“paper or plastic, ma’am?”
how many times in a human life are those words uttered or heard? too many, antiquated now as they may be. the environmentally conscious among us carry an ever growing supply of reusable shopping bags. it’s not hard to see how we acquire so many. we pick a few up in line at WalMart or Target, only a few dollars, a small price to save the planet. we promise ourselves to keep them with us, in the car or pantry or wherever, and to use them religiously on weekly grocery runs. we never do, though. life happens, as it always does. the weekly grocery run is replaced by near daily pop in/pop outs for necessities, and the sturdy and occasionally stylish bags are left to languish in the car or the pantry or wherever. we’ll find them after a few weeks or months and make the same empty promise to ourselves, knowing full well we’ve only begun another cycle of good intentions and poor planning.
but she didn’t think about this as the check-out boy on the other side of the conveyor belt waited for her answer. her first thought was irritation that he called her ma’am. she was not a ma’am. no unmarried woman under the age of 35 is a ma’am, didn’t this little shit know that? she allowed herself a few minutes to bemoan the ignorance of today’s youth, only to realize that simply having these kinds of thoughts about “today’s youth” granted her ma’am status regardless of her age and (lack of) marital status.
the second thought was about her grandmother. grandma took paper and plastic. that was a long time ago, before the modern miracle of self-checkout. a pimply high school boy at the end of the checkout lane would pick through the items as they were scanned and passed down the line, packing everything into the structured paper bags like tetris pieces, not a space wasted. the whole package was then carefully fitted into a plastic sack. it was the best of both worlds. the paper bags kept everything organized and upright in the trunk on the way home. the plastic bags with the handles made it easy to get the stuff from the car to the house.
once the groceries were put away, the paper bags were carefully folded up and tucked into a cabinet over the washer in the kitchen for later use. their uses were innumerable. they’d tote garden produce, line wastepaper baskets, or be handed to the grandkids for art projects and to carry toys about the house. that’s what she remembers. a couple of paper grocery bags, a little battery-powered toy cash register, and a store of hard, plastic fruit.
she never knew what happened to the plastic bags.
she wondered what happened to all that stuff, all the toys and books and the things she always associated with grandma and grandpa and their house. it was conceivable that it had all been thrown away, or maybe donated, but it was unlikely. her grandparents were children of the depression; they never threw anything away. she remembered the things they found in the house after grandma had died, just over a year after grandpa. it had been… what? twelve years now? she marveled at that. it didn’t seem possible.
yes, even with its owners in the ground the house gave up treasures interesting only to a curious granddaughter. certificates of insurance for policies that had long since lapsed or paid their last dollar, relics of her father’s and uncle’s childhoods still carefully arranged in their attic bedrooms, as thought the boys had just dashed downstairs for dinner, but had transformed into men after dessert, and never came back. whole shelves’ worth of canned produce, some even from the year she had been born. they had thrown those out; in theory, they may still have been good, but no one could bring themselves to sample 16 year old stewed tomatoes. she wished briefly she’d had the forethought to at least save the mason jars.
they had found paper bags, too, full of old pictures grandma had probably intended to catalog, but never got around to. or clothes she had gathered up to throw away or donate, but int he end were left sitting on the floor of the closet. her brother found the jackpot, though, stashed in the back corner of the coat closet in the dining room: a paper bag so weighted down with rolled coins that it threatened to burst the moment it was picked up.
but that was always the way of things, it seemed. her brother placed more value in practical treasures; cash is always handy. she was more sentimental, always had been. she’d take a houseful of vintage mementos and assorted junk any day of the week. it was her incurable weakness. she fancied she could still sense the former owners, as if these people long gone had left a bit of themselves with the stuff they collected, and they would remain with their possessions no matter how many times they may change hands.
she had come by it honestly, her inability-or at least her reluctance-to get rid of anything. it was the family opinion that she had inherited her father’s and her grandmother’s sentimentality; that was all they could attribute it to, this strange compulsion to keep things. age and half a dozen moves between various homes and college dorm rooms had brought out her more practical side, but she still caught herself sometimes when making the twice yearly purge of her belongings. some things could be tossed into the purge pile without a second thought. some things never even came off the shelves or out of the closet; parting with these things was unthinkable. but a fair few things lived in that in-between. they may start on one side of the keep/purge line, but would inevitably make countless trips back and forth before settling somewhere.
it had been grandma’s way to take paper and plastic, and it was her way to do what has always been done, because it had always been done.
so she smiled at the checkout boy’s irritation as he packed away her groceries in the sturdy, coarse paper bag and then carefully lowered it into the flimsy plastic sack.