The tradition began out of boredom and generosity. One sister had made a huge batch of meatballs and wanted to offer them to others. An empty nester still made recipes that served her family of twelve, even though they all lived in different states now. Young mothers needed freezer meals to get through Wednesday soccer practices, and newly married sisters wanted to try out new recipes without having to eat them for weeks.
So on the first Tuesday of the month, we would all meet at the church for a leftovers exchange, swapping casseroles for salads and pastas for desserts. At first, people would make the effort to try to return the Tupperware, but things soon became so mixed up that it was assumed that all plastic and glass containers we owned were communal property.
The first time we realized what was happening was after Sister Johansen’s husband died of cancer. She brought the leftovers from the funeral luncheon to the exchange, and Frances Young went home with some of them. After warming them up the next Thursday, she found herself crying long into the night, though her husband was merely away on a business trip and she didn’t usually miss him particularly.
That one time might have been a fluke, but in the weeks after Suzy Holder got married, everyone who brought home her leftovers found themselves feeling, well, a way they hadn’t felt for many years. Which might have understandably never come to light except that one sister asked for Suzy’s recipe, convinced it was the solution to her troubled marriage.
When we finally pieced together that we all had stored our leftover feelings in our refrigerators along with the milk and the eggs, there was some debate about whether the tradition ought to continue. Didn’t it reveal too much that we’d rather keep private? Was it some sort of witchcraft? Only when Sarah Bascom reminded us that it was our covenant duty to “mourn with those that mourn” did we understand the miracle of the leftovers.
And so the tradition continued and became almost an ordinance for us. People would politely look away whenever sisters placed their labeled containers on the table. It wouldn’t be right to know exactly who brought that container of seven-layer dip laced with resentment for her mother-in-law or the chocolate cake infused with abandonment. A very discreet older sister was called to be the official organizer of the exchange; she sorted all the containers into similar piles: compassion, love, and joy together at one end, more middling emotions like confusion, frustration, and exhaustion in the center, followed by the negative feelings like disgust, fear, and anger. Often there would be a big pile of jealousy and resentment at the end of the buffet.
There had been some grumbling over the years about whether it might not be best to throw all the negative emotions away, but since the purpose was to bear one another’s burdens, it was decided that this would not do. Besides, most of us had been raised in large families and pathologically couldn’t throw away anything edible.
None of us could leave until each leftover was spoken for. It would take two or three rounds through the line before every container found someone to go home with. The negative emotions that were paired with desserts would go quickly, but once a container of green beans labelled “ennui” in a loopy script sat on the table for five minutes with all of us pointedly not noticing it, before one saintly sister finally agreed to take it home if someone else would take the loneliness stir-fry she had picked up earlier.
Afterward we would all go home to eat our feelings—or rather, each other’s feelings. As we heated up the garlic bread, we would consider who among us had caused the betrayal that it was labelled with. We would dip the chocolate chip cookies in milk and bask in gratitude for the safe birth of a grandchild. The tomato soup would slosh in our stomachs and remind us that someone else was worried about her son’s grades. And someone with an irresistible apple pie kept us constantly aware of the numbness she had been feeling for months. With each mouthful, we remembered our sisters and prayed for them in a way we never had before.
And as we nourished our bodies, we found that we became the body of Christ.