A junk drawer full of treasures

These random knickknacks tell our family's history.

John Kehe and Scott Wallace-staff

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.

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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