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Refrigerator Elegy by Lindsey Harding


Many of us live by lists: shopping lists, daily to-do lists, major project lists. We’re attracted to “best of” lists: best books, best movies, best albums, best restaurants. We’ve become used to power point lists. “Listicles” have emerged as a popular online genre. Lindsey Harding’s “Refrigerator Elegy” initially seems straightforward. A mother cleaning out a refrigerator provides her child with a list of things that expire. But as the list grows it becomes much more than that: a glimpse inside her refrigerator becomes a glimpse inside her family life and the family’s past and future (“Lay with me, you used to say”; “Someday we’ll say goodbye”). The list grows to encompass things that don’t expire as well as things that expire, and broadens to include larger losses. “I don’t know how I will bear it: you all gone, the house quiet at last.” See Harding’s author’s note on how her elegy about what time takes away evolved from a simple question, and became increasingly more difficult as she approached the end. While she concludes that “all things expire,” there’s a great deal that we keep.  —CRAFT


 

Do all things expire? you ask on trash night, and I shake my head, shake two-week-old pasta into the sink, shepherd it down the drain. No, surely no. And later—the refrigerator cleaned out, its shelves crumbless at last, so bare it seems we might starve without a trip to the grocery store tomorrow or the next day, by Saturday at the latest—I think about all the things that expire:

Lettuce and kale, scallions and cilantro, refrigerator greens withering brown and wet in their crinkly clear bags if left long enough. Brittle leaves on October branches, the breeze quick and unsettling and cool in our throats. Deadlines to sign you up for acting class and spring soccer and swim team registration. Classes and seasons all. Scalloped potatoes spotted with mold on the top shelf behind tubs of yogurt, tubs of butter and cream cheese, a dozen eggs. Decorated cookies in the tin on the counter, iced and sprinkled, pressed with Hershey’s Kisses, smelling of tin. I used to save every tin until I had a bin of tins. Then that bin expired. Nightly demands for water, for another story, another song—soulful dirges I acquiesce to because I cannot say no to you. So we reprise “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” long into hot July nights. Lay with me, lay with me, you say, you used to say, hand wedded in my hair. Jars of applesauce and Ragu, fuzzy mold surfing what remains behind.

Milk, of course, but not in this house. We consume it long before its time except for once—the carton left and left, moved to the back of the shelf, tucked away behind Tupperware leftovers to slowly turn then turn the jug to silt. Citrus shriveling and hardening to yellow and orange rocks in the crisper. Medicine, in the basket at the top of the pantry shelving, by the tiny sans serif date etched vertically, but kept and used anyway. Stuffed animals and barbies and plastic dinosaurs, each in their own time. A yawning black bag, like a hole through the universe, conveys all we had loved elsewhere, into other homes, new arms, a landfill. And that’s okay and it’s not. And we’re okay with it and we’re not. So, some, like Pupper Snupper, and those giraffe bookends holding up Goodnight Moon and the rest of the board books we still own, we keep and we keep, we cannot let go. Condiments expire even if your grandparents say otherwise.

Not our subscription services. Each month they renew automatically: our wine, our streaming shows, our online video games, our heart-healthy dinners, our trial-sized creams and salves to smooth our aging skin, science and craft projects delivered in bright green boxes, Amazon Prime. Cooking magazine subscriptions expire after my great aunt passes. The stack I keep in a wicker bin next to the family room couch to skim from time to time when you want a cartoon and I worry I will die if I have to watch another animated chicken run across the screen. Library book loans are renewable only so many times, like some friendships, you’ll find, and not like others, the ones you’ll hold tight to and they’ll hold back. A week away at summer camp. All summers spent at summer camp.

Coupons we pin to a corkboard in the laundry room. Ziplocked defrosted chicken when we tire of chicken after we pull it from the freezer. A roast we didn’t think to freeze. The busyness we feel now, you and your siblings young but no longer babies. The little lives you live with us here in this home. Already those lives expand, how I wonder who you are. Fast food fries turned to salt stones in a greasy wrapper, left in the pocket behind the driver’s seat on the way to a midweek practice. A quart of buttermilk minus the cup we needed for biscuits. Carseats, too.

Flowers in the vase on the kitchen island, stinking water and slimy stalks, petals like cereal flakes spilled across the countertop. Unused herbs and seasonings in tiny glass jars above the stove. Eventually they become concrete sediment, a geological record of our family’s era, this time we have together.

All things expire. Even this moment, you and I, on the couch like this: your head on my shoulder, our four feet poking out of the blanket we share. The show we watch will end in twenty-four minutes. Soon we’ll say goodnight. Someday we’ll say goodbye, and someday will be too soon. I don’t know how I will bear it: you all gone, the house quiet at last. This, I think, leaning into you. This, I run my hand through your brother’s hair. This, your sister’s sudden laughter, a bright pop of sound. These things, here and gone: may they fill us like the light now filling our refrigerator, glorious and bright.

 


LINDSEY HARDING is the Director of the Writing Intensive Program at the University of Georgia. Her flash fiction and stories have appeared in aptSprySoundings ReviewPrick of the SpindleThe Boiler, and others. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband and four children.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note

This piece, like most of my projects, started with a question: Do all things expire? In particular, I was interested in the expiration dates of non-food items: relationships and interests, for example. I typed a note in my phone before bed on a brooding night in May 2019. Then, ten months later, when the pandemic shut everything down, I returned to this question, opened a Google Doc, and asked it again.

The first draft of this piece was a simple list. I moved methodically through my refrigerator—its wilting cilantro, its forgotten clementines—before casting a wider net around moments—bedtime and playdates with Barbie. I considered the near past as well as decades in the past, and in doing so, my childhood brushed up alongside the childhood of my children, a time they are quickly leaving behind. I’ve had Pupper Snuffer, my first stuffed animal, since 1983. The giraffe bookends were a shower gift before our first daughter’s birth in 2008. And this past spring, in an attempt to wrangle some order—however small, however short-lived—I sorted through our basement bookcases again, wondering if it was finally time to pass along our board book collection. But it wasn’t. The bare shelf was too much. Over the next several drafts, I worked on pushing list items further—into more feeling, more specificity—rooting through the dark recesses of family life. The couch on cartoon night, for instance.

Finally, I added a frame narrative based on a banal Tuesday in early summer. The list needed an exigency that trash night provided. After dinner, I cleaned out the refrigerator with my oldest daughter. Later, we watched Titan Games on Hulu as a family. I pulled away from the show for a moment, and time seemed to pause, a breath from expiring. But it was enough time to touch, to feel, to hear. I used to do something similar at the end of a summer camp stay, too. At our Candlelight Ceremony, I would press my palm into the concrete we sat on around the pool and think this, just this, this concrete, this place, I am here. Until one summer, finally, after fifteen summers, when I wasn’t.

During a time when the world was and still is facing unprecedented loss of lives and ways of living due to COVID-19, working on this piece gave me a way to confront loss within life, as a fundamental component of everyday life. Ending the piece proved to be the most challenging. I went through countless versions of the final paragraph, the final lines, the final sentiment. I ultimately returned to the refrigerator—and that blinding whiteness when it’s all cleaned out and wiped down, when it’s just you and the sensory memories you have, the imprint of time spent with those you love, in places you cherish. And that is what carries forward, what fills you even as time takes the rest away.

 


LINDSEY HARDING is the Director of the Writing Intensive Program at the University of Georgia. Her flash fiction and stories have appeared in aptSprySoundings ReviewPrick of the SpindleThe Boiler, and others. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband and four children.