Here's an exercise for you. Think of a thing that appears every day in your life, and then write down all the memories that you can associate with it. Or the first few.
I'm going to do "Refrigerator."
For me the refrigerator has many associations. We'll start with Crystal Lake. We had a big refrigerator in our house there. In the winter of 1949-1950, one of the coldest on record, my mother went on a business trip with my father. She had just come through a radical mastectomy and needed cheering up, so he took her to New Orleans for the month of February. While they were gone a friend of theirs, a widow, moved in with my sister and me along with her two sons, boys about our age. Boys in the house! Neat! Mrs. Houlberg made us hot cocoa every morning for breakfast, and squeezed us fresh orange juice, too, until the refrigerator went on the fritz. It wouldn't stop chilling. The oranges froze. I can still remember the look on that dear lady's face when she took the rock-hard oranges out of the fridge. How was the problem solved? I don't know. I was just a kid. The frozen oranges were probably simply tolerated until my parents came home, and then we just moved to Plainfield and left the refrigerator behind.
That's one refrigerator story. Then there's my Canadian grandmother's ice box. A man came around every couple of days with a big block of ice to keep it cold, and in the meantime a pan underneath had to be emptied of melting water, usually by me. When my mother got a new electric refrigerator (where were we living then? I can't remember) she gave the old one to Granny. How they got it up to Canada I don't know. Things like that just happened when we were little. Entire households of furniture were whisked thousands of miles across country as if by magic. One small refrigerator with a tiny ice compartment for ice and frozen food could hardly have presented a problem to the moving elves. You know what I wonder? I wonder whether the march of electric refrigerators didn't tear a little hole in the social fabric. No more ice man. That's one person you don't interact with anymore. Add to that the disappearance of the bread man, the milkman, the Fuller Brush man, and the knife grinder, and pretty soon you're all by yourself in this wicked world.
When first we moved to Plainfield, having left Crystal Lake, the refrigerator in our apartment was amazing. It used to make loud noises and walk across the floor. It ran on gas. I don't know whether you can still get a gas refrigerator, but this one was a doozy. We would be sitting at the kitchen table having supper when the thing would start up, chugga-chugga, and begin to stagger across the linoleum. The noise it made evoked a make-and-break boat engine, so that my father would spout nautical lingo at us while we ate. He had been in the Navy, you know. Also he was very witty. I wish I could remember exactly what it was that he said.
Many years later, after the collapse of my first marriage, I took an apartment in Trenton whose landlords furnished it with a castoff refrigerator refurbished by Goodwill. Why not? They weren't paying the electric bill. It was the seventies, I was reinventing myself as a Hippie, and so I painted this antiquated refrigerator bordello purple and stuck Peter Max white doves all over the door. That was the year that the water in Trenton all ran out of the reservoir and back into the Delaware River, you may recall, due to the malicious actions of a disgruntled water department employee. What water you could get out of the taps wasn't fit to drink. I knew that, but nevertheless I had a cup of coffee at a coffee shop on Hanover Street, not thinking until later that their coffee maker might not heat the water long enough to sterilize it. Within weeks I had a full-blown case of Type A Hepatitis.
I understand that people get sent to the hospital for that, but not me. Nobody told me to go, and I couldn't afford it in any case. There's nothing you can do for Hepatitis A anyway besides rest and maintain a good diet. I lay on the sofa and watched TV, stumbling out to the kitchen from time to time to feed myself. The first thing that happened was that the refrigerator died.
So I called the landlords, and they had another second-hand refrigerator trucked over from the Goodwill. But the guys who delivered it refused to take the old one away, simply pushing it into the middle of the kitchen floor and leaving it there. I was quite unfit to do anything about it for a month and a half, during which time it sat in the middle of my kitchen floor, horribly purple, growing more and more stinky while I lay on the sofa. So much for my dream of the artistic life.
It's possible to make other associations with refrigerators, ones not associated with my personal affairs. I could meditate on the invention of refrigeration itself, surely a revolution in food storage. And again, a small tear in the social fabric, for it is no longer necessary to go the market every day and talk to the butcher and the grocer. Or I could discuss refrigerators in the movies. 9 1/2 Weeks. Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger standing in front of the refrigerator doing lewd things with the food.
If you want to you can do the exercise, and if you like what you come up with, send it to me to run on the blog. Try one of the following: Front door, Automobile, Dog, Dining table, Kitchen sink. Or something else entirely. Pick an object and riff on it. See what shakes out.
© 2015 Kate Gallison