Life lessons learned in the candy drawer

(Essay appeared in The Paper of Montgomery County's Montgomery Memories, July 2011)

I would only risk the adventure when no one else was around. "Mah" (my grandmother) would be getting her hair set, and “Dot” (so dubbed by my toddler self) would be napping. The lessons start before I even get into the drawer. Take time to take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest. Work hard, and then let your body recover.

The drawer was on the end, next to the fridge. The kitchen was always spotless, with its stainless steel appliances, way-cool wall oven I coveted even before I cooked, and percolating coffee pot, disassembled to dry before being put back into service gurgling up the next pot. The windows butting up to the yellow Formica countertops opened to birdfeeders, which were kept stocked year-round. Appreciate nature, and take care of it. On the plaque in the corner, a folk art man labored with an axe and then propped his feet up by the fire between the words “He who cuts his own wood is twice warmed.” Never shy away from hard work.

No one was around; it was time. I’d ease open the drawer, wide and shallow, on its well-oiled track. Still, it made a soft clicking noise as the wheels turned. Rarely was there any chocolate or “good” stuff. Instead, there were packets of Chiclets, smooth and shiny pieces of gum that slid out of their envelopes to click lightly and coolly against my teeth. There might be a lemon drop, or a butterscotch drop, or a Starburst. Or, on a really lucky day, maybe even a chocolate after-dinner mint brought home from a restaurant. (Waste not, want not.) All the candies were small — not my favorites, but serviceable in a pinch — individual, portion-controlled items with a rather limited selection. This says to me that it’s OK to indulge once in a while, but in a controlled way. Set limits. All things in moderation. It was much easier to find bowls of grapefruit and orange slices, or cut-glass trays of celery and carrot sticks, than it was to find sweets. These foods are the things our bodies need. No fast food sacks balled up in the trash, just home-cooked meats and veggies and big glasses of milk. Even the desserts tended to be fruit pies and lemon bars. Forget processed foods. Eat right, and when you need a little bit of something sweet, have just that: a little bit.

Next, I’d shuffle through the coupons. My grandparents worked hard, invested wisely, and lived frugally. They had money, so I could never understand why on earth they kept coupons for 10 cents off a roll of paper towels. She didn’t need 10 cents. Why bother? But my questions tell you as much about me as about my grandparents. I don’t have an inherent understanding of saving, living responsibly, and not taking anything for granted. Frugality is something I have to work at, but — after living through the Depression and starting their lives together with nothing — they understood the value of money. They worked hard for it and did not waste it. If they spent money on something, it either had educational value, philanthropic value, or practical value. They knew at their cores the importance of being a good steward of all that the Lord had given, and they lived that way daily.

Next, matches. They had a little trash burner, walls of concrete block with chicken wire on front. Every day Mah would go through the house and empty the decorative trash containers. One bin in the kitchen was reserved for cans and bottles, and everything that could be reused, was. Another container was for biodegradable trash (whatever couldn’t be fed to the dogs), which was put out in a compost pile near the garden to enrich the soil in which they grew vegetables. Paper grocery bags were stacked neatly behind the refuse containers, ready to be used to transport dried flowers (also from the garden) or protect the driveway from the fresh paint being applied to a table (take care of what you have). And plastic bags — bread bags that had been washed and dried — hung from the door to the trash closet.

But all the other trash was taken out of the house and burned. Daily. They inherently understood that everything has a use. When it can be reused, it should be. Some things need to be kept separate from others. And we need to regularly purge what we don’t need or what isn’t good for us — get it out of the house, out of our lives, and eliminate it once and for all.

In the left-hand corner of the drawer was a mess of twist ties. Every loaf of bread my grandma bought contributed another spindly piece of paper-covered wire to the tangled pile in the drawer. When something needed to remain closed, she made sure it did, and she tied it tightly. (The same held true for gossip, and secrets.) She remained prepared for any eventuality, making use of anything at her disposal. And she knew to be responsible with even the smallest of details.

And, last, its festive silvery wrapper spiraling out of control, was the always-present partial roll of Wint-o-Green Lifesavers. In other words, when you find something that works, you should stick with it. Don’t change for the sake of change. You may think Lifesavers would fall into the candy category, but I hold them separate for one reason. These mints were not there to satisfy a sweet tooth. They’re functional, and tried and true, and they’re there because you can never, ever go wrong with fresh breath. So with fresh breath and a lot of love, I send mental kisses to my grandparents, who are alive no longer, the wonderful couple who managed to enrich my life immeasurably simply by leaving the candy drawer unguarded.


tamara said...

Beautiful. Mine are still alive in body but definitely not in spirit anymore. And they were much the same when they lived in their home ~ they didn't waste a thing. Jotted notes on opened envelopes, wound the tiniest bit of thread back on the spool for re-use, and there was always Double Mint gum. Lovely tribute to your grandparents! Absolutely lovely.

Sarah J Schmitt said...

Very, very awesome... you are an incredible writer!!! Can't wait until we top NYTB together! ;)

Great piece!

dina said...

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliantly told and written.