As a little girl, I’d spend the occasional Friday night with my grandparents. On Saturday morning, my grandmother would shake me awake: “Jeanne, are you awake?” she’d ask over and over with increasing volume. “Yes ma’am,” I’d eventually say. Upon her order, I’d sit up and look at her only to hear her say: “I just wanted to tell you to sleep as long as you want to.”
My granddaddy would feed me cornflakes then load me into his faded red-and-white Ford Fairlane and drive me around the county, pointing out every family’s homeplace. Back then, folks around town gave directions using family homeplaces as markers for turns or mileage. I still do.
Aunt Rene came into possession of the house when the elderly man she cared for died. Though she lived somewhere else for a period of time so Uncle Bill could be near his work, that white board house in the middle of town was Aunt Rene’s house for as long as I can remember. Forgetting to turn the stove off was bad enough, but when she began to dose them (her sister, Lucy, had come to live with her by then) their tablets several times a day because she couldn’t tell the difference between waking from a nap and waking from a night’s sleep, moving The Girls to an assisted living home became an undeniable, unavoidable necessity. Though she was less than thrilled with her change of address, Aunt Rene eventually settled in, flirting with the single men and finding a bigger pocketbook to hold her frequent Bingo winnings. She was quite the social butterfly, that one.
Shortly after the move, Aunt Rene began to collect napkins. We’d go out to eat at a restaurant, and while we paid the bill, she’d open that big ole’ pocketbook of hers and empty the napkin holder into it, never taking the holder itself, mind you, only its contents. I gave her packages of napkins purchased at restaurant supply stores in hopes of quelling her sticky fingers, but it simply was not the same.
She also became an avid collector of cardboard boxes – empty cardboard boxes, thank goodness – availability taking precedence over size. “You just never know when you might need a good empty box,” she’d tell me in what I declare was a tone of pride in her voice when I asked about the growing mountain of boxes in the corner of her room beside the bed. About once a week (sometimes twice, depending), Mother and/or I would go by rid her room of most of her stash, always respectfully leaving a few behind.
It was actually a rather endearing (if frustrating at times) behavior. Though she never gave us more of an answer than the standard you-just-never-know answer, I ‘spect those boxes were a throwback to times in her past when, from what I hear, she could fit everything she owned into a small cardboard box and still have room left over. And I ‘spect they represented the future. Though she quit talking to us about it, I’m quite sure the hope of one day filling those boxes with her earthly belongings and moving back to her home never completely left her. And every now and then when I think about Aunt Rene and her boxes, I imagine that maybe those boxes made her feel in control of her life somehow, if for no other reason than she and she alone would decide what to put inside them.
I think about Aunt Rene when I remember how as an undergraduate student, I transformed empty boxes into nightstands and coffee tables through the magic of paint, tape, glue, and old magazines. I think about her when I fill boxes with things I just can’t yet let go of, telling myself “The children will want this one day.” I think about her as I poke around in search of boxes to hold my various projects, boxes as creative containers that will keep visual clutter to a minimum while making it easy to start and stop without having to pull everything out or put everything up. It is a throwback to the days when to save time and conserve mental capacity, I had a tote bag for every organization I was affiliated with, filled with what I needed for that particular group, a way to grab and go. “What in the sam hill are you going to do with that?” my husband asks as I pick up an old hat box at the thrift shop. “Well,” I tell him as I continue to survey and assess, “you just never know when you might need a good empty box.”