Yesterday at work, I took my soup to the microwave at the end of the hall to heat it. While I stood waiting for the broth to bubble, I caught sight of several large sheets of cardboard leaning against the wall. They were marked as trash, and my immediate reaction was, “Oh no! Don’t throw it away. There’s so much you can do with cardboard!”
When I was growing up at the house at 30 Green Street, cardboard was saved and used for myriad art projects. The lightweight sheets of cardboard around which my father’s dress shirts were folded quickly were doled out for art projects. I loved to draw my own paper dolls, carefully cutting them out, sketching faces with colored pencils and fashioning clothes out of bits of construction paper reserved for school projects and sick-in-bed days. Some days I used the cardboard to create masks for my younger siblings, cutting holes for eyes and nose, and stretching an old elastic band to hold the masks to their little faces. Cardboard became a flag to tape to a pencil and wave at the veterans who marched in the Memorial Day parade or a poster to paint with tempera and advertise a sidewalk lemonade stand. It was the stuff made into swords and shields to play pirates in the back yard, or a lean-to for imaginary hobos.
Cardboard boxes were used to store summer clothes during the winter months, and winter clothes that my mother packed away in spring. They stored tools in the garage, linens in the attic, and books that no longer fit on the shelves in the living room.
Cardboard boxes also made great summer sleds. One sibling would sit inside the box, holding a jump rope or baton. The designated puller would drag the rider all over the back yard, until the puller tired and the roles were reversed.
One hot summer afternoon, my sister Robin and I decided that dragging through the yard was not nearly exciting enough, and decided to try riding our cardboard box sled down the stairs. My taste for adventure trumped my better judgement, and I volunteered to make the maiden voyage. The stairs in our old New Englander were steep and covered with a green and brown print runner, worn thin at the edges. At the top of the stairs, I sat in the box, and bracing my hands against the bannister and wall like a luger, pushed off.
I have never careened down a staircase faster.
I landed with a thud against the heavy front door and lay crumpled on the landing, wondering if there was blood was running from my aching head. Robin quickly abandoned the idea of a second attempt, and went off in search of a popsicle and a bit of shade under the maple tree.
Perhaps the most common use of cardboard in our home was for patchwork. Our house was close to a hundred years old, with plaster and horsehair walls that lifted from the lathing and crumbled when curious small fingers poked at them. Small holes became big ones, and without the funds to do proper repairs, my mother resorted to patching the holes with sheets of cardboard and masking tape. I saw nothing unusual in this, and actually liked the patches, pretending they were secret portals to unknown worlds. It wasn’t until I was well into my teens that my parents had the funds to replace plaster and patches with sheet rock.
Looking back, I wonder if visitors thought the cardboard and masking tape patches were strange. They must have noticed- they were in plain sight, among the peeling wallpaper, threadbare rugs and chipped woodwork. And yet, our house was always full.
What I know now is that people didn’t visit 30 Green Street for the décor of the walls. It was the love that lived within the walls that lured the steady stream of children and adults who entered through the front door and exited through the back. The sound of laughter from the kitchen table and the offer of coffee and conversation permeated the crumbling walls and blurred the cardboard patches that held them together.
Now, I live in an apartment with clean white walls. I keep my out-of-season clothes in plastic bins that keep my garments clean and dry. There are no patches in my life- at least none that can be seen. My use for cardboard is limited to times I need to donate items to the Salvation Army or Goodwill.
But still, when I see large sheets like those waiting for the cleaning crew to tidy my work hallway, I think of the possibilities and wonder…