SPAM key circa 1971

Sweat rolls down my cheeks and my hair is laced with spider webs and dried flies. I am filthy from the attic. I have been rummaging long enough to be light-headed from the trapped heat, probably over a hundred and ten degrees. I have worked hard to retrieve a box. The packing tape on the box is peeling. There is a thin layer of dirt over the UHaul logo. Someone has written “Pandy’s box” on the side. It is heavy.

The contents include:

1 large dog biscuit in a furry red Christmas sock

1 panoramic photograph of a high school show choir on stage

A stack of cardboard cow shapes

A 3” wad of red chewing gum, chewed, rewrapped in cellophane

1 dried orange with indecipherable words written on it

Stacks of greeting cards, scraps of writing, napkins, ribbons, programs, photos, certificates, magazine clippings and in a small wooden box layered with cotton—a SPAM tin key circa 1971.

My sons had asked about my yearbooks. But when I found them in an unrelated stash of textbooks, I covertly shoved them in this memorabilia box. This ruse has allowed me to haul eighteen years down the ladder rather than a few index entries in four slim volumes.

What I want to say to them is: your mission is to construct a life using only what you find in this cardboard box. It is not going to be easy. There is only one assembled scrapbook, an interior monologue of snippets and glue in no apparent order. After the pages filled up, the rest was just tossed in, loose and shaken like an etch-a-sketch. See if you can form lines, pictures, bingo patterns that you can call out. See what you recognize and what surprises you.

What I really say to them is: let’s look at this stuff together and tell me what you think is interesting.

What I dream they will say is: the stories in this box are wonderful.

What they will probably say is: when is lunch?

We bypass the historical records showing how I progressed through school, church, and family; official documents that prove that I was busy and accountable. They snort at my P.E. grades and move on.

They pick up the bone shaped dog biscuit. I pull it out of the sock and reveal that the end is bitten off. I was packing to go to college. My beloved kid sister was sitting on the edge of my bed watching me—sad, angry, about to be left alone. I pulled the dog biscuit out of a pile of junk and she dared me to eat it. I told her she would have to pay me. She pulled a quarter out of her pocket. I took a bite, chewed and swallowed. We laughed forever. I brought it with me to college, a forty-eight hour bus ride away from home.

The photograph of the show choir is a huge hit. I had forgotten about it, although I am posing in the front row. The polyester, diagonal hem dresses could be sold at H&M today, all the big-framed glasses must have been banished to the sidelines, and the whole troop looked remarkably current with jutting hips and pointed toes.

The cows are cut from recycled shirt forms, cereal boxes, and other scraps of gray cardboard. They are colored with crayons, in childish designs and scotch-taped where the scissors ran amok. These are a disappointment. I have told them stories about the cows for years, about how in fourth grade I found a broken board game in class and used one of the playing pieces as a template. I traced and made cow characters and then wrote stories about them. I had told them there were at least a hundred, all with creative, literary names like Ophelia and Alphonse. There were actually only about twenty scrappy little cutouts with names like “Moo” and “Mary.”

They are so disgusted by the chewed gum that I have trouble holding their attention for the story. My best friend and I were in study hall with multiple packs of Big Red, our favorite. We were trying to sneak as much gum (forbidden in class) into our mouths as possible without the teacher seeing us. We managed to chew three to four whole packs without him ever noticing. Afterwards, we combined and saved the gum as proof of our solidarity and defiance.

They pick up the orange. Faded marker covers every inch of its desiccated rind. I try to read it. What is the story here, they ask? I have absolutely no idea. Not one glimmer of memory.

We pick through the mix. Some objects were clearly meaningful to me at the time and that seems to be enough. Some still evoke strong emotions that will end when I do. A few creations are best left to memory; the reality dulls in comparison. Some I saved knowing that other people might be curious; these are easily identified with definite connections from me to the finder. I kept many things for source material, letters written on carbon paper, hoping that they would trigger or act as a muse. Some are mysteries, to me and to those who will have to sort this box again someday. I put everything back in a new, sturdier box and bring it back to the attic, even the orange.

The last thing in is the SPAM key, an antique in the age of pop tops and low fat diets. It has a long thin metal rod curved into a handle on one end. I discovered as a kid that it could be used as a key to open locked doors in my house. I alone had the key because no one else had fished the twisted can out of the trash, unwound the key opener, washed off the SPAM goop and saved it. Even my parents had to ask for it when one of my sisters locked herself in or out. I kept it then and I keep it now.

    6 responses to “SPAM key circa 1971”

    1. Josh says:

      I’m not sure why, but this post left me on the verge of tears. In a way, it plays nicely with the previous post regarding parenthood. The memories that are so important for us may well be regarded as little more than dusty junk to the armchair anthropologists and family biographers who get the job of cleaning up after we’re gone.

      I read an article some years ago about historian’s despair at the electronic age. Many of the thoughts that we commit to the “blogosphere” would, in another era, have been the stuff of personal diaries. Now, with the touch of a button, our descendants will be able to format our memories or simply write over them with bootleg MP3’s.

    2. marleyfan says:

      Reading your post almost felt like the time I read your journal. Sneaky and wrong, yet a little energy-charged…

      Anyway,
      Somehow I lost my whole box (or my parents did), about ten years ago. All my yearbooks, pictures of girlfriends and dances, and other memorabillia (minus a wad of gum). It was a bummer!

      Thanks for the post.

    3. p: i read this yesterday morning but only now have a chance to say how great it is. i loved everything about it — so many great details and lines. the notion of “pandy’s box” alone could have sustained a post: how could you not have a box if your name’s pandora?

    4. WW says:

      Was thinking exactly what Bryan just wrote: I loved hearing about this Pandora’s box.You are such a lovely writer. I so look forward to your posts, and drink them in like cool water on a hot day.

    5. AW says:

      Lovely. Haunting.

    6. Kate says:

      I’ve got something similiar to your Pandy’s Box, only mine is six or seven shoeboxes. Do you mind if I print your entry out– with the all-important credit included– and put it in my current memory box as some sort of an explanation? It captures perfectly why I started mine in the first place and what I feel when i go through them.