By Kim Winslow
Over the past year, I have been cleaning out the drawers and closets in my parents’ 1912 Craftsman bungalow on Main Street in a small town in South Carolina. When I am in a good frame of mind, this process is like an archaeological dig, discovering family artifacts that were lost to time.
A year ago, I was going through a buffet in their kitchen. I took out 30 objects before I came across anything that is used to either cook or eat a meal. I found both of my sisters’ kindergarten report cards in that buffet. Apparently, my report card was not up to family standards, because it was absent. Granted, kindergarten wasn’t my best year: I didn’t make the bluebird class, threw an entire box of crayons under the table just to see what would happen, and lost recess for killing a Daddy long-legs spider. So, I can see why they chose to let my kindergarten year remain in obscurity.
There was a menagerie of other items in that buffet including a large roll of ribbon, erasers, political magnets, 1970s photos, etc. Each artifact revealing family stories, but none of them testifying to an organized, efficient household. Afterall, why should a drawer in the kitchen just contain items of use for that one room? My parents are not limited by such conventional organizational rules.
When my frame of mind is less curious,and I am confronted with a drawer full of unrelated items, I approach the offending space less like an archaeologist, and more like a rampaging officer intent on bringing order to the barracks. I was in full military mode, armed with a large garbage bag, when I attacked the new offending space, a bedside table in the room reserved for guests.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the drawer was a half eaten Strawberry Pop-tart. It is quite significant that it was Strawberry Pop-tart, not only because it is my favorite, but also because of its relationship to survival pre- and post-storms. My husband, during the last prediction of bad weather, returned from the grocery store with 4 boxes of Pop-tarts. When I inquired why he would purchase so much of a food that we didn’t normally have in our home (If Pop-tarts were an illegal substance we would need a 12 step program, best to go cold turkey) he replied that he had to buy them and then he referred me to an article in the New York Times.
A Walmart executive revealed in an interview with The New York Times that Pop-tart sales increase by as much as seven times before the threat of a hurricane. In 2018, more than 350,000 boxes were sent to the Carolinas before Hurricane Florence. From the looks of this Pop-tart, it had been in the drawer long before Florence visited. I am guessing that it may have been there since Hurricane Hugo hit the Carolina coast in 1989.
According to the article, Strawberry Pop-Tarts are so popular pre- and post-storms because they have a long shelf-life, can be eaten hot or cold, and they can replace any meal. It is hard to argue any of those points. Even more confusing is why someone would eat only half of it, and then store the rest in a bedside table. I am sure it was no one in my immediate family, because there is a zero chance that they would have eaten only half. Not finishing a Pop-tart surely violates some inherently known unwritten law. Perhaps the weather cleared up. For only the slightest amount of time, I considered finishing off the remaining Strawberry Pop-tart just to complete the circle of life left broken by the uneaten portion, but instead, I quickly threw it into the bottom of the bag and just resigned myself to the fact that some things will just remain undone and that is okay.
At this point, I was tempted to just turn the drawer upside down and dump all of the contents into the bag, but maybe my curiosity was kicking in, because I kind of wanted to know what other mysteries were buried in this family microcosm. There were some expected bedside activities inside including a New York Post Sudoku book and some editions of crossword puzzles, along with a dreamcatcher. This Native American talisman is used to protect sleeping people from nightmares; good dreams pass through and slide down the feathers to soothe the sleeper below. We are not of American Indian descent, but the concept in a guest room is thematically relevant. I am sure that my mother loved the idea of sweet dreams being collected, but maybe a dream catcher is not as effective when left in its original plastic cover with a red discount sticker and thrown into a drawer.
There was also an unopened sewing kit inside. I had already found three other similar sewing kits in other drawers throughout their home. Neither one of my parents can thread a needle at this point in their lives, but my father was a manager in the apparel industry for most of his career. His understanding of sewing garments is significantly more advanced than my mom’s. When I was in high school, and we were living in that same house, I asked my mom to hem a new pair of jeans for me. When I tried the jeans on, I realized that she failed to turn the pants inside out before sewing them; the four inch hems and the uneven stitches were all completely visible. The interesting part is that she did this on not just one leg, but on both. I am not quite sure how she earned her Girl Scout sewing badge, but since the Girl Scout motto is “Be prepared,” then my mother, with her collection of sewing kits, is actually prepared to sew, even if she can’t actually do it.
There were also just random parts in the drawer. For instance, a key with the entire top metal part missing. So even if you knew what lock to put it in, you could never actually turn it or get it back out. There was also the bottom of a wind-up music box, and a handful of puzzle pieces. Another object, that I found repeated in this drawer as well as multiple other drawers in their house, was broken taper candles. Why did we have so many broken taper candles? It is not like we were a household that held lavish dinner parties. Almost every meal where guests were invited was potluck and paper plates.
But there was something in this drawer that needed to be saved… Something so personal and valuable that I was saddened when I realized that my need to just get things organized and cleaned almost led me to throw it away with the half-eaten Pop-tart. At the very bottom, secreted beneath tape measures, empty frames, and headphones was a leather portfolio. A lovely, soft-worn, vintage folder full of my mother’s handwritten poems and writings. Random bits of her life’s story waiting to be uncovered.