Our Mother’s Day Suburban Archaeology Project


Behold the encyclopedia that time forgot!

What we have here is a complete, 29-volume set of the 1983 Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia. This product was sold through Marsh Supermarkets to discerning shoppers at the rate of one new volume every week until their collection was complete and informational victory was achieved. For a little extra you could buy single companion volumes such as a medical encyclopedia, a legal encyclopedia, and the Funk & Wagnalls Hammond World Atlas in case you wanted to see all of the USSR or learn what kind of currency was used in Zaire.

Up until a couple weeks ago, my mom still had all twenty-nine volumes on her shelf, thirty years after the original purchase. Just in case.

My childhood home was a townhouse in a Section 8 apartment complex. We moved in when I was six months old. I moved out in 1993 at age 21. Five years later my grandma transitioned from there to the nursing-home phase of her life. My mom has remained there ever since. She had no need for all that empty room left by our departures, but she was too used to it. For nearly two-thirds of her life it’s been Home.

This weekend will mark the end of an era. Forty-one years after move-in, my mom is finally downgrading from my childhood home to a smaller, more affordable apartment. A combination of factors led to this tough decision: rent increases for so much space she wasn’t even using, let alone handling the upkeep; hopes of retirement within the next few years, economy willing; stairs that aren’t doing her aging frame any favors. Suffice it to say she realizes it’s time to go.

1983 book-learnin'.

Pages from an alternate future where the Reagan administration never ended.

One problem: she rarely gets rid of stuff. She’s not a problem hoarder per se. Her place isn’t filled with tripping hazards or waist-high decaying mounds. Once or twice a year she’ll take clothes and a few unwanted books to Goodwill. But she’s not exactly a Type-A sorting enthusiast. Some objects are still in the same position they were when I moved out. A few may even have their original dust perfectly preserved.

She has half as many bookcases as we do. That’s not a small number. Half of “lots” is still plenty. Collections are everywhere in her place, most of them hers. A few belonged to my grandma, who had to let them go because the nursing-home years are when you discover the two things that truly matter above all in life: (1) the intangibles you’ll carry inside you always and beyond; (2) whatever the nursing home will let you cram inside one tiny nightstand and half a musty closet. Her handmade dolls, her Zane Grey paperbacks, her Famous Artists School hernia-inducing hardcover manuals, the crappy knickknacks my cousins and I would buy her as gifts way back when, 90% of her outerwear– none of these made the final cut and she never saw them again.

Your 1983 periodic table!

Your 1983 periodic table is a handy, thorough guide to all 103 elements. Any periodic table that recognizes more than 103 is witchcraft.

This weekend my wife and I will be helping Mom sort, pack, move, unpack, and hopefully begin adjusting. My son is coming home after college finals to assist and accept home-cooked food as payment. I’m thinking the sorting will be the hardest part.

I’ve chucked a few things for her during brief visits, including her collection of America OnLine starter disks (floppies and CD-ROMs) and all twenty-nine volumes of that unwieldy, obsolete encyclopedia that thinks Reagan is still president. The other day she let me have the only two music CDs she’s ever owned, greatest-hits collections by the Monkees and the Beach Boys. They were Christmas gifts several years ago from us to her. Their shrink-wrap was in mint condition. I doubt I still have the receipt.

Our work has only just begun. More forgotten objects and unnecessary possessions are waiting their turn for review, including but not limited to:

* Hundreds of 45s she bought in the ’60s as a young pop-music fan, all in stacks without their original sleeves.

* My late great-aunt’s country/western LPs.

* Who knows how many dead batteries.

* Enough Christmas decorations for two or three trees. Not that my wife and I have any room to talk, mind you.

* Magazines, magazines, magazines.

* Spare blankets, sheets, washcloths, and whatever else homemakers like my grandma would’ve collected back in the good ol’ days.

* Her doomsday supply stash. Because sooner or later, when you least expect it, out of nowhere the Y2K Bug will make its double-secret Hail-Hydra comeback and then you’ll all be sorry.

* My high school class ring. My lack of effort to retrieve this overpriced trinket sooner than now should tell you how much it means to me.

* A few of my earliest childhood writings, possibly including the very first story I ever wrote. It was called “Escape from Vulcan” and was a science fiction saga written by a fourth-grader who was shocked years later to discover that some TV show thought of naming a planet Vulcan before he was even born. He thought he was so clever. He was wrong.

Top 21 Favorite Cheeses of 1983!

Yes, Chopped fans, in 1983 mascarpone didn’t even make the F&W list of Top 21 Favorite Cheeses. Truly these were primitive times.

One other thing she let me have: a blue trunk filled with my childhood toys. I brought it home last month but have yet to open it because I’m afraid to find out what’s inside. I remember one baby toy in particular that I’m curious to see again, but what if it’s disintegrated, moth-eaten, harboring cockroaches, or worse…what if it’s even sillier-looking than I remember? Then everyone will laugh at me and my taste in toys and I’ll never live it down.

As we plunge into the thick of things tomorrow, I know I’ll need to try very hard not to encourage her to throw out everything. She truly can’t remember what moving is like and has been asking us lots of questions, and I can tell she’ll need all the encouragement she can get. I’m torn between that need to step up as her only son to see her through this life-changing event, and the selfish impulse to find ways to cut down how many hundreds of pounds’ worth of useless, meaningless dead weight we’ll have to transport. Deep down inside is a small, cranky voice that wants to sweep the contents of entire shelves into a wheelbarrow, be done with all of it in record time, and spend the rest of the weekend watching Doctor Who. But that’s not realistic and it’s not fair to her.

Besides, it’s Mother’s Day. The timing is coincidental, but we’re not overlooking it. In between all this labor we’ll be treating her to a nice dinner out, so don’t give me that stern look. But it’s kind of cool that for Mother’s Day I’ll also have the chance to give her the gift of service.

Curiously, it’s the first Mother’s Day where I got gifts out of it, too. That Monkees CD has some surprisingly catchy tunes.

2 responses

    • This particular set came in handy when I had to write reports in junior high, but in high school I found myself relying more on our local library, because info on some subjects just became outdated more quickly than others.


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