By Edith Rylander
I know a man who has terrible problems throwing things out.
Coffee cans, for instance. He still has a few of the old metal ones, the ones you open with a can opener. They eventually rust out, but it might take four or five years. Metal coffee cans are used in and around his garden, as seed carriers or water scoops. There is usually an old one set in the shade with dirt in it. Earthworms encountered in the process of gardening get tossed into the big worm can.
Why buy bait if the garden gives it to you free?
When it’s time to go fishing, a smaller can becomes the worm-carrier for the boat.
At a certain point in time, the metal coffee can started arriving in the store with a plastic lid which would close it after the metal lid was cut away. Coffee cans with plastic lids hold the garden seed, also corks, and rubber lids for juice bottles, and quite a few staples in the kitchen cupboard.
Yes, this fellow’s wife—me—also has trouble throwing things out.
Now metal coffee cans have been replaced (or, in this household, joined) by plastic coffee cans. Plastic cans will probably not last as long, but they have that handy bump in the side you can hang onto, so they’re easier to carry one-handed.
“Just think,” my thrifty spouse will say, holding an empty coffee can in hand, “What a marvelously useful thing this would have been to an Ojibwe woman in the 17th century!”
So, can by can, the shelves fill up. Ultimately, more cans come into the household than there are uses for cans.
“But they’re so handy!” says the partner, and tucks a few empties up onto the shelf, saving them for a rainy day.
I’ve been talking only about coffee cans, but all kinds of other sturdy containers are hard to throw out. Where would any Minnesota house keeper be without plastic ice cream pails? Instant coffee mixes come in containers of a handy size. Wet wipes come in neat little boxes.
They’ll come in handy some day, and they don’t take up that much room. Yet.
Some people collect margarine bowls. After the passing of a beloved family member, I found on her shelf a collection of about thirty plastic dishes. When I looked at them closely, I could see embossed letters reading, “Dairy Queen.”
A friend of my vintage said to me recently, “It’s hard for people who grew up during the Depression to know when things are worn out.”
I grew up in a household where my grandmother always had mendets handy.
I’m not sure if I’m spelling “mendets” right, but I remember them, and indeed a few years ago I ran across a card of them, in a box of odds and ends I’d bought at an auction. A mendet is like a little metal rivet. One part of it goes in the bottom of the pot, where use has worn a hole. The other part goes on the outside. They cinch down together, and the pot is mended.
I suppose most Americans under 50 (under 60?) cannot imagine using a pot till you wear a hole in it. But my grandmother showed me how to use mendets when I was a little girl. It was during World War II, and aluminum and tin and steel were going to the war effort. Before that it had been the Depression, and people used things literally till they wore out.
Have I ever used a mendet? No. But it still bothers me to throw things out. Especially when what’s thrown out is new, and sturdy, and would really be handy, if we didn’t already have three boxes full.
For years I saved mayonnaise jars, back when mayonnaise jars were made of glass. You could put a canning lid on them, too. And I did, despite the warnings from the state extension office that mayonnaise jars are not satisfactory canning jars. The glass is too thin and likely to crack. Also an annoying number of them have non-standard threading, which is really infuriating when you have already filled the jar with applesauce or tomatoes, and then the lid won’t fit properly.
Still, I couldn’t throw out all those free jars.
After enough lids had refused to seal, after enough full jars had broken in the water bath canner or exploded in the pressure cooker, I decided that the extension office was right.
I sorted out all the mayonnaise jars, I sent them to the recycler, and I have managed to resist the temptation to accumulate anymore.
Anymore mayonnaise jars, that is. Coffee cans, that’s different.