Pandemic Surprises: Zinnias and Closet Treasures



By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter



Zinnias! Much to my delight, they have been one of the few new pleasures of the sheltering-in-place pandemic lifestyle we’re all enduring.  When my husband told me he’d bought some seeds to plant:  chives, cilantro and zinnias to be precise, I was amazed that he had a secret green thumb. Moreover, to me zinnias were boring; they were what my parents had planted sporadically in our Ohio backyard that never rose (no pun intended) to a particularly beautiful occasion. I have recently done the purchasing, planting, watering and in my mind appreciating our small 25 foot city lot front garden, courtyard and third floor back porch pots. It turned out Tobin had nostalgic memories of zinnias in his mother’s garden.

He chose to plant his seeds in pots on our deck and in addition on our flat roof, guaranteeing full sun (and yet another flight of stairs to climb). He dutifully watered and lo and behold, his seeds sprouted and had to be thinned. We soon had cilantro and chives to harvest, nice additions to summer meals. But the zinnias were amazing! I didn’t realize how amazing at first, since the ones on the porch had just a few blossoms. It was the roof zinnias that took off.  When Tobin brought down his first batch to grace our kitchen table, I was taken with the intensity and variety of colors. The stems were not long enough for a large vase, but using three small ones, I created what has become a rotating garden in our kitchen. With great pride, he periodically takes a basket to the roof and returns with more bounty. I can’t help but exclaim every time he appears with fresh blooms that his zinnia project is a huge success. He even now waters my pots. Nostalgia has seldom provided more benefits.

Perhaps inspired by the zinnia project, I realized I needed to augment my steady pandemic diet of Zoom meetings and Netflix. I decided to move from my kitchen cabinets (a project two months ago) to attack my closet and its upper reaches. No, we’re not downsizing yet….but everyone tells me how hard it will be, “So get started!” Marie Kondo’s prescription “Does it spark joy?” guided my undertaking. Talk about nostalgia! Deep closet cleaning can be a very emotional experience. In a distant dark corner, I found a dusty cardboard box containing a heavy plastic garbage bag labeled “albums.” For the first time in more than 25 years, I unearthed elementary school report cards, high school and college scrapbooks, honeymoon travel brochures and receipts, diplomas (I assume only doctors and lawyers put diplomas on their office walls), and my Girl Scout sash, complete with attached badges and those I’d never bothered to sew on.

Our honeymoon in Scandinavia had focused on visiting New Towns, of special interest to my husband, then a city planner. I’d saved 1970 Finnish train schedules, Swedish shopping guides, and Danish palace brochures. These we tossed. I was amazed to find a careful accounting of purchases made in the Helsinki Marimekko store. This was literally my initial stop on our honeymoon when we landed in Finland. Tobin departed to look at churches, the first of many shopping expeditions in which we would go our separate ways. The clerks were kindly tolerant as I spent over two hours unfolding bolts of fabric to pick the perfect patterns for my sister, my mother and our new apartment. It wasn’t long before customers began to ask me questions in Finnish! (Today Marimekko is reintroducing my vintage patterns!).

Vintage Marimekko fabric awaiting a project

Honeymoon memories set aside, I next tackled my high school scrapbook, filled with newspaper clippings, invitations, notices of school events, etc. I had saved now discolored theater programs for every show I’d attended, including the first touring production of “My Fair Lady” in 1959.  Throwing away the album, which my children will no doubt have to toss eventually, was a bridge too far.  My college scrapbook, (including only selected papers that got good grades) was similarly left intact. 

Hathaway Brown School Memories

Henry Higgin’s first trip to Cleveland

Was joy sparked? Well, not always. I had found and promptly ripped up a photo taken of me in a bathing suit during a particularly chubby stage in college  (it was really too faded to keep). I also found a letter from a boy named Ron extolling my wonderfulness and how much he missed me. I have no idea who he was. I felt high school insecurities come flooding back, reminding me of the exquisite pain of adolescence with its social anxieties and unrequited crushes, all too real even without social media. “Joy?” Well, maybe not in the Marie Kondo sense, but still I couldn’t part with the albums or yellowing newspaper clippings. All are now stored again but at least more safely and efficiently in a large plastic storage bin too heavy to lift that now inhabits the floor of my closet.

No longer in a dark corner

I did feel better having reduced the volume a bit and decided I had the energy to attack my long neglected linen collection. “Collection” is frankly a misnomer. For many years, I had been a hoarder of linens, unable to part with anything  – wedding presents from relatives and my mother’s friends, family heirlooms like my grandmother’s lace placemats and dresser scarves, Christmas gifts from globe-trotting friends, or extra sets of embroidered napkins.  I was sure that I would one day use them all. Does decades of non-use send a message? The hard realization was that neither my daughter nor my daughter-in-law was likely to want a “tea table” on which to serve afternoon tea that required the use of table cloths designed to fit such a table complete with matching dainty napkins, particularly since they would require starching and ironing. Some things would have to go.

Awaiting starch, iron and future use!

I even chose to divest of one set of cocktail napkins I had bought myself – they need extremely serious ironing (what was I thinking!).  More ironing remains but at least what’s left is sorted into what I actually expect use or pass along. And then there were double bed sheets and spreads (we have a queen-size bed) and a single queen-size pillow we don’t use for which we have no pillowcase. Here the “joy” commandment kicked in and I could say good-bye. I also sorted out cotton throws, cloth placemats and napkins that go with nary a plate I own, and miscellaneous mystery cloths used for long-forgotten purposes. Yes, clever crafters could perhaps piece together lovely nightgowns, doll clothes, Christmas angels or even hippie dresses – any takers? I thought not.

For carefully chosen guests only

Tobin checked the discard stack and rescued a never-used guest towel of his mother’s that features a saucy lady flipping up her skirt to reveal her undies, executed in trapunto stitch. His mother had not only zinnias, but also a sense of humor.  A large pile has now gone to the Salvation Army, and I hope someone who can use these items will find them and support a good cause. So, have I succeeded in really reducing volume? To be honest, just barely. There remain boxes of clothes, sets of china, kitchen utensils, video tapes (remember those?) and so much more waiting to be sorted another day. Did I forget to mention photographs? Boxes of loose prints and albums cry for attention. Nevertheless, I do feel a spark of joy for having started the process.

Awaiting another day

One of my in-laws recently spent months sorting, cleaning, selling and giving away her parents’ lifetime belongings in her childhood home they’d never left. We hope we’re making a future move easier for ourselves and eventually for our children. Maybe they’ll be excited to find an ancient copy of a My Fair Lady program. I just wish I could remember who Ron was.