Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Memory Remains

A few nights ago, I watched Coraline with my kids.

This was a mistake.

Not that Coraline isn't a good movie. It is. But it scared the daylights out of Lilly. The scene where Coraline returns from the Other Mother's world to find her parents gone - a bag of long-rotting veggies on the table - was the real kicker.

Coraline was alone. No one was there to take care of her, or tell her that everything would be okay. It's a terrifying prospect.

Later that night, Lilly asked me to tell her the most terrifying movie I'd seen at her age. I think she takes comfort in the knowledge that I was once afraid, too.

And I was. I remember a movie frightening me in the exact same way.

Time Bandits. An excellent movie. A hilarious movie. That ends with this:

Just like Coraline, Kevin finds himself alone in the world. The prospect petrified me. It kept me up at night. Just like Coraline is now keeping Lilly up at night, waiting for me to get into my own bed where she can see that I am still there. That I haven't left her. That I haven't disappeared at the whim of pure evil.


A few days after we watched Coraline and discussed the toaster oven that contained the a chunk of evil that whisked parents away to nothingness, our toaster oven broke. For a day, it limped along, toasting only the bottoms of our Eggos and warming - but not browning - the cheese on our nachos. It was a circumstance I was willing to live with, given my feelings about this particular toaster.

But then it gave up entirely. Kaput. The little red light goes on, but nothing warms.

It made me sad. Beyond what one would consider normal grief for a minor household appliance. Not because I would now have to get a new one - that's a pretty minor annoyance - but because of the toaster's origins.

It was a wedding gift.

After my husband and I got engaged, we went to Bed, Bath & Beyond and were duly armed with a UPC gun that allowed us to wander through the store making a wedding registry. While I spent my time making important life decisions about whether we should go with sage or seafoam, my husband headed straight for the toaster aisle declaring that - whatever else happened - our lives would be incomplete without a toaster oven.

I was dubious. Maybe because of Time Bandits. Maybe because my mom purchased a toaster oven soon after we watched Time Bandits and - on what might have been its maiden toasting - it set a tortilla aflame. In that moment, as my mom approached the appliance intent on putting out the fire, I believed - with 100% certainty - that she would open the oven and simply disappear.

Which, to my great relief, she did not. But it didn't matter. I never trusted that toaster oven again.

So, when Rick wanted to put a toaster oven on our registry, I checked to see if they came in green, determined that they did not, and left the rest up to him. Wasn't my thing.


The toaster oven was purchased for us by Betty and John L. Friends of our family, they came into our lives - to the best of my recollection - when I was in the third grade. About Lilly's current age. They often took care of us when my parents were away. Betty always told us that John L - a mechanic for American Airlines - would personally check out the plane our parents took when they flew away. At some point I must have realized that that left all the connecting flights uncovered, but it remained a comfort.

And Betty cared. She always knew what we were up to and how we were doing. She gave us hugs and ate lunch with us when we visited my father at work, and she was always there with a note or a card when we passed milestones like birthdays and graduations. When I got married, she bought the toaster oven off of our registry, delighting my husband. I told her how overjoyed he was and she told me she was glad, and that they'd gotten it because toaster ovens were, in fact, very useful appliances.

Which, of course, they are. We used it all the time. So much so that, in these days of designed obsolescence, it amazes me that it lasted eleven years. For the most part. The handle only lasted seven. We persevered.

Just about every time I used the toaster, I thought of Betty and John L. It became bittersweet for a while because - not long after our wedding - Betty died when the car she was in was struck by a drunk driver. The toaster made me sad then, too. I'd use it and wonder why something so unfair had to happen to such a wonderful person.

There is, of course, no answer to that question. There never is. Bad things happen and people disappear.

I don't remember when exactly, but time passed and it once again became sweet to be reminded of a wonderful woman who had been a caring presence through my childhood and early adult years. Someone who was interested, and was willing to take care of me when my parents went away.


And so - at the end of this toaster-oven's use life - I am sad.

Not for the oven itself, of course. But because I realize that - strange as it sounds - part of the joy of this toaster oven is the memories that came with it. Harkening back to my days studying archaeology, I can put a name to it. Ideofunction: When an artifact encodes or symbolizes ideas, values, knowledge and so forth, it is said to be serving an ideofunction (Skibo and Shiffer 2008:110).

This toaster oven was more than just a toaster to me. It toasted things and it was a symbol. It helped me remember a good woman.


Sometimes people disappear. Not because they touch a fragment of pure evil smouldering in a toaster oven, or because a Beldam traps them in a snowglobe. They die, they move away, they simply become busy with other things and make choices that lead them down paths that no longer converge.

This is one of the great terrors of life. For children and adults.

And one of the comforts is knowing that, should your parents go missing, there is someone in the world who will step up and try to make things okay. And - even if they can't make things okay - they will try. Someone who tells you - when your parents fly off on a plane - that nothing bad could possibly happen because John L checked to make sure that the plane was working right.

As a child, I had many people that would have stepped up if my parents had inexplicably touched the evil in the toaster oven. I was lucky that way. It is still a comfort to remember them as I move through life.

Even adults need to believe someone will be there for them.

It is strange, perhaps, to keep your memories of someone in something as mundane as a toaster oven. But it is nice, too, because you get to think of them every time you make nachos. In that way it is better than keeping your memories of them in something precious and rarely seen.

In a few days, I'll go to a store and buy a new toaster oven. Maybe - eleven years on - I can find one in sage or seafom. Or maybe not. Either way, I'll buy it, and bring it home, and - probably - I'll think about Betty as I do all those things.

And, knowing me, I'll go right ahead and think of her when I use the new toaster oven, too. That's the thing about symbols. You can make them for yourself out of anything you want. You can put them in mundane places so that the memories are never too far away.

I find great comfort in that.