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Attic of the Mind: Boxes, Fossils and a Tide Drowse┬«

July 29, 2013

MINNETONKA, MINN.—Yesterday, I pushed, shoved, dropped and carried down well over 100 empty boxes from the attic rafters of my parents’ garage. One by one, they crashed and piled up on the concrete floor below.  You see, at 90 (“Daddy”) and 82 (“Momma”), my folks are getting along in their years. My mother finally asked for help to rid the garage attic of the fire hazard that she’d accumulated over the past 40-some years. Her bum knee has kept her from scaling the ladder-like steps for who knows how long. She’d forgotten what exactly lay hidden above.  She’s a packrat. To ease her anxiety, I promised to only remove the empty boxes.

It’s the end of July, but here in Minnesota, the temperature hovered in the upper sixties thanks to a Canadian cold front. Regardless, the black asphalt shingles of the garage absorbed the heat of sun’s rays and created a sauna beneath. I swept the hair off my neck and clipped it on top of my head.  As I dug through the clutter on the stuffy attic, beads of sweat gathered on my scalp and I repeatedly bumped my knot of hair against the collar beams overhead. 

These are a few of the forgotten items I discovered in my parent’s garage attic:

  • 50-plus National Geographic Magazine annual indexes
  • Two red plastic and one bashed-up metal flying saucer sleds
  • Four amputated wooden table legs, each as slender as a cat’s foreleg with a talon clutching a clear crystal ball
  • A silver-metal roasting pan with a finely scratched patina from Grandma Johnson's (my dad's mother) farm kitchen in Iowa.
  • Four foam cushions from the living room sofa that my mother had replaced with firmer ones at my father’s request
  • A box labeled Miriam, the youngest of my three sisters, that contained a cobalt blue corked bottle, a script for “Six Degrees of Separation” and other pre-marriage possessions
  • Another box mummified in clear plastic packing tape from Scottsdale, Arizona, received after my maternal grandmother’s passing in the early 1990s and labeled: Burge: Needlework/cloth picture. Diane: Single cup and saucer. Wendy: Ethnic dolls. Janey: ______
  • A 50-foot yellow nylon tow rope, two large plastic Thermoses, an old soot-covered metal cook kit, two Styrofoam coolers, a box of tire chains, three disintegrating bathroom rugs, a full-size, fat brown wooden barrel filled with packing peanuts…

You get the idea.

Back on the ground, I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the back of my leather work glove. With my trusty utility knife in hand, I began to slice open each box with the determination of a surgeon conducting life-saving appendectomies. I started with the largest that had once contained a bean bag chair and I worked my way down to the tiniest that had held a votive candle from Lillian Vernon, one of the many mail-order companies my mother favored. Over the next three hours, I cut— ripped if necessary—collapsed and folded.

As I examined each box, it occurred to me that I held in my hands the shells of objects, many likely dead long ago. I would wager (my father taught me not to bet unless I had hard evidence that could guarantee a win) that most of the corpses still lay cocooned somewhere in the house: buried in a closet, under a bed or tucked in the kitchen dishwasher that I have no recollection of ever working. Did I mention that my mother is a packrat?

One by one, I peered intently at these shells of boxes, each offering a glimpse into my family’s history since moving into the four-bedroom rambler in 1968. I had to take photos. I had to document this event. I had to be sure others understood that I did not take for granted the passing of these artifacts from today’s garage attic into tomorrow’s recycling truck. Each box buoyed a memory, a feeling, an era—but by cutting, crushing and binding them with twine I sank them into oblivion, never to surface for air again. I can only imagine if my mother had supervised me during the purge—which she no doubt might have been tempted to do—how she would’ve winced and groaned as I tore into and crushed these Gulliver-Johnson family totems.

For a break, my dad offered me a bowl of ice cream topped with the Finnish raspberries he’d picked that morning from the back yard. As he poured Half-and-Half over the top of it all, he asked, “Have you ever seen the fossilized beaver holes at the Agate Fossil Beds museum?” “It’s in the far northwest corner of Nebraska,” my mother piped in. No, not lately. My father, a retired Honeywell research physicist and currently an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota’s Geology Department, described the unusual prehistoric rock.

The fossil of a beaver’s tunnel does not resemble a hollow tube. Instead, it preserves the form of the empty space within the walls. “It filled up with organic muck and then minerals...” As my father spoke, I imagined the oversized rodent’s spirit swimming through the tunnel of stone, disappointed when it popped out the other end inside a museum instead of its stick and mud house. Then I thought of the empty boxes. Objects no longer swam inside them either. Given enough time, they too might succumb to decay as their cuboidal spaces fill with detritus, become petrified and end up in a museum about which future beings would speculate—that is, if I weren’t already in the process of demolishing them.

And, so, in the passing of these artifacts and the fossils of their memories, I document a few of them here for anyone who has a soft spot for nostalgia and for a family whose patriarchs’ remaining days are palpably finite.

Veg-O-Matic and Mac mini

If you remember the television sales line, “…but wait, there’s more!” you’re familiar with the Veg-O-Matic. Ron “Ronco” Popeil hawked this and dozens of other inventions on television in its hay day. “It slices! It dices!” My mother picked up this one at the Minnesota State Fair when it first came out in the 1960s. This is the first, original box design. It has since gone through multiple mutations. Contrast this pre-Cuisinart gadget with my father’s recent purchase of a Mac mini to use as a backup for his research on climate and Viking history. My, how the times do change.

Zenith® The quality goes in before the name goes on.

And what quality there was in the TransOceanic® R7000 High Performance 12 Band (AM/FM/AIR/PSH/LW/SW-1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) Portable Radio! This brings back memories of an even older radio that sat in our basement when I was a young child. The dark, walnut console was big—nearly as tall as me—with a horizontal backlit dial that glowed in the dark. Before I was born, Grandps Gulliver (my mom's father) gave the top-of-the-line 1930s radio to my folks when they moved from New Jersey to Minnesota. It sat in the basement of their first house on South Arbor Lane, a little rambler designed by my mother and constructed by a Swedish builder. I liked to twist one of the two large nobs to move the needle back and forth through the static in search of foreign accents, often speaking indecipherable languages from the other side of the globe. Sometimes I would pretend that I could hear aliens from outer space as they plotted to take over Earth. Clearly I’d watched too many Twilight Zone episodes. While I was away at college in Colorado, my father gave it to his good friend, Dick George. Dick was also a Honeywell co-worker and a ham radio operator who collected such machines. When his wife later cleaned out their basement, he sold his whole radio collection to someone out East. My oldest sister, Diane, wished that she could've kept our grandfather's radio. Me too.

Avalon GIANT VALUE 3002-6 Paint-By-Number Set

I don’t know anyone who grew up in the 1970s who didn’t own at least one paint-by-number set, be it a landscape, a horse or a doe-eyed cartoon cat. I was no exception. By the looks of the box, however, I had dreams of making money with my paint-by-number set. (Or, perhaps the set belonged to Diane who was quite fond of horses and owned several fine plastic models.) No, I didn’t plan on raking in the dough by selling the paintings. If you flip the box over you can see I created a clown-faced bean bag toss game. I used this for one of the many kitschy activities for a Muscular Dystrophy Carnival. Remember watching Casey Jones’s noontime show on WTCN, Channel 11 and seeing Jerry Lewis during the commercial breaks as he cajoled you to raise money for “Jerry’s kids”? I wrote to the address on the screen and ordered a Muscular Dystrophy Association Carnival Kit. For weeks I waited eagerly for it to arrive in the mail. Before the end of the summer, I hosted a carnival in our driveway and on the front lawn complete with a fortune teller tent, lemonade stand, fish pond—and the clown bean bag toss. (Now you can go online, request a kit on a CD-ROM! Gee-whiz! Neato!)

Play Family Sesame Street and Circus Train

My youngest sister, Miriam, was born in 1972 when I was 10 years old. I admit when my parents gave her these awesome toys in 1975 and 1976, I turned a tad bit green. I loved playing—with my sister—and making Bert and Ernie visit Mr. Hooper’s store, hiding cookies from Cookie Monster and singing songs with Susan, Gordon and Big Bird. And who couldn’t resist the lovable Oscar the Grouch in his own garbage can with the pop up lid? Now, Miriam’s son and daughter play with these same sets when they visit Grandma and Grandpa.  Note: “For Boys & Girls ages 2-8”—Even back then, Fisher-Price Toys knew better than to market a train set only to boys.

Free ‘N Easy Handbag Kit from Tandy. This Kit Contains INSTANT PRIDE!

My sister, Janey, who is four years older than me, ordered this kit and created her own beautiful, hand-crafted Free ‘N Easy purse—with pride. Janey was into art. She was into all kinds of art. She built a four-turret wooden castle for Miriam, batiked her own matching skirt and blouse in five shades of vining green, sculpted and fired a self-portrait bust and constructed “the frog pond” in our back yard— double concrete-lined pools with cattails surrounded with native plants, such as yellow moccasins, rue anemone and wild asparagus. Janey was industrious. Creative. Determined. I’m guessing she ordered this kit as an introduction to leather work because she later designed and constructed her own fringed buckskin purse and a vest to display the beads she’d earned in Campfire Girls. Today, Janey carves letters and relief figures in stone for churches, synagogues, universities and tombstones in the Twin Cities and as far away as the Arch Diocese in Kansas City.  Just think, every day, a red-robed cardinal sits his butt down on a stone throne she carved. Perhaps those two simple words, INSTANT PRIDE! helped instill—or at the minimum, reinforce— the gumption it required for Janey to develop into the artist she is today.

The Original TOW VIEW MIRROR by Peterson

Every August our family embarked on a two-week road trip “Out West.” Our preferred over-night accommodation consisted of a rented tent trailer that slept six, plus one when Miriam was born. To pull the trailer, my dad had to equip our Vista Cruiser station wagon with two rear-view mirrors. They stuck out like a pair of giant’s ears. This box once contained one of those towing mirrors, purchased from the Coast To Coast store in Worland. I must ask my father if he remembers exactly why he bought it in the center of Wyoming, no doubt en route from the Big Horns to Thermopolis where my brother, Burgess, and my two older sisters would ride the Screaming Mimi. (I was too small, young or chicken to ride the rickety wooden toboggan as it careened down a narrow-gage track on the side of a hill and into a small hot springs pool.) We likely lost a mirror to a loose screw or a careless driver—surely not Burgess—who got too close to one of our ears. I remember Burgess with his freshly minted driver’s license behind the wheel as my dad coached from the front passenger seat. My mother, Diane, Janey, Miriam and I sat quietly in the back so he could concentrate. Burgess learned how to carefully back into a tight gravel parking spot at Sitting Bull campground without jack knifing or bashing the log back stop. He discovered how tricky it was to keep the ship steady in a cross wind on the high plains between Lander and Rawlins. I wonder what it felt like to have your parents entrust you with such precious cargo at such a young age.

Computermate™ Floppy Disk Organizer: Holds 72 Floppy Disks

What say you? What is a floppy disk? Imagine a 5.25” diameter piece of black plastic shaped like a record—oh, what is a record? Vinyl. Am I speaking your language now? So, imagine this little piece of plastic that was not hard like a vinyl record of yore, but, well, somewhat floppy. It was invented to store your digital files so you could transport them from one computer to the other. Each floppy held a whopping 1.2 MB (according to all-knowing Wikipedia). That’s the equivalent to about eight of the photos I’ve posted in this essay. Gee willikers! That’s powerful! Well, for the mid-1980s it was powerful. I imagine that my parents’ old floppies are still tucked nicely away in this organizer  in a box in a drawer in a cabinet in a room in the house for safe keeping. Just in case. You never know.  Which leads me to a situation that justifies my mother’s urge to ratpack… I used to have a word processing business for writers in the early 1990s—writers of fiction, memoir and in one case, borderline non-fiction porn. Recently I received an email from a former client, a lovely Irish woman, asking if I could help her on a legal issue. The inspector on her case emailed and later phoned me from Dublin, asking if could remember typing a certain document for the lovely Irish woman—23 years ago. I can’t remember what I typed yesterday, let alone 8,395 yesterdays ago! And alas, in 1999 when I officially closed the business—thinking I would protect my clients’ privacy because I had no business keeping their intellectual property in my possession beyond a reasonable time for business use—I destroyed all my clients’ floppy disks. If only I had stowed those darn floppies away. Just in case. Just in this case. If I had, I could have given the inspector an unequivocal answer—or perhaps earned a few extra bucks by conducting a salacious blackmail scheme.

WESTCLOX Electric Alarm

One question: What is a “Tide Drowse”?





By now, the recycling truck has picked up the half-dozen bundles of cardboard I tied up with the help of my father’s exquisitely knobby index finger pressing the string against the cardboard so I could tie a tight square knot. The boxes are, as they say, history. They are history, at least 11 of them are history as I have just recorded their images and stories for you here. The remaining boxes? Gone. Soon they’ll turn into a pasty, watery mush and form new boxes for new objects and quite possibly—at least there’s a sliver of a chance—they will end up empty in my attic until forty years from now when my son or daughter tosses them from the rafters and… Did I mention that I’m a packrat?