In the home of my childhood we had no scissors, no flashlight and no scotch tape. Well, that’s not exactly true. We had them all but when they were needed we had no idea where they were. Everyone has one of the drawers that has three thumbtacks, two double A batteries rolling loose, a refrigerator light bulb still in its package and the baster that kept the drawer from closing the first nine times you tried to shove it shut. Well, our house, our entire house was that drawer.
When I first got married my mother in law was standing in my kitchen while I was making our spaghetti dinner. Where is your colander, dear, she asked. It was almost as if she had said something in Alsatian French. Ummmm, I stammered. It could be in the pantry. Try the pantry. While she was scurrying to the pantry I stopped her mid-scurry and said, or it might be under the stove. When she wheeled around to backtrack to the stove, I said, wait a minute, it’s probably up on that top shelf near the lacquer thinner. There was a moment of, not exactly judgmental silence, more a look of confused bewilderment and then she very calmly said the sentence that would change my life forever. She said: “There’s a place for everything and everything has its place, dear.” I turned to look directly into her eyes. I had never heard such simple housekeeping wisdom.
That night I called my sister, four years my senior. Okay I said, I got one for you, and I repeated my new mantra: There’s a place for everything and everything has its place. Yeah, she said with a laugh. My mother in law told me the same thing. What happened in our house, I demanded, that was so difficult for our parents to put things back or at least teach us to put things back? It was a rhetorical question because we both knew that what happened was our parents worked late, late, late into the night and came home exhausted. So there was no putting things back. There was only minute-to-minute, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other survival.
When my husband and I went broke some years ago and downsized to a small cabin on the Vineyard, an empty cabin that didn’t have the former owners’ stuff anywhere, I began anew, with my mother in law’s words ringing in my new, smaller, slower life. Now I have a hook for the scissors. I have two nails that hold up the flashlight. I have stamps in a bowl next to the scotch tape holder next to the envelopes. The batteries are nestled safely in their original package. And somehow the refrigerator bulb knows better than to blow. My house is teeny but my organization is huge.
On Monday my mother in law died. She was three months short of reaching 99. I met her 47 years ago at Thanksgiving. When the four brothers gathered and we went around the table with Mum stories, the constant refrain was how unruffled she always was, how consistently nonjudgmental she was, how open-minded and easy she was.
And I married her firstborn, who did not fall far from this towering tree.
This holiday I have so much more to be thankful for than being able to find my colander.
Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of Writing From The Heart (Hyperion/Little Brown) which has gone into its sixth printing and will be released as an e-book this May. She runs the Chilmark Writing Workshop.