He tried. But it wasn’t the right can opener.
I’ve opened a few cans of worms in my life. You’ve been there–out of curiosity, a game of poke the bear, or sometimes you are clueless about the effect your words or actions may have on others. It’s a tricky one, balancing between thinking you’re over-important and being aware of the feelings of those around you.
On some level I’m writing about how our little seemingly insignificant actions can have really heavy consequences for the ones we love. On another level, I am actually writing about a can opener.
As a kid, one of my primary caregivers was my great aunt Ann. We never had to go to daycare or have babysitters because Ann would watch my brothers and me. She taught me how to read and braided my hair, so I was her biggest fan. She completed her high school education—not a lot of women did that in rural Minnesota back in the day. She loved to read and was also a writer; she kept these amazing little notebooks of what we kids were up to, our progress at school, and funny things we would say. Like my older brother, “Timmy” in the notebooks, went through a phase where he insisted on calling me a “Peterson Girl” whenever I wore this little cream-colored beret. He’s in his 40s and we still have no idea where that came from…
Ann’s husband was killed in a car accident when they were young. Since she never remarried or had any children of her own, the great nieces and nephews were her grandkids. Her loved of children extended to being a Bible school teacher and a Girl Scout troop leader. She also drove a ’49 Mercury. Imagine being a little kid tooling around town in the 80s in that old car. Ralph Nadar be damned–no seat belts in that ride! Not that the lack of seat belts really mattered. She drove in the exact manner one would expect an older lady to drive: cautious and clam, yet defensive. The large, thin steering wheel was what I remember the best.
I’m sure there were many brief discussions over the years about getting a different vehicle, but Ann never was one to need to replace something if it worked. She was a child of the Depression and could make everything last longer than anyone thought possible.
Anyone here make their daily driver last 40 years? Saves every plastic tub from the store–why would you BUY plastic storage containers when you get one every time you buy cottage cheese? She even used an old wringer washing machine, like the 50s never happened.
It wasn’t like she was stuck in a time warp, it was just who she was and what she valued.
It was a shock when she got sick and my adolescent brain was alternately confused and angry. She was one of the good ones. She didn’t waste anything, ever. She not only went to church, but she taught classes and was in those ladies groups. She helped with Christmas programs and Girl Scouts. And now she had to lie in a bed in a nursing home for however long the He/She/It Ann spent her life serving decided. She’d had a stroke, which eventually meant that part of a leg had to be amputated, but immediately meant that she could no longer speak. The voice that helped teach me to find my voice was silenced, replaced by taps and attempts at pointing on a picture board.
My mother, another relative, and I spent many hours cleaning out Ann’s house when she first moved into the nursing home. It’s always the same story when one doesn’t have the long-term care insurance; the bills were mounting, so the assets needed to be sold.
I still dream about being in that house. The laundry shoot, the pull down ladder from the attic, and the pantry for canned (canned at home, people) goods in the basement. A single garage just big enough for the Mercury, standard living room, two bedrooms, and a single bathroom with only a tub, no shower. I’m not sure how a relator would spin it into magic—post-war charm?
But the kitchen was really cool. Not because of the spill over of Ann’s sizable salt and pepper shaker collection or the big table she kept, even though she lived by herself. Again, it was the old stuff that got me. The stove from the 40s, those mountains of reusable margarine containers, lightly-stained cabinets with their sensible hardware, and the laminate countertops with the metal edging. The ladies said if there was anything I wanted, I should just ask. Since I wasn’t sure where we would put the stove, I figured scoring a few of Ann’s super cool kitchen utensils would be appropriate. I spent more time baking and cooking with my biological grandmothers, but they were both a bit more modern, so going through Ann’s stuff was really treasure hunting.
I didn’t want to seem pushy, weird, or any of those other things a teenaged girl is concerned with, so I selected only two items. Naturally. they were weird: a potato masher and a can opener. I didn’t use the potato masher for a good ten years or so, but it makes the best mashed potatoes. For years I didn’t think I liked mashed potatoes. Least favorite thing about Thanksgiving: Mashed potatoes. I think I picked the potato masher because the mint green paint on the handle was boss. Years later, I learned that I liked boiled potatoes, with the skins on, with a little butter and cream, mashed with that potato masher. Skins and lumpy. Who knew? I guess Ann did.
The can opener was old school, plain silver with a church key. That was how she opened cans of pineapple and drained the juice first, so I wanted it.
The can opener lived many places with me and was used a lot. It was the most simple, sturdy thing in my life and I thought of Ann every time I used it. When life was shitty, I wasn’t cooking much and I didn’t want to think of Ann when opening bottles, so I got a key ring opener for that. During those times, the can opener went to the back of the messy kitchen drawer.
When life got better and stayed better, I started cooking more and cans of tomatoes and beans needing opening for some crock pot wonder or chili. And every single turn, the can opener worked like a charm. It wasn’t rusted over or cranky, it just was. I have no idea when or where she bought it, but it certainly inspires the idea that “they don’t make things the way they used to.”
But one day the can opener was gone. I tore the kitchen apart, inexplicably wondering how I could have misplaced The Can Opener. Ann’s Can Opener. The thing that reminded me of her with every good turn.
I asked Man Friend and his reply was easy enough. He’d taken it to a job site because he grabbed a can of tuna to make a sandwich. He must have left it there. It was at a friend’s place. It was no big deal. He would get it back.
I was standing in my kitchen, crying about a can opener.
I don’t know how effective, “But it was Ann’s, Ann’s” really is through snotty tears. Maybe someday he will see this. That was well over a year ago.
He tried to make it right. He brought home a can opener.
“This is the only one that was there.”
I appreciated the effort that Man Friend made to console me about this seemingly meaningless object.
But it wasn’t Ann’s. It was shiny. It turned so much harder. It wasn’t a full church key.
Photo: Two Bitches and Jules
This post originally appeared on Two Bitches & Jules.