Cleaning out, looking back

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One of the things about cleaning out, as you know, is the emotional path it leads you down to remembering days passed that have disappeared like a vapor unto the mountain tops.

On the top of our kitchen cabinets is a bright multi-colored basket and in it sets a Velveeta cheese cardboard box. Without knowing the history of that box, there is an excellent chance that someone would throw it away.

That person could well be Tink.

I say this for two reasons: First, he has OCD and he’s liable to throw away any empty box he finds. He is especially likely to throw out an empty Velveeta cheese carton because he is a Yankee and he doesn’t know the importance of Velveeta to the South. It didn’t save us – that honor belonged to government cheese – but it gave us a mighty helping hand. Secondly, I figure that the way things are going, he is going to far outlive me so one day when he and my niece, Nicole, are disposing of that which was once a bundle of my life and purpose, they’ll toss it without second thought and nary a regret.

Figuring that Tink was likely to be a culprit in the disposal, I called him over when I took it down to dust it.

“See this? It’s a special Velveeta cheese box.” He kinda rolled his eyes comically. Then, I turned it over and let him read what I had written in a black sharpie on the bottom.

It reads: “Last thing Mama ever bought… at IGA – 2 hours before she died.” 2/24/08

Tink had just returned from a couple of months of shooting a Hallmark series so he was particularly tender. His eyes misted. “How sweet. I wish I had known your mama.”

I nodded. The day she purchased it, I was going to make homemade cheesy cream of chicken soup (Mama’s made-up recipe) for our friend, Mr. Bobo, who was ailing with the flu and Mama was going to make him cornbread muffins.

“I’ll buy this and you just keep it and use it as you need it,” she said.

That’s when I should have known that death would soon be calling. That box of cheese was $5 and Mama was always a frugal type. Especially when she knew I would buy and she could save her money. I protested but she firmly insisted. I can’t part with that Velveeta cheese box. Not even for a large sum of money or the opportunity to taste Mama’s salmon patties again.

Finding the Velveeta box was the beginning of a cleaning out marathon that would extend for a couple of weeks. One night, I tackled the pantry where I found the last jar of Chase Sanborn coffee that had been in Mama’s cabinet – I did manage to overcome myself and throw that out since the coffee had dried up in it – and a couple of Mason jars that had held the last green beans she had put up the summer before Jesus called. Through it all, I was strong but sentimental.

Until I took down two of her aprons I still use. One is a red gingham checked half apron that I use quite often. The other is one that she sewed herself from a scrap of lightweight, checked cotton. It goes over the head and ties at the waist.

I held it in my hands and thought back to all the days Mama had worn it and all the quarts of tomato juice she had canned while red droplets of liquid had splashed her. It was the one she always wore when canning and freezing the summer garden’s harvest. I can see her now: her hair in disarray and wiping splattered corn from her face with the back of her hand.

Sometimes, it feels sweet to remember. And to hold the memories in hand.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of the “What Southern Women Know” trilogy. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]