye to mommy before she goes to work? Nicholas obeys. But eat something slightly new? Nicholas refuses. His kitchen-table tyranny could be construed as brattiness, but I see it as an understandable reaction to his constantly changing circumstances. Susan understands that her peripatetic lifestyle puts certain stresses on her son. She’s willing to comply with his need for just the right kind of jelly, and I was happy to help.

So off to the supermarket I went. Not being a mom myself, the wide variety of sugary glop available in the jelly aisle was a surprise. I wanted to be beneficent in my gift-giving, but had to stop to think: Is there an equation that can determine how much jelly will supply peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for six months? I decided on four big jugs. Then I filled my basket with enough other items to avoid looking like some sort of jelly addict.

The four bottles took up a fair amount of space in my luggage. I wondered if I might be breaking a customs regulation regarding the transportation of purple sugar, but by departure time I was determined to get this jelly overseas. In my mind, I was on a dietary aid mission. Customs be damned!

Susan and Nicholas met me at the airport. I was happy to see Susan and also pleased with the knowledge that I was about to become highly esteemed in Nicholas’ eyes. I waited to reveal the contents of my suitcase until we arrived at their apartment.

“I have something for you, Nicholas,” I said. “Would you like to help me get it out?”

He rummaged through my stuff. Upon seeing a plastic bottle, he grabbed it and ran out of the room.

“Mom, look what I got!” he shouted. “It’s the jelly I like! Mom, can you make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Maura brought me jelly!”

He came back to where I was with bright, happy eyes, but no jelly.

“Mom’s going to make me a sandwich,” he informed me. “Do you want one?”

I declined the offer, but felt a wave of love for this boy who could be so excited by something so simple in his complicated world. I also felt grateful to Susan for providing me with the insider’s tip on how to bond with her son. But the memory I’ll cherish most came at the end of my visit, as Susan and Nicholas bid me farewell at the airport. I knelt down to give Nicholas a big hug and kiss goodbye.

“Thank you for bringing me jelly, Maura,” he said. “I’m going to invite you to my next birthday party.”

I’m not sure what city—or country—that birthday party will be in, but I’m going to try my best to be there.


Maura Weber lives and writes in Los Angeles.


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