Life In Narrative #2 — The Can Opener

Sometimes the smallest things make me think of them.

Widlflowers blooming in a neighbor’s yard. A song on the radio. The smell of bacon frying in the morning–always the smell of bacon frying.

It seems to happen when my thoughts are farthest away, and busiest, and least likely to stop me in my tracks. The most random sights, sounds, or smells will trigger memories of my childhood. And memories of them. My great-grandmother and great-great aunt–“Mammy” and “Sister.”

Tonight I was emptying the dishwasher and preparing meals for the next few days. I stacked the plates and bowls in the cabinet next to the sink. I put the cooking dishes away in the buffet and under the island. I placed the cooking and eating utensils in their respective drawers and grabbed a wet cloth to wipe down the counter tops.

As I lifted two pot holders to move out of the way, there it was. An old style can and bottle opener. I have no idea where it came from. Until I saw it on the counter tonight I didn’t even realize it was in the apartment.

img_2282It is the simplest of contraptions, really. A small piece of metal about three inches long. On one end, a pointed tip designed to puncture metal cans so that their contents can be drained or poured. The other end is blunt–designed to pop the cap off of a bottle. Long since replaced by “better mousetraps” so-to-speak, it is a vestige of a bygone era. A remnant of a time when people relied on their own strength to get jobs done.

But, there was something to this particular can opener that did stop me in my tracks.

When I was just a boy, growing up in Mammy and Sister’s house, meal times were important and essential. Consequently, their kitchen was often the center of activity in the house. My sister and I would come in from school in the afternoons, drop our books, kick off our shoes, and head through the swinging door that separated Mammy’s bedroom from the kitchen and dining room. By 4:00 or 4:30 p.m. when we got home, preparations for the evening meal were already well under way.

Mammy usually handled the meals while Sister’s specialty was dessert. So, as we came bounding through the door, Mammy would be standing at the counter next to the sink, wearing one of her housecoats and her black slippers; her terry cloth apron, purple with white polka dots, tied securely around her waist, its pockets full of Brach’s Butterscotch candies. She would scold us and tell us to get out of her way while she was “cookin’ dinner.” We ignored her, of course, and rummaged through the cabinets looking for a snack. Finally, with Little Debbies and cold milk in hand, we left her to her work.

We didn’t have a dishwasher–well, we did, actually…ME. After dinner, my job was washing dishes. How many hours of my life were spent standing over that double sink, peering out the small window that faced the front yard, watching cars go by as I soaped dishes in one side, and rinsed them in the other? I would start with the pots and pans; then move to the plates, bowls, glasses, and cups, and finally finish with the utensils. No matter what meal we’d eaten, there were some tools that were always in the stack to be cleaned. Among them…the can opener.

I remember it so well because each time I washed it I wondered why she would keep such a thing around. There were much better can openers. And even if she didn’t want an electric one, there were can openers that could be hand-cranked to do the job far better than that little piece of junk could do. Hers looked as though it had been through a war. It had nicks and bends and chips and rust. A lot of rust. On each end, just where the metal bent downward, her can opener was rusted from years of getting wet over and over again. Now days I guess someone would consider it a health hazard. But, I ate plenty of food from plenty of cans that had been opened using it and I’m none the worse for wear.

And what stopped me in my tracks tonight; what made the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand on end, is that the can opener laying on my counter top–the one I didn’t even know I had–was nicked, and bent, and chipped, and rusted. In the same places. In the same ways as the one in Mammy and Sister’s kitchen all those years ago.

And suddenly, as I stood, a grown man at my own kitchen sink, I was ten years old again. And Mammy and Sister were there again. They were in their housecoats, their slippers, and their aprons. And there I was, rushing in from school and rushing to the kitchen to get an afternoon snack. And I asked what was for dinner, and received the customary “Whatever it is you ought to be glad to get it.”

I always was glad to get it. It was always good no matter what it was.

And so I stood there in my kitchen holding on to that can opener that I didn’t even know I had, reveling in the memory of a time that I didn’t appreciate enough at the time. Remembering the people who made that time so special. And wishing that the can opener I was holding was the one I held so many times before because holding on to it would mean holding on to them for just a while longer.


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