It is funny the material things we consider our treasures. I imagine it is true for everyone from the poorest to the wealthiest amongst us that when asked which belongings we would save from a fire, we would answer with descriptions of our family photos, our love letters, our journals, and as many of those important-to-us-and-unrecognizable-as-riches-to-anyone-else items as we could gather: Well-worn stuffed animals. Stones. Driftwood. Handmade afghans. A chipped tea cup. Her berry-picking hat. His soft blue shirt. When my grandparents were moved into a personal care home a few months before their deaths in 2001, this metal can that Grandma had always kept crayons in was one of the things I wanted from their house and was immediately relieved to know that I had saved.There is nothing obviously exceptional about either its exterior or contents. It is a Folgers-brand coffee can with a handful of crayons, crayon-pieces, and crayon-niblets inside. I don't remember ever seeing the can with the Folgers label still on it. Like meals and decor and most everything else at my grandparents' house, the crayons were not fancy. No glitter-filled crayons here, no crayons that change colors, and no leftover crayons from a highly-coveted 120-pack. "Burnt sienna," "copper," and "Carnation pink" are as newfangled as these crayons' names get. I learned this week that the stub of "green-blue" is a collector's item of sorts since the color was retired in 1990. And because these things were also in the bottom of the can when I salvaged it from Papa and Grandma's house, I consider them equal parts of its sentimental wonder: A rusted pair of scissors, a couple scraps of Crayola wrappers and once-clear tape--and a folded paper piece, which I would bet good money was from a cut-out heart.
But the smell! The crayon smell inside this can! I take off the plastic lid, and the decades-old crayon scent works like the magic of an uncorked genie: It is again a Sunday afternoon at Papa and Grandma's gray-shingled house outside of Punxsutawney, and while they, still safe and vibrant with good health, visit with my parents and aunts after dinner, I sprawl out on their moss-green living room carpet and color pictures. Sometimes the scent takes me back to the late 1970s and early 1980s and I am doodling on the scrap paper Aunt Vee brings from her secretarial job to their house for just this purpose. Other times, I open the can and find myself a little older, but with the crayons and scissors still around me, designing cards out of the pages of the Sharp's Penn wallpaper catalogs that Grandma saves. Sometimes, of course, the scent just takes me back to childhood-in-general, and I can't tell what grade I'm in or whether I'm coloring a Christmas decoration or the blues and greens of water and land on a state map for a homework assignment. Then there are the times the crayon can's scent sends me straight to Papa and Grandma's foyer to look for a not-yet-colored-in page of one of the few coloring books they keep under the crayon can on the tiered brass shelf beside their front door. Or the times it takes me back to a summer week I am spending at Papa and Grandma's house, and my childhood Beagle is panting beside me while I draw his portrait on the couch. There is so much going on inside this metal can, you see.
I keep the crayon can on a hall shelf with other treasures, and it surely mystifies most who see it, dinged and unlabeled as it is. As is true for us all, its magic lies inside. Lately I find myself opening it more than usual as I pass by, breathing in deeply and eventually replacing the lid quite reluctantly, wishing its scent could keep me in its hold a little longer. May I be granted one more day, please, when sticks of wax are all it takes to make my life colorful and pressing down too hard is my biggest concern? Life has a way of demanding a wee bit more of us than that, though, and perhaps especially for those of us who began it in awe of these boxed rainbows, it is only natural that we sometimes grow frustrated as we figure out, over and over, how to grow up without losing that sense of enchantment. No worries, Papa and Grandma, your girl is determined to get it right. The crayon can holds not only the blue-green and green-blue of the wild seas I will surf someday, but also the pinks and reds and yellow-oranges of the roses I will grow around my home. I will find the balance, I remind myself. I will try not to worry as the years unfold. And I will hope that my grandparents say an extra prayer every time they see me reaching for the lid.