The UPC Label Mystery

Mom’s obsession with Universal Product Codes began years ago after discovering if she collected enough and mailed them in—along with a substantial check—a beautiful “Collector’s Item” awaited at the end of the UPC rainbow. That’s all she needed to hear. So, throughout our house, whenever we opened a bag, a box, a bottle, a jar or can, all we heard was, “Save the label. Save the label.”

Hoarding UPCs just gave her another excuse to shop. She bought things she didn’t need, for labels no one else saved, to get junk no one else wanted. The only collectors of these “precious items” were suckers like Mom, who, unfortunately, were in ample supply. In every nook and cranny of our house, a collectible could be found. Things like: The Black Tower wine bottle telephone, the Campbell’s “Limited Edition” ceramic soup can, and the Jolly Green Giant Little Sprout alarm clock.

In 1992, during our fourth family reunion, in the quaint, quiet town of Holland, on the shore of “The Great Lakes State,” Mom shattered all tranquility when sharing her UPC fixation and their obscure value with everybody in, on or near Lake Michigan.

My brothers and I, along with our teenage nephew, Abe, were battling for the beach croquet championship, some fifty yards away, when we first heard the rumblings deep inside the house.

“Did you throw those labels out? Did you? I brought that cheese all the way from New Jersey.”

Her voice grew louder and louder as she marched from room to room, rummaging through trash can after trash can, tearing into any and all suspects unfortunate to be in her path. 

“I need those labels. Who threw them out?”

We grew up with her. So, this odd behavior, although a bit overboard, amused more than shocked. But for my nephew, it was just the opposite. Still, he felt relatively safe, some fifty yards away, in the deep sand, with Lake Michigan as an escape route. But after watching that crazed thing possessing his grandmother’s body emerge from the house, dig through every community garbage bin, and then zero in on the four of us, all bets were off. 

As she made a beeline through the deep sand, her face raging red, her weaponized “Take No Prisoners” finger waving at we Porro boys, Abe inched toward the water.

“Did one of you throw out my cheese labels?Don’t lie to your mother.”

But nobody interrupts beach croquet, the championship game no less, not even our mother. I don’t remember who started it, but as soon as she closed in and pointed thatloaded finger, one of us hit the sand as if struck by it. And the others followed. Again and again, she pointed. Again and again, we fell. We then pretended to struggle to our feet, only to take another dive as soon as that finger found us. We continued this charade for several more “beatings” until she threw her hands up in frustration and trudged back to the house. There she focused her rage on the next victim, Michael’s wife. But Mom met her match with Diane. We listened to the fireworks from where it was once again safe, fifty yards away, in the deep sand, with Lake Michigan as our escape route.

Later, a much-relieved Abe said watching his grandmother beating the hell out of three grown men was the funniest thing he ever saw. That was our goal. We didn’t want Mom’s first grandchild to fear her or her quirks.

What motivated Mom’s “Collector’s Item” passion that day remains a mystery, but I can guarantee that Abe never touched another one of her UPC labels ever again.

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Published by A Cup of Tea on the Commode, a memoir

The parent/child role reversal might not have been unique to me, but how I dealt with it was. "A Cup of Tea on the Commode" chronicles my multi-tasking adventures, filling my mother’s last years with love, laughter, and joy. Though not always successful, I came pretty damn close.

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