My mother’s kitchen cabinets are eleven inches deep. As compared with other more modern cabinetry in the neighborhood, they are shallow, falling one to three inches short of the contemporary industry standard. To describe their interior space as crowded is as if to say the same of Times Square on New Years Eve.
The cabinets were installed in 1970, after she and my grandmother discovered a large sum of my late grandfather’s cash wedged into the pages of one of his novels. I picture them falling to the floor in tears and laughter—neither woman was fond of the man. To spite his insistence on a bright, sterile home, they used this money to remodel the kitchen into darkness—black counter tops, deep cherry cabinetry, beet-red wallpaper—hoping to erase the evidence of his presence. Since then, the kitchen and the cabinets have remained untouched.
Life has arranged the cabinets’ contents into layers, from the familiar to the archaic. The first layer consists of everyday items: the mugs with rings of coffee stains an inch below the rim, a rainbow of plastic cereal bowls purchased from the dollar store, a motley stack of ceramic dishes—the orphans of innumerable sets of flatware. These items are intimate and worn with use. Their cracks and flaws are comforting, and we find ourselves often reaching for the chipped mug with sharp edges that occasionally cut our tongues, because it is predictable. It has nursed us through years of hard, tired mornings. Through the flux of these moments, the cracked mug tethers us to the familiar.
Behind these objects, the second layer sits idle, waiting: virtually unused dishes reserved for extra guests, ice cream bowls set aside for late July, novelty mugs with price tags still stuck to their bases. This layer often inspires nostalgia. It reminds us of Thanksgiving dinners and birthday parties and childhood trips to the Empire State Building. These are saved for special occasions because overuse would rape them of their sentiment and leave them for ordinary. We depend on these items to transport us to a different time and place. We can see them when we open the cabinet doors, stoic behind our everyday dishes, but they beg to be left alone.
What lies beyond this nostalgia are the depths of the cabinets we may not wish to reveal. They are the thick patches of the woods that begin to block out the sun; we look back from this thickness, and we can barely see the clearing from which we came. My curiosity had led me to clean out one of the cabinets, only once, anticipating that my mother’s tendency to horde would greatly affect what I would find. After removing the first two layers of contents, I was faced with a cluster of random objects, many of which were caked in a residue of disuse: shot glasses, faded grocery receipts, a snow globe, a vile of vanilla extract stuck to the surface of the shelf. Behind everything, in the furthermost corner, a bottle of prescription pills dated July 1977 stared out at me. This bottle predated my birth by three years. I pulled it from its corner and shook it; pills rattled against its sides. I imagined it had been thrown back there and forgotten long ago. I had the urge to pocket the bottle and bring it to my own home to display as an artifact. “I found this in the back of my mother’s kitchen cabinet,” I would say. “It’s from nineteen seventy-seven. Isn’t that crazy?”
I stared at the bottle for a moment, suddenly feeling the weight of three decades in my hand. Excavating the bottle could have dangerous repercussions. What would take its spot? Would its removal send waves through the intricate system in place? Who was I to start that revolution? I placed the bottle back in its corner and hastily returned all eleven inches of family history, careful to the order in which it was removed. Shutting the dark cabinet doors I felt secure in that the forgotten bottle remained forgotten, the delicate ecosystem still intact.