Dad's Don't-Touch Drawer

Every farm kitchen had one. It was as essential as the counter-top radio tuned to the weather reports. Ours was sandwiched in between a drawer of tea towels and a miscellaneous drawer. Miscellaneous, of course, pertained to household needs, but the junk drawer was sacred to the farmer, not the farm wife. Woe to anyone who tampered with it.

The junk drawer's home was a kitchen built in the early 1900s, already outmoded when I came along in the 1940s. My mother utilized every square inch of storage in the two dark wooden ceiling-high cupboards. Only three shelves could be reached without a stool, so the rest were filled with seldomly used items.

The kitchen was obviously not designed by a woman. All the work time was spent traveling from sink to stove to counter. One end of the workbench was reserved for the toaster, cookie jar, and breadbox. The far end was for work gloves, flashlight, and the lifeline radio. Below the counter were pots and pans, cupboards, and turn-of-the-century bins, originally built to hold flour and potatoes. Those we used for rags, paper sacks, and other essentials of farm life. "Save everything; times are hard" was the rule of the farm, which takes me back to the hallowed drawer. I'm sure Mom would have liked more space for kitchen wares. However, it was an understood law from my very first breath that the junk drawer was untouchable.

Always the organizer, even as a small child, I once attempted to clean the drawer. I loved to sort and arrange things, so I was intrigued by the mess. A roll of string, bits of leather, scraps of cardboard and wood, washers, bolts, and pliers, dull knives that didn't cut, gloves that didn't match, pieces of wire, batteries, and every size of nail. Shoelaces were standard keepers because they could be used for numerous things besides shoes. I don't remember all the contents, only the bulging fullness that made the drawer hard to close.

I was probably scolded for my cleaning efforts, but all I recall is the dare of the adventure. The tape measure and glue made sense, but Dad's favorite treasure was spark plugs. He did his own maintenance on the car, the pickup, several tractors, and all the farm implements. Spark plugs were still good when he changed them, so spares often found a home in the kitchen drawer.

When Dad came in while overhauling a tractor, Mom was expected to instantly produce the needed bolt, screw, or electrician tape from the depths of the drawer. If she could not, the assumption was that she had thrown it away.

"You leave things lie on windowsills," she would tell him. "Have you checked there?"

"Of course I've looked," he'd say. "You must have burned it. Why can't anyone in this house leave things where they belong?" He'd stand impatiently in the doorway, waiting for her to locate that one critical item.

When I cleaned out Dad's workshop years later following his death, I packed hundreds of half-full boxes of screws, light bulbs, and nails. And on those same shelves? Yes, there were dozens of boxes containing used spark plugs. Even he must have recognized the limitations of that infamous drawer in our kitchen.

When I helped Mom move to town, I put the junk-drawer contents into a separate box to be sorted at her convenience. Eight years later, the box is still intact in her new basement. What else could be done with it? She may need those items one day, and she wouldn't know where else to look for them. Some things are sacred forever.

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