A toddler chalkboard easel. A size 2 wetsuit. Wooden playclips for building forts. A small trampoline with a handlebar across the side—the children spent hours jumpin on it every winter day, and used it as a “bunk bed” though it’s only eight inches off the floor. They hung by their knees from the handlebar, ignoring the manufacturer’s safety warnings.
Wooden train tracks.
The attic fills with toys-once-dear, artifacts of earlier years of my parenting life, the silken capes, some of them hand-dyed with marigold petals as a kindergarten project. Thick books with cardboard pages, so critical for everyday life—just a few months ago, it seems.
Now our living space fills with musical instruments, a violin, a keyboard, woodwinds of all kinds, ocarinas and pan pipes. The shelves fill with chapter books—never enough to satisfy the hungry readers—and always a few really good books we parents nudge children to try. Someday they will. A few picture books still linger, though they gather dust. My son needs a shelf just for his baseball collections, and my daughter crafts more paper dolls than we can house. Nowadays her paper dolls look more like contemporary teenagers and less like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Our handcrafted cloth dolls might need to be tucked away in tissue paper soon, to protect them from dust and teenage experiments.
My daughter laughed when I showed her the tiny flower-print cap she wore for her first few months, when she had no hair. Newborn pajamas seem impossibly small. She is in middle school now.
As winter sets in I notice the differences between this year and the last: we didn’t visit the playground this fall, too busy with swim lessons and play dates and my teaching schedule. My son still loves to return home at the end of the school day, but gone are the days of building little cities on the floor, and pushing small cars along handmade roads.
I love these kids’ ages, now more than ever. Madeleine crafted tuna salad sandwiches for my dinner, yesterday, because I had schoolwork due. Soon winter will arrive in earnest and Brendan will commandeer the snow shoveling. Twelve years from now my children could be parenting their own babies, and suddenly twelve years doesn’t seem long at all.
Saving these toys happened by accident—I thought I sold the trampoline years ago. A friend offers $20 for the easel and the bottles of tempera paint. A mom at school gives me $10 for the wetsuit. But I scrap the plan to sell the wooden barn, the dollhouse. I can pack away a few boxes and hold them for a decade or maybe more. And tucked in beside the useful toys, I’ll enclose the tiny pajamas and hats, the special dolls. Why? I don’t know. I have two small boxes of my own belongings from childhood—nothing I’d pass on to anyone else, really. I loved my room as a kid, my quilt with the birds embroidered on it, and only a few other things. I kept a teddy bear my friend Cheryl gave me in eighth grade. My son sleeps with it—he asked me one day how old the Teddy is, and when I answered, “your bear is 33,” he paused for a moment and said, “Let’s just say she’s two.” I have a hard time wrapping my head around that many years, too.
I keep the tiny purple and white alarm clock I spied at a store when I was ten years old. I nagged my mother each visit to the store, reminding her there was only one alarm clock like it. I couldn’t find a price tag for it. Then it disappeared from the store shelves and I grieved and pouted. When I found the tiny clock atop of my stack of presents under the Christmas tree, I was like Clara in the Nutcracker, making everyone confirm that the clock was perfect, its ticking was perfect, its alarm bell was perfect. “Three dollars and ninety-five cents,” my mother muttered to my dad. “Maybe we didn’t need to get her all those other things,” my dad quipped over his Christmas cup of coffee. I wound the clock dutifully through high school and college until it stopped ticking.
My little purple and white alarm clock sits on my son’s workbench, now. I keep opening the back to see what I can learn, to “fix” it for another few days, until it stops working again.
Each year I bring out “new” tools from my early adult life: the alarm clock, which the boy might learn to fix. My daughter was delighted to find I have a full set of calligraphy pens and inks, which I set aside for just this time. In the springtime, I will offer them some juggling toys I bought at Pike Place Market, in Seattle, in 1987.
I will choose carefully before packing “the keepers” from my children’s childhoods—we can’t keep much, so it’s best to sort carefully now. The rocking horse my father made, it stays. The travel mattress for toddlers goes, and the nursing pillow. Soon I will make one more pass through the bags of kid art projects, to see which pages offer a snapshot of who they were, when they were smaller, the “alien people” whose bodies were round, and to discover which of the paintings no one can identify any longer.
Keeping mementos is a very odd practice. Can anyone say why we do it? We want our children to know they were loved, I suppose—but they already know that in ways far deeper than a rocking horse would show. We can't keep much, so how do we choose?
Perhaps we keep things to remember who we were, when our children laughed and rocked for hours, singing, how we sang, too and glanced at one another over our coffee cups, happy to have chosen just the right thing, happy for our children to be completely and utterly satisfied.