story prompt – the toasters

Thinking about that episode at the post office reminded me of a story told by a friend some time ago. Her adult daughter and son-in-law (I’ll call them Janie and Herb) had taken on the job of sorting through the household of his great aunt Mary after her death.

She had been widowed in WWII and never remarried. One of those aunts who never forgets your birthday, remembers that you don’t like strawberry jam with your peanut butter, always comes to weddings, and to help out at funerals. She knows all the family history and is happy to share it with you, if you are interested. She was Herb’s favorite relative, his own maternal grandmother’s sister.

So it was a sad thing for them to be doing. The house was small and neat, but they decided to start by taking inventory, floor by floor. It all went smoothly, boxing up dishes and silverware, books and framed pictures. On the second day they got to the second floor, and that took less time. There was just Aunt Mary’s bedroom and two empty guestbedrooms. They folded all her clothes and bed linens, boxed them up, and then decided to inventory the attic. (This was in Illinois, where most older houses do have attics.)

So they go up the short flight of stairs to the attic, and stop in their tracks.

The whole attic floor, as far as they could see, was covered in shopping bags standing upright. Shopping bags from Sears, Goldblatt’s, Marshall Field’s, Carson Pirie Scott were the ones they recognized. Many from stores long gone. A sales receipt was stapled to every one of the bags, and inside the every bag was a toaster. A brand new, never removed from its box, toaster. The oldest toasters, the ones in the shopping bags along the back wall, were inches deep in dust — clearly never disturbed since first put there.

When they had finished taking inventory they had close to five hundred toasters, the earliest bought in 1939, the most recent bought a week before Aunt Mary died.

I happen to know what they did with the toasters, but that’s not important. Instead I’d like to suggest that there’s a big story to be told here, and maybe more than one. Aunt Mary turned suddenly from a much loved and well known great aunt to a figure of some mystery. Why toasters? Why so many toasters? Why the sales receipts? Did she give toasters as presents at weddings? Did she profess a love for toast? Was there a connection to the husband who died in WWII? Is there some kind of toaster fetish they had never heard of?

Or maybe the story is about Herb, and some old problem that flares up again. Some resentment toward his own grandmother, or unhappiness in his own family at breakfast time. Maybe the story starts just where I ended it, with Herb and Janie trying to figure out what’s up with the toasters. Maybe each chapter is a telephone call to another relative to try to find some kind of hint about what was going on. Great Uncle Max, Aunt Bev, Grandmother Hodgkins — did NOBODY know about this? You’d get six or eight or twelve different stories of Mary’s life and that many suggestions about what the toasters meant to Mary.

Maybe the press would get involved. Maybe some talk show host would try to sensationalize the whole thing, and ask Herb and Janie to come on the show with a selection of the toasters.

Or, maybe Janie would go down to the police station and see if there were any reports that coincided with the dates on the receipts. The connection? I don’t know. That’s for the person who is telling the story to find out.

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