A Hopper Full of Memories

I wake up every morning and see a wastebasket named Joe. This has the sound of poetry concocted in the third grade. But the fact is, I have very few items in the house that carry sentimental weight.

Everybody has an item in his home with a story behind it. I have leather shoes that I found in the trash, a beautifully illustrated garbage can I inherited, and a 1948 Plymouth wheel-cover I found on the highway last year. But Joe is the momento with the memories.

Joe is a frog made of wicker, light green in color. He sits on his hind legs with his basket mouth open wide, as though begging for something to eat. Two large cat's-eye marbles are lodged in his wicker eye sockets, eerie eyeballs. Whenever a letter to a friend was going badly, I'd crinkle it up and toss it in Joe's mouth. His tummy has been full of restaurant flyers, supermarket circulars, political leaflets - every type of junk mail imaginable. But I've had a change of heart. Joe is now an art object to be cherished and admired.

It would be inaccurate to say that Joe was only a wastebasket. Joe also served as a newspaper and magazine holder. It was not uncommon to see The Saturday Evening Post, Life, or The New York Times lodged rudely in Joe's mouth. But no matter how much literature resided in Joe's innards, he still looked open-mouthed and desperate.

Joe belonged to Margaret, a longtime family friend. I was her chauffeur for 10 years. On each visit to Margaret's condo, I would see Joe and make some conversational comment.

Once a week, Margaret and I would travel around south Florida in her Cadillac, running errands, dining at exotic places, and sightseeing. Margaret taught art at a boarding school for years: painting, sculpture, pottery, and jewelrymaking. She loved art galleries. Whenever there was a new exhibit or opening, we explored it. Artistically, we held opposite views. Margaret liked modern sculptures, Abstract Expressionism, and cubism. I tried to comprehend these, but couldn't. I preferred more conventional artists: Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, and French Impressionists.

But we were in agreement about Joe. He was a work of art, all right.

Margaret's memory went back more than 60 years. She remembered President Woodrow Wilson and his dream of a League of Nations after the first World War. She knew things that were not in history books. Her remembrance of the past helped me to understand the attitudes and outcomes of the present.

Her husband had been with the British Army in the Battle of Sorbonne in World War I, and in later years was a successful art dealer, transporting pictures by Renoir, Gauguin, Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Whistler, and others in his own car. This was years and years before security measures were even necessary.

When there were no new art exhibits, Margaret loved to visit plant nurseries. She would vow to spend only so much on her garden, but a stroll through the exotic flowers would shatter her resolve in minutes. We would whisper along in her Cadillac El Dorado, and she would recall the first car she'd ever owned, a two-seater Hupmobile. She was living on a farm in New York State and disliked cranking the car to start it. Instead, she parked it on top of a hill. That way, she could roll it down the hill and pop the clutch to turn over the engine. She liked going to the theater sometimes, and the lists of stage productions for the season were often kept in Joe's mouth.

When Margaret passed away, her daughter asked me if there was anything of hers I wished to have. Slightly embarrassed I asked, "Would it be all right if I kept Joe?"

"Oh yes, you can have Joe," she said, knowing exactly what I was talking about.

So I wake up every morning seeing a wastebasket named Joe. Joe is one frog who will never become a prince, but he has graduated from wastebasket to living-room work of art, an acceptable outcome for a wicker reptile.

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