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Papa Wolff Surprise

Updated: Jan 23, 2020

Yesterday was my dad’s 65th birthday. So, in honor of Papa Wolff, I looked over some musings from this past year and settled on these three snippets. They capture some of the most beloved aspects of Christopher Wolff, or, as my sister puts it: The Man, the Myth, the Legend.

Here you go, Pops. This one’s for you.



I was the only kid in school who got napkin notes. Every single day, all throughout elementary school--if memory serves me right (which, of course, it always does, because memory is always an exact representation of reality)--I opened my lunchbox or, later, my so-worn-it-felt-like-soft-velvet-and-didn’t-even-crinkle-anymore brown paper bag and read the words, all caps, scrawled on the white square inside.

My dad always packed my lunches, which already made me unique in a cool way amongst my friends. But the napkin notes served as the ultimate unifier. Every day, I read them aloud and we passed them around the table to see what Papa Wolff wrote. And they even rhymed. Yes, to this day, the only poetry I think he has ever written, right there, encapsulated in about four lines, on generic napkins that I could never bring myself to actually use.

I somehow ended up in the Cool Crowd, and to this day I’m not sure why. I was kind and not too funny looking and just stylish enough to get by, but I was always a little bit, well, different than the rest of them. (I know: Said every writer ever, but it is what it is. Some clichés hold up.)

I was shy, I stuttered, I only said mean things once in awhile as a matter of self-preservation, and I honestly loved everything about school--except gym class, which the rest of them all loved because they could organize their limbs in ways that actually made sense when you played sports.

And my dad packed my lunch and wrote rhymey napkin notes.

I have to say: When it came to food, my parents nailed it. In Kindergarten, I always coveted Cory Albro’s light blue lunchbox covered in stickers and holding a peanut butter and fluff sandwich. He would never trade, of course, so I was stuck with my PB & J. But my parents opted for Jif and Peter Pan, rather than the grind-your-own goop that our au naturel family friends always had.

I remember a co-op that we belonged to when I was really young and that horrible tasteless peanut butter that came in a big plastic container. Who ate that peanut butter anyway? I guess my mom did, because my dad hates peanut butter. This is but one of the many mysteries that elude me. Yet the greater allusion is the ongoing theme that I didn’t care enough to figure it out. Was I just not curious? Did I live in my own little bubble, prancing around, completely oblivious to everything else that happened around me?

I think I still live in that bubble now...

But back to school lunches. Beyond the napkin notes, my lunch was always just a little bit more balanced than everyone else’s. I had a wholesome sandwich, often on wheat bread, and some kind of 100% juice box. I always had a piece of fruit that I ate on occasion, but threw back in the bag, embarrassed, when it looked dicey, and I even had carrot sticks. So, there was your nutritious. I also had a lot of Fruit Roll-Ups and Foot-by-the-Foots, and some kind of dessert--a few Oreos or homemade cookies or a couple of small Hershey’s chocolates--and those tiny Fun Pack servings of Doritos and Lay’s. But only sometimes. Those were a treat, not a standard. Oh glory days! Still, I always had some fun. But I never had Dunkaroos, like Melissa, or Capri Suns, like Jenny. I guess my parents drew the line at nine-gajillion grams of sugar.

I think I had to buy my lunch a few times, which, even at the age of eight, always proved disappointing. Schools apparently still make the meat pressed into the shape of ribs, which defies all acceptable food criteria for anyone, not to mention children who are still growing. So, thanks, Mama and Papa, for packing my lunches 99% of the time and giving me the opportunity to reach my full potential! Win for all of us.

Writing this, I just remembered being in 3rd grade and sitting at the long lunch tables in the middle of the room, before we graduated to the round tables in 4th. I remember opening my lunch to see a salami sandwich (score!) and biting into it... with bitter disappointment ensuing. This brings me to the one pitfall of Papa lunches: “A moist sandwich is a happy sandwich.” Even if that means using butter on a salami sandwich when we ran out of mayo. Not. Okay.



In the Wolff house, we always said grace before dinner. No matter who sat around the table, we all held hands before diving in. This was exciting-slash-mortifying if you happened to sit next to an attractive grown up, in which case you drowned out the group message with your own silent prayer: “Dear Lord, please keep my hands from sweating profusely.”

This was the one of the only times that God made his presence known, and it happened every evening. Yet no one thought this strange: It was simply what we did. I, for one, think that’s pretty awesome. No pressure, no guilt, just a small reminder of the importance of gratitude on a daily basis and how faith can help you get through the tough times.

In the Wolff house, grace was always different, and Papa usually spoke it--except when we had a large group and he inevitably asked one of us to do it. Why? Why did he do this? I was already putting all of my mental energy into making sure my hand didn’t sweat and creep out the handsome dude next to me. How did he expect me to also form words?

“I can offer one thing, dude! Thoughtful words, or normal person hands! I can’t do everything!”

In the Wolff house, we always ate dinner together, unless you were on-your-deathbed sick. As a teenager, I opted out of some, here and there, but, I have to admit, part of me always felt like I was missing out and regretted my decision later. (Yes, I was a freak of nature, but still: It’s rather remarkable that we ate together every evening. It is, sadly, such a rarity these days.)

In terms of “rules”, you took a No Thank You helping (aka tried everything), and you asked to be excused. We also all started dinner together, so you hustled when called to prevent the food from getting cold. That was sacrilege.

Talking was encouraged, and Papa always asked everyone about their days, with the exception of Saturday evenings during A Prairie Home Companion. On those nights, you sat quietly and listened and laughed as appropriate.

Papa always congratulated you for joining the Clean Plate Club, and, as a kid, this felt pretty special. Dessert was never a reward: If you wanted it, you could have it--but, yes, you could probably stand to take a few more bites of chicken or vegetables first. Again: I approve of this parenting approach. Because of this, we ate some vegetables, but never coveted sweets.

So...yes: I kind of grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting, with a bit of a liberal/hippie twist.

Once in awhile, we had a one-pot wonder of a dinner, also known as Papa Surprise: A bunch of leftover ingredients mish-mashed together. These ran the gamut from impressively delicious to somewhat questionable. Rather like Gump’s chocolates, you never knew what you were going to get. Then again, the odds of chicken and rice were quite high.



Papa Wolff was the spirit of Christmas. He vehemently held the holiday torch of magical, wondrous belief. On Christmas Eve, he would talk about the pitter patter he heard in the wee hours on the roof...Reindeer hooves? I remember him carrying me home one Eve and pointing out what he mysteriously suggested might have been Santa’s sleigh crossing in front of the moon.

To this day, he thanks Santa for the annual toothbrush in his stocking. He still spends Christmas Eve in his “workshop” listening to choirs sing via NPR and wrapping packages in brown paper with fancy lettering and carving wooden spoons, in his artist-self way. He still talks of gentle reindeer foot patters on the roof. And he still sits back and watches, rummed-up egg nog and cookies in hand, as the rest of us decorate the tree. Every year, we try to get him to participate, but he insists on “honoring tradition”--aka he doesn’t want to actually do it himself.

Everyone wants to sit next to Chris Wolff at our annual hayride. Because, yes, we have an annual hayride with our incredible community of like-family friends, many of whom have known my sister and I our entire lives. We pile on a wagon of hay, pulled by a tractor, and sing carols in the country hinterland for a few minutes, then pile inside to eat homemade soups and breads and desserts and drink local wines and booze. And Papa’s laughter rings throughout the room. It is, in short, as good as it gets.


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