The backdoor slammed and I heard my big brother talking to Mom in the kitchen. “The wind has died down, so it would be a good time for me to burn the garbage. We were out of matches the other day. Did you buy some when you were in town?”
Dropping the comic book that I’d been looking at, I ran into the kitchen and exclaimed, “I want to watch you burn things!”
Mom reached into the drawer where the matches were kept and handed the box to my brother. She said, “Watch Kathy so she doesn’t get too close to the fire.”
By the time small flames were beginning to lick at the contents of the bathroom wastepaper basket, two big sisters and another brother joined us for the entertaining spectacle.
Having found a nice, big, sturdy stick so I could poke at things as they burned, I patiently waited for the fire to grow. Empty toilet paper cardboard rolls turned black when the flame touched them. Small orange flames above the blackened areas chewed hungrily until the roll was reduced to nothing but a pile of white ash. Wads of toilet paper that we’d used to blow our noses burst up into flames before disappearing just as quickly. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a wad of toilet paper, wiped my nose, then threw it into the fire. Poof!
My big brother frowned and grumped, “Why don’t you girls use handkerchiefs?”
One of my sisters said, “Because handkerchiefs need to be washed. Toilet paper can be tossed.”
Another sister chimed in with a shudder, “Handkerchiefs are used over and over, while a person can toss toilet paper after one use.” I thought that was a pretty good answer, except I did use the wads of toilet paper in my pockets at least two or three times before throwing them out.
By now, the flames were leaping high over cardboard boxes and newspapers. I noticed all of our small daily incidentals in the fire, like a wrapper from Mom’s Wrigley’s spearmint gum. The inner foil part didn’t seem to really burn. I spotted the empty butter box that I had thrown in the kitchen garbage when I watched Mom bake cookies the other day. When it began to burn, the flames changed color as it devoured the colored print on the waxy cardboard. I poked at the box with my stick.
Next to the butter box was another box, slightly bigger. This one had a creamy coating on the inside that sizzled in the heat. I poked at it with my stick and realized that it was an ice cream box. Daddy had bought the treat a few days ago. He had helped Mom serve it after supper by opening the box on all sides, then, using our big bread knife, he’d cut square chunks for each person at the table. My cheeks and the fingers holding the stick were starting to feel uncomfortably hot.
One of my sisters said, “Kathy, quit getting so close to the fire. You’re going to burn your head off if you don’t watch out.”
My brother added, “If you burn your head off, you’ll have to wear a kettle where your head was. For the rest of your life you’d have to go around wearing a kettle instead of a head and people would call you Li’l Miss Kettlehead.”
I backed up a bit, but still wanted to be close enough to watch every familiar object in the fire writhe in the heat and turn to ashes. I was old enough to know my brothers and sisters were teasing me about burning my head off, but young enough to give some serious thought to the shame and the complications that would go with having to wear a kettle in place of my head.
As the years passed and I became an adult, I’ve often thought about my childhood and life on the farm in the mid 1950’s. The contents of the fire I described revealed how we lived. Kleenex could be found in stores, but we didn’t buy it yet. Until we did, we had used toilet paper. Ice cream treats were so rare that my mouth watered when I saw the half gallon box burning. Remembering what we burned in the 1950’s, I realize that it took longer to fill our wastepaper baskets then than we would now, because we made everything from scratch. That meant no pizza wrappers, cake boxes, pop cans or processed food wrappers. We fed egg shells and peelings to the chickens and recycled before it was in style.
My childhood was such a simple time, not only because I almost believed the Li’l Miss Kettlehead teasing, but because without television, iPad, smart phones and kindles, just burning household refuse was entertainment.