So this is how it goes: you’re cleaning up. You throw away the Cheerios crumbs, the paper scraps, the mysterious and potentially hazardous small plastic pieces. You put away the toys – jam the stuffed animals into their bin, toss the Legos back in their case, tuck the crayons back into their box. You start a pile of things to go upstairs – clothes, headbands, a loose sock, a hairbrush. And that’s the easy, somewhat satisfying part. You save the hardest for last.
“It’s a drawing of daddy,” she had said. “See his head and his arms and his legs?” You didn’t. You saw what looked like a decapitated monochrome ladybug. But you nodded and said, “I like your use of the color blue for his body.” Because that is what you’re supposed to say, right? She walked out of the room, and you really wanted to throw away the drawing of daddy. But could you have? Should you have? There had been at least five other drawings of daddy in recent memory and she had never asked to see them again. You do have a folder designated for this kind of stuff, but it makes you feel claustrophobic just thinking about adding more to it. Already this folder is overflowing with “work” that came home from preschool – color studies, attempts at writing letters, scraps of paper to show she knows how to safely use a pair of scissors. You decided to put the drawing of daddy into a different pile of papers – the pile you deemed “pending” – to go over at some later point.
What you’ve realized lately about being a mom to young children is that you’re also still somebody’s daughter, a daughter-in-law, and in some cases, still somebody’s granddaughter. So you have a mother who is downsizing and clearing out her house and thinks you should be so grateful for any old “keepsake” she brings by. You are tired of hearing her say that your generation has too many toys. You understand that all our children really need to play with is a piece of Tupperware and a wooden spoon, but that doesn’t mean that your house needs to become the dumping ground for all outdated kitchen supplies, including cookie swap containers from the early eighties.
You have a grandmother in her nineties whose eyes fill with tears as she hands you a pair of black shoes she loved to wear when she was your age. Though you know that when your grandma was your age, many women wore such sensible heels to jobs that required them to be on their feet all day, you have no storage room or occasion to wear such shoes today. How can you say to her, no I really don’t need those? You can’t. Instead you smile and accept them graciously and remind yourself that most of your friends do not have their grandparents anymore. You know that you can just drive straight from her assisted living home to one of those bins where you can donate the shoes, but you won’t because you feel bad that she was so happy about giving them to you. And, she won’t be around for that much longer, and what if she comes over and asks to see the shoes on you? She has done such a thing before. Her memory is better than you give her credit for.
At the end of a long day, you return to the pile of undecided papers. They’re all still there, of course, waiting to be filed or framed or thrown away. You pick up the drawing of daddy and tell yourself that your daughter is only four. Has her memory even really begun yet? We all have pre-five-year-old memories, but they are fleeting and must be monumental to have survived this long. Yours include a preschool morning when you were too busy playing and you couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time, so you wet through your favorite red wool tights, and the afternoon your whole family brought home your first dog, a Bichon Frisee named Puff, who peed on you in the way back of your parents’ Volvo. Now that you have a four-year-old you who shrieks with laughter over “potty” talk, you are beginning to understand why memories involving peeing would be the most likely not to be lost along the way.
Your daughter will not remember if you “misplace” her rendering of daddy. Besides, if she asks to see it the next day, and she becomes upset when you tell her that you can’t find it, is that really a big deal? Parents lose things all the time, don’t they? How is this any different? You know it’s different because there will be a new drawing of daddy tomorrow and you’ll have to go through this again, so why don’t you just decide now how you’re going to handle this rather than putting it off. Though you know it has all become too much: your stuff, their stuff, your parents’ stuff, your grandparents’ stuff, your spouse’s stuff, their family’s stuff….
For now, you recognize that you are the keeper of your child’s memories. After all, when she is grown with her own family, doesn’t it make you feel warm to think of yourself showing up at her home with a stack of drawings she made of her daddy when she was just four years old? Don’t you want to have that moment? Even though it’s ridiculous and you know you have many more days, months, years, of artwork to vet, you file the drawing and vow to be stronger the next time. Instead, you fill a box with your parents’ and grandparents’ junk and drive it to Goodwill. They will not ask for it, they have probably already forgotten about it, you decide, and hopefully, you will outlive them. What they couldn’t discard will not become yours to keep. They are the keepers of your early memories, and though they’re probably blurry at best now, you promise yourself that you’ll find a way to tell them that those memories are all that you want from them now.