Breathing the Past

I don’t know where the old tin came from. Maybe it held cookies once upon a time, a gift to my parents. I suspect it was found in the old house when they first moved in. (A lot of things were left behind by the previous owner(s), much of it junk, but a few treasures like the full-sized pedestal mirror I still have, a handful of antique clothes irons (the sort that needs to be heated on the stove before using), a quilting frame, and old ice skates that tied on to one’s boots.)

My mom was a great one for keeping tins and reusing them; it was the Yankee in her. In our home, the adage “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was a rule to live by. An old toffee tin held bobby pins and those plastic picks to secure curlers. A large rectangular cookie tin held the curlers themselves. There was one for paperclips, one for rubber bands, one for spare bobbins for her sewing machine.

And one for my crayons.

I started drawing at an early age, and Mom encouraged it; partly for the artistic aspect, I suppose, but mostly because it kept me quiet and out of her hair. Give me enough paper and that collection of crayons and I would entertain myself for hours, and I became a purist early on. It must be Crayolas! None of those cheap crayons with their anemic colors, thank you very much! I wanted vibrancy! Ardor! Passion!

Back then, color names were sensible and understandable, none of today’s “Macaroni and Cheese,” “Neon Carrot,” “Inch Worm,” and “Timberwolf.” Instead, we had “Turquoise Blue,” “Violet,” “Melon,” and “Red Orange.” And, heck, we didn’t need names, we knew what they were, and what we wanted when we drew.

“We” here means me and my bestie, David Micklas, who I recently reconnected with (and wrote about) after something like 50 years apart. Dave and I mostly made Christmas cards together, four-square folded 8 1/2 x 11 paper drawn with reindeer, holly, snowmen, candy canes, fireplaces with stockings, trees…whatever images personified Christmas for us. I remember he also drew a lot of cars, which didn’t particular interest me, and I drew far too many horses, which likely didn’t interest him, but what was important was the act of creation and the fact that we were doing it together, often in silence, but also punctuated by bits of the sort of conversation experienced by only the very best of friends.

One year, Mom brought home a Christmas-themed coloring book, and I was over the moon! There was something special about that book – the line drawings inside were intricate, not childish, and I spent hours pouring over it, coloring in each one just so, endeavoring to stay within the lines, to create on the page what I imagined in my head. I loved that book and was sad when I’d filled it with color cover to cover. Mom hung on to it for years afterward, but it eventually went into the trash when she and Dad moved house. In fairness, she did ask if I wanted it, but I said no. I wish now I hadn’t.

Though I no longer have that much-loved book, I do still have the tin of crayons. A few are more modern, bits of color purchased for my nephews, now grown, who used the tin after I’d left my parents house. But some of the crayons are from when I was a kid. Like me, they’re a bit old and battered, their paper torn, some of them worn away to a nub. “Salmon.” “Yellow Green.” “Gray.” The coveted “Silver” and “Gold” we saved for Christmas. And precious few reds and greens, those having been sacrificed long ago to the holiday.

Every so often, I take the tin down from the shelf in my office where it lives just to lift the lid, bend down, and inhale that unique, heady odor; a big breath of the past.

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