I am cleaning out my mother’s pantry. Occasionally, when I find a particularly old expiration date, I stop to text my sister or a friend with news of what I’ve found.
Granola – 2019
Bean Dip – 2018
In 1991 my friend found a frozen Salisbury Steak dinner in his father’s freezer. The dinner had expired when his father still lived in a different apartment. He had moved the expired steak from one apartment to another. The story of the Salisbury Steak was always funny to me. It was funny because it was a story about a single guy and how he ate. My friend’s dad’s apartment was a mother-free zone, which meant junk food. Once, a few years before the discovery of the Steak, when we were still in high school and my parents were out of town, I had very ill-advised sex in my parents’ house. When the guy left, I immediately called my friend and said I needed junk food. He came over with Combos and Hostess Cakes, pilfered from his father’s cabinets.
The Salisbury Steak was funny because my friend’s dad was in his 40s, I think. As a teenager, there are three adult ages, 20s, parents, grandparents.
My friend’s dad didn’t know it yet but he still had so much of a future to come, a bizarre adventure, a second wife, weddings for all of his children, grandchildren, a full second act that’s still ongoing. The Salisbury Steak was funny because it was a frozen chunk of past in the middle of a present, and because it was a Salisbury Steak.
When I find a jar of grape leaves that expired in 1999, I text my friend and confirm that they are in fact older than the long-thrown-out Salisbury Steak.
I know a jar of grape leaves that expired in the last century is funny. I start a thread on my local working moms Facebook group and I find that I am not alone. There are stories of people cleaning their mothers and in-laws and grandparents’ houses and finding canned goods so old they don’t have bar codes, canned goods about to explode, an expired can of SPAM they decide to pass from person to person. A friend tells me that behind her recently deceased mom’s expired cans was a huge bowl. In the bowl were the skeletons of a mouse and a snake. They believe the snake ate the mouse and then got trapped in the bowl.
A jar of grape leaves that expired in the 1990s is funny, but also, it is not.
It is not funny because my parents are 81. Last week, my father fell and broke two ribs and received a diagnosis that makes it clear things are not getting better. He is in the rehab facility while I am cleaning out my mother’s pantry.
I am cleaning the pantry because it is something I can do. It is both helpful and personally satisfying. But also, I know, it is just the first of many things we’ll be cleaning sometime soon. It is easy to throw out an unopened jar of grape leaves. But my parents have been in their house for over 45 years. There is art, furniture, books, clothing, tchotchkes from trips, presents from grandchildren, photos of people long gone. All of that will have to go somewhere. Today I throw out an anecdote, next month it might be a piece of my childhood.
Grape leaves are not something you buy an extra jar of and then forget. You buy them with a plan. Somewhere in the last century my mom had a plan to make stuffed grape leaves, and it didn’t happen and now it will never happen. The grape leaves are not funny because I don’t know what other plans like that are hiding in my parents’ house.