By John Thomas Tuft

The ancient Kelvinator chest freezer sat in the corner of the garage, a mixture of rust and mildew stains discoloring the sides halfway up, the old cloth-sheath-around-asbestos-insulation electrical cord fraying where it ran up the wall stud and plugged into the only outlet. As Mom would say, “Still runnin’, ain’t gonna turn my back on it.” That had been her motto for people, as well. Now Mom was gone, and part of tidying things up to sell the house meant emptying the old freezer. Jeremy approached the ugly appliance with reluctance, swiped at the discolored side with the toe of his boot. This was Mom’s pride and joy. Jeremy hears her voice in his head as he slowly lifts the lid. Of all her earthly things, as she called them, this to her was a “True wonder. I was born in a time before electrification reached our dirt farm county, let alone freezers. Our greatest president, Mister Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 19 and 36 got the ball rolling. I came along in ’38, but even I knew. Folks have no idea!”

The inside is packed. Every corner, every bit of space taken up. “Not enough room for a rat to take a piss!” is how she would have put it. Jeremy smiled at the thought. Tupperware full of leftovers, aluminum foil wrapped mysteries, endless little bundles of polyethylene clear baggies filled with remnants of meals from who knows when—Jeremy sighed and pulled the big garbage can over. The first layer went into the can without hesitation. “Why were you hanging on to single sandwich buns and so many heels of loaves of bread?” he asked her memory. Single hot dogs, old packages of ground meat, even an old aluminum ice tray with the handle that always skinned his knuckles lay in wait for his archeological dig through the strata and sediment of sentiment and thriftiness. Wilted cardboard boxes of ice cream sandwiches—her secret vice, though presumably for grandkids—were wedged around something of a mounded shape. He tugged. It stuck fast. Determined, Jeremy took the old ice tray and tried to hack it loose. It skinned his knuckles, but it worked.

He finally lifted out his treasure, a small turkey, thoroughly freezer burned beyond most recognition. He brushed off heavy frost and read the date. November 3, 1982. The month Jeremy was born. He gasped, “She kept it.” Jeremy was due to arrive on earth in early December of that year. Her pregnancy at age 44 had been fraught with difficulty. Mom bought the small turkey in anticipation of a joyous Thanksgiving before giving birth. But something had gone wrong, something about “an old problem” was all she ever said. The same “old problem” that had made his parents give up on ever having children. They had to induce labor and she nearly died from bleeding. She missed cooking the feast and the turkey stayed in the freezer. Mom insisted to him that as long as that turkey stayed in the freezer, her “old problem” would stay at bay, and she would live to see her grandchildren. His kids are now 12 and 10. “This old turkey did the trick,” he whispered, thinking of them and their grandma sneaking out here for ice cream sandwiches. He had to put the frozen hulk down so he could wipe away hot tears.

“Damn, Mom, I miss you,” he muttered as he turned back to his task. A glimpse of unexpected color showed through the heavy mist forming in the frigid air near the bottom. Jeremy scraped and clawed until he exposed a covering of old quilting fat quarters folded over the last layer. “What the…?” He pried at one corner, and it made an awful groan like a grave opening as he pulled the shroud of fat quarters away. He stared, not knowing what to think. Below lay the mystery of a folded green uniform and a scrapbook. Neither was wrapped against the brutal elements at the bottom of an old freezer.  Yet neither seemed the worse for it. Jeremy had to lean all the way in and nearly lost his balance as he tried to cradle the uniform and scrapbook. He felt like he was falling and jerked up, knocking his head against the open lid. The uniform and book fell on the floor of the garage in a heap.

Jeremy sank down beside them and gingerly lifted the uniform blouse, then dropped it in horror. It was a woman’s cut. On the collar were the bars of a lieutenant. And the insignia of the Army Nurse Corps.  He picked it up again and made himself look. Above the pocket he read his mother’s maiden name. Strangely stained with something dark. Below the line of the pocket were horrible rips and cuts. All stained dark. His mother’s blood. All he could do was stare. What on earth was this? How did he not know? “You never said a word, Mom. Not a word.” His voice sounds strained and his hand trembles as he reaches for the scrapbook and opens it in his lap over the bloodstained tunic. It is her story. Her secrets from the freezer.

“In country. 1964. Lots of us here and more coming every day,” reads the caption in the 26-year-old version of Mom’s handwriting, over pictures of Army drab green everywhere. Pictures of eager to serve young men and women in a few short pages turns to pictures of haunted eyes and tiredness that won’t end. Pictures of other nurses and doctors and soldiers and Vietnamese and helicopters and jungle and bottles of booze and bandages and surgery and blood and more blood. Jeremy is brought up short by a picture of Mom in the arms of a handsome young doctor. “Phil, love of my life!” More pictures of Phil, a doctor at the base. The afternoon ticks away as he slowly pages through. “We’re gonna marry!” heads one with lots of hearts drawn around two weary looking souls, trying desperately to smile.

The last page has only one picture. It’s a ruined hospital tent. Blown to pieces.  And in some stranger’s handwriting: “Annie was shot when the VC overran us. Phil was working to save her when he bought it. Whoever reads this, take care of her. She’s precious and I’ll make sure she gets this back . As she always said about the misery here, “Still runnin’, ain’t gonna turn my back on it.”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.