Hands on my hips and determination in my eyes, I stood in the middle of our family room and stared at the clutter.
Stacks of newspapers folded to the restaurant or travel section leaned sideways in one corner. Piles of cooking magazines peeped from beneath the sofa, magazines dating from when the senior Bush banished broccoli from the White House. Videotapes of "Heidi" and favorite "Sesame Street" episodes littered a bookshelf, leftovers from when our 16-year-old was a toddler.The top of the piano overflowed with ancient sheet music.
Overwhelmed by the enormous task of trying to create calm from all this chaos, I was tempted to just rent a bulldozer and push everything out the door and into a Dumpster. But I knew that wasn't an option. I'm married to a man who is attached to these relics. He's convinced that he'll discover a need for something only the day after he's thrown it away.
I looked again at the piano. My husband doesn't play the piano, so surely I could do something there.
Lifting the lid of the piano bench, I discovered it was nearly empty: just a yellowed newspaper and some nursery-school tunes. I tossed the newspaper aside. Then I took the stack of music from the top of the piano, divided it into three piles, laid them in the bench, and closed the lid.
"There," I said aloud, sneezing as I dusted off my hands and smirked at my small - very small - victory over clutter. I picked up the discarded newspaper and was about to throw it in the trash when I noticed something.
Something green. Something like ... money? Cash money? Yes! And was that the numeral 10 in the corner? Puzzled, I slowly withdrew the single bill from the end of the rolled-up newspaper ... and another zero appeared, followed by the face of Ben Franklin.
I stood in the middle of the room holding a $100 bill in one hand and a 10-year-old newspaper in the other.
How had that money gotten there?
Dazed, I dropped the paper and held the hundred in front of me as if it were a candle lighting my way through a dark tunnel. It led me to the telephone, and I called my husband.
"Ah," was all he said when I reported the my find.
"Ah? Is that all you can say? 'Ah,' as in you think I'm crazy, or 'Ah,' as in perhaps you didn't hear me clearly, or 'Ah,' as in you hid it there yourself and know all about it?"
"Well, I guess the last one, but..."
I sputtered about how I'd almost thrown it away, and why had he done such a foolish thing. Where could it possibly have come from, and what could he have been thinking?
Then he interrupted me.
"Remember that night Paul and Sarah, dressed to the nines, appeared on our porch and asked to borrow some money?"
Of course I remembered. We'd laughed about it often during the past decade.
They'd arrived at the home of some business friends for a fancy dinner party and were about to ring the doorbell when they saw their host sitting in a chair watching TV with his two young children. The kids were in pajamas, and the dad wore cut-offs and a torn T-shirt.
Realizing they must have gotten the date wrong, Paul and Sarah tiptoed back down the front steps and sat in their car to rethink their plans for the evening. They already had a babysitter for their own young children, were dressed in their best clothes, and didn't want to waste the chance for a night on the town. But they'd left credit cards at home and had only $30 between them.
Then they remembered that we, their friends, lived just three or four blocks away. Minutes later, they appeared, giggling and embarrassed, beneath our porch light, begging for a loan.
We emptied our wallets and the spare cash drawer, came up with an even hundred, and sent them on their way.
Understanding at last that the mystery bill was payback money, I was still confused. "But how did it get into the old paper in the piano bench?"
"Paul came by to repay us, and no one was home. He put the hundred into the newspaper and left a message on my answering machine, telling me what he'd done. I had something important to do when I got home, so I tossed the paper in the piano bench, figuring I'd take out the hundred bucks later. And...."
"And forgot all about it."
"Uh-huh, sure did."
"Well, I've found wadded-up singles in the clothes dryer, the occasional $5 bill in your shirt pockets, and once I found 20 bucks in your hiking boot, but this tops everything."
"I came within a whisper of throwing it away," I said, as unwilling to let go of the subject as a dog is a bone.
"But now that so much time has passed, it's like free money, isn't it?" he replied. "Why don't you call Paul and Sarah and see if they'd like to go out to dinner with us tonight?"
MY irritation vanished, and I smiled. "Lovely idea," I purred, fingering the greenback. I went upstairs to decide what to wear for an evening out.
Later, I walked by the still-cluttered family room and thought of my mother.
"I like a house that looks lived-in," she'd always said, sometimes using it as an excuse for not being the world's best housekeeper.
I certainly couldn't just toss out all those papers; I'd have to check them first. Who knows what I might discover between the pages of my old Gourmet magazines?
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor