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A junk drawer full of treasures

These random knickknacks tell our family's history.

By Jean Coco / December 1, 2008

John Kehe and Scott Wallace-staff

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My family can't conquer all of its clutter all of the time, so we hide it – in a junk drawer. We didn't establish the drawer intentionally. It just materialized over time, out of necessity, and in the kitchen.

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Our habit of squirreling away odds and ends is not new. Apparently our cave-dwelling ancestors stowed their handy-dandy rocks and bones in hollowed-out nooks. The colonists continued the practice, storing small tools and sewing supplies inside worktable "catch-all" drawers. Much later, the drawer acquired "junk" as its moniker, a belittling title, given its domestic role.

I mean, think about it: Could your home function without a junk drawer? It's where our search begins for rubber bands, safety pins, bread ties, lip balm, paper clips, a bit of wire or string, and – as any kid knows – loose change. If you opened the drawer near the back door in my kitchen, you'd find broken crayons, piñata prizes, restaurant menus, mismatched Barbie shoes, a single chopstick, used batteries, a lone earring waiting for its mate to show up, and assorted mystery objects, such as the black-capped screw I found the other day between the sofa cushions. I wondered, did it belong on my daughter's music stand or the dog's crate? I wasn't sure and I didn't feel like checking, so I chucked the screw precisely where it belonged: the junk drawer.

This way, when I need it (someday), I'll know where to go.

Recently, I needed a safety pin for some reason while I was at my parents' house in Louisiana, so I opened the junk drawer in their kitchen. Near the front, a checkbook box held a mess of mystery objects, the only recognizable one being a gold Mardi Gras doubloon. I picked it up. Krewe of Rex 1970: The year I missed two days of school to go to New Orleans, an absence my parents justified as "educational," which it was, for an innocent third grader from a town of 10,000. I saw a hairy middle-aged man in a bikini in the French Quarter and caught a glimpse of the "Moss Man" as he parted the crowds on St. Charles Avenue. A homegrown version of Bigfoot, he meandered down the street draped in a stringy cloak of Spanish moss. How could he see? How could he stand the itchy red bugs creeping across his scalp? Years later I would encounter him again in a coffee-table book on Southern folklore – educational indeed! I returned the doubloon to the box and continued rummaging.

Near a jar of old keys, I found a bag of rocks with the words "Grand Canyon" scrawled on yellowed freezer tape. I looked inside. Were these mine? Or my sister Ann's? I couldn't tell from the faded handwriting, yet it didn't much matter since the sheen and mystique the rocks possessed when I discovered them in the Arizona dirt had diminished. Now, they appeared chalky and dull.

And the safety pin? I snagged one from a pep rally badge I found wedged in a corner. Sure enough, the space had retained its yard-sale-in-a-drawer persona. Yet, over time, it had acquired a nobler identity as a time capsule to a hands-on exhibit, showcasing my family's quirks, its peculiar pack-rat practices and the remnants of my youth. It turns out that the stuff in my junk drawer isn't clutter at all: It is the ongoing history of my family as told by the small, random objects in our lives.

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