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Bushels and Bushels of Baskets

Some people like shoes. I'm the Imelda Marcos of baskets. But the similarity has less to do with numbers than yearning. Imelda clambers after a sense of abundance. I long for order. I can't control the clutter around me, so I strive to contain it. The more baskets I own, the closer I imagine myself coming to being organized.

I have baskets for all kinds of things - hot pads, seeds, garden implements, skeins of wool, magazines, paper, laundry, drying herbs, and gathering vegetables. I bought my daughter baskets for her hair ribbons, her shell collection, the stuffed animals, and the seven veils she uses as dancing props. Instead of order, I have harvested a preponderance of wicker.

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But I cling to my ideal. Baskets are the emblem of simplicity. I still have hope. Basket maintenance is a snap. Hose them out periodically, or stand them in a good soaking rain to keep them supple. A basket is lower maintenance than the dogs, and watching it gulp up the spring rain appeals to my ``green'' sensibilities.

I carry my seed basket, stained red and woven into a kind of flattened bucket, to the garden, a seasonal return to its natural habitat. Deep and wide, it holds not only seeds, but also the nippers, the Japanese weeders (one rusted, one not), string, and gloves. It sits in the middle of the herbs while I'm weeding, looking like a benevolent old aunt come around to offer moral support.

Its very presence gives me a sense of orderly process. My tools are always at hand; the seeds, however moldy, are accessible, and the basket, like Imelda's yellow satin pumps and white silk, looks great. I love the russet of its fading sides against the sage and purple of the Munstead lavender, like a piece of a Cubist sunset.

And, sitting there amid the elements that produced it, I'm reminded that the garden is merely a stop along the unbroken line of what was, what is, and what will be.

Other baskets do other duties. Sometimes, when I go to our small-town grocery store, I take the enormous wicker basket that my grandfather carried 20 blocks to Lexington Market and back almost 70 years ago. I hold it on my arm, feeling like Tess of the D'Urbervilles on her way through the village, and think of Granddaddy Hines. It's a thread of continuity. Granddaddy would be pleased.

The basket that sits over the stove holding a worn assortment of pot holders and oven mitts is woven of grape vines, the curled fronds folded like hands around its perimeter. It manages to withstand the blast of heat that rises from the oven vent, and contrasts with the metal and Formica of the kitchen, a reminder that food doesn't originate in plastic. It watches approvingly as I knead bread, stir raspberry jam, and teach my children to cook.

There are two bathroom baskets (one for each of the two bathrooms). Each holds magazines, but one collection is for the children, and one for adults. The upstairs basket that holds the kids' mini-library is sturdy, able to take the unconscious abuse inflicted in the course of a search for a particular issue or a lost toy that has scurried under the footed tub. It is inelegant but, like a car that has little style, it earns respect through the virtue of reliable service.

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The downstairs bathroom basket, for grown-ups and company, is squatter and slightly worn, but it holds more. It contains our yearning for a wider world amidst the hectic confines of our daily lives - National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, and newspapers - all of which testify to the outreach of mind if not body.

The basket in our bedroom that holds the knitting is huge and lopsided. I paid a ridiculously small price for it - hours of labor given away for a pittance. It wraps itself around the hand-spun sheep's wool, another product of the fields and streams.

I have a pile of ``gift'' baskets - those I do not have any particular attachment to but which do yeoman's work as bearers of thank offerings. The children's teachers each receive a basket of homemade things for Christmas, the container itself transforming the disparate jams and breads into a cohesive whole. These baskets are the ``temp help'' in my fluctuating household. One goes out filled to the brim with fresh-cut herbs; another arrives with a plant from a friend, evidence of the ebb and flow of living.

My laundry baskets, too, are a constantly shifting work force. They are often ill-treated - dragged out by the children in their efforts to help with chores, flung across the yard in a summer squall, and pitched onto the stair landing filled with sweet-smelling line-dried sheets. Each has taken its share of battering until it disintegrated and was relegated to the fire or the compost.

The only basket no longer in use is the old picnic basket. Heavy, with a drop lid and hinged oaken handles, the basket now sits in an outbuilding, home to mice and spiders. I sometimes feel guilty about its banishment from the realm of the everyday. I don't like to own more than I use. Yet I cannot bring myself to let it go. I tried to use it for a while, but it never held enough. Made before the giant economy-sized juice containers and prepackaged potato chips, it refuses to expand to fit modern proportions.

It remains stubbornly anachronistic, too small, too stiff to cram into a slot behind the car seat, too specialized to adapt to another use. But it was Grandmother's, and on that account alone I keep it. My memory of her is one of calm, a loving presence in a sometimes noisy, confusing world. And when I see the basket each spring while scrounging through the outbuilding for the garden stakes, I think again of her.

As I watch my daughter drag Granddaddy's market basket out to gather the tomatoes, I see that baskets will never really order my life. But they contain enough memories to make the clutter worthwhile. I doubt Imelda's shoes can do that.

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