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Stuff Part II

My prior post, Stuff Part I, addressed some of the issues and emotions many of us feel when we have to dispose of possessions—either ours or those of a parent or other cherished person. In this post, I discuss wrestling with the decision of which of your kids’ childhood possessions to save.

I would like to keep EVERYTHING. Really, I’m not kidding—everything. When I think about disposing of any of these items, I feel as if I am throwing away a piece of my boys. I pick up a size 2T shirt, or a crayon drawing of a dog, determined to toss it. But I just can’t do it. My family tells me that I have built a shrine to each of my children. They don’t mean that in a good way.

If you were to come up to the third floor of my house, you most likely would be amazed, concerned for my sanity, appalled—or any combination of these. Custom built cabinets run along two of the walls. Yes, you read that correctly: custom built. I had them designed and built by a carpenter for the sole purpose of storing mementos that I have collected and preserved since I found out I was pregnant with my older son (who is now 31).

The cabinets measure 36 running feet in total, stand a bit over two feet high, and are two feet deep. That’s a hell of a lot of space (many would say a ridiculous amount) dedicated solely to stockpiling chazerai (Yiddish for junk or garbage). This does NOT include the even more capacious cabinets I had built to house my collection of family photos. If I start going down that rabbit hole, I will never get to the end of this post.

Many of my contemporaries have faced this same dilemma, either when moving or simply wanting to reduce the clutter that threatens to engulf them. Most of them are proud of the fact that they have filled one plastic bin per child with keepsakes. One entire bin! They think that having retained that amount of child-related memorabilia is a big accomplishment.

I think so too, but in a different way. How did they manage, I wonder, to get rid of enough stuff that everything they are keeping fits into one bin? I am both incredulous and envious.

I decided to consult my children. Perhaps they appreciated the fact that I had kept so many souvenirs of their childhood. When I asked for their thoughts, they both howled with laughter. Once they regained their composure, they enthusiastically offered examples of my “crazy lady hoarding.” Here is their list. I am certain that given more time, they could come up with a much longer one.

Outdated and dangerous baby furniture and other equipment: The modern parent knows that many items that generations of parents have used are now considered unsafe. One of these items is drop side cribs. The crib in which my children slept is simple and beautiful but of course has a drop side, as did all cribs at that time. For years I imagined a sweet little grandchild sleeping in the same crib as his or her father. I know this is not going to happen, and that crib will never be used again. Yet I just can’t part with it.

Crib accessories: Same rule for pillows, blankets, and bumpers as for old cribs—do not use them. They may cause suffocation or SIDS. Wait, what? No bumpers? Won’t the little baby hurt his or her head on the crib slats? (No.) How can a baby stay warm without a blanket? (By swaddling.)

I remember the thrill of picking out these items for each of my boys, taking time to choose just the right colors and design. They are adorable, and still in good condition. I was certain I could use them when my grandbabies came to sleep at grandma’s house. Wrong. Do not use them and don’t donate them, so that no other parent will make the mistake of using them. (This applies to the aforementioned crib as well.) Still, I neatly fold and place each piece into the cabinets. Those tiny but fluffy things eat up an awful lot of storage space. But they hold sweet memories.

Random tzotchkes (Yiddish for junk that creates clutter but serves no useful purpose): Broken crib mobiles; a cracked, and therefore unusable, plastic baby bowl; bottles and nipples; a paper diaper (unused) with Son #2’s name painted on it (received as a gift); The New York Times published on their birthday each year (not just on the day they were born); jars of disintegrating baby teeth; and the bottle from Son #1’s first prescription. Go ahead, laugh. I know it’s nutty.

Clothes: The clothes and shoes my sons wore are magic to me. I can hold a shirt up to my cheek, close my eyes, and be transported back to something one of them did or said when wearing it. Yes, weirdly I actually do remember these things.

Even stranger (at least I am self-aware), I have tucked little notes inside many of the garments so my kids will know the story associated with it. Son #1 will know that I bought him an outfit decorated with ants because his teacher said he had “ants in his pants.” Son #2 will know which stretchie he wore when we brought him home from the hospital.

When I placed these clothes on the shelves in the cabinets, I honestly believed that one day I would dress my grandchildren in their fathers’ baby clothes. Not happening. So many of the clothes are outdated, or frayed, or the elastic has disintegrated. Looking more closely I see that many of them bear stains from food, formula, or spittle.

What’s more, I have saved multiple items from each category of clothing. Why would I need ten pairs of the same pajamas, 12 plaid flannel shirts, fifteen stretchies, seven Osh Kosh b’Gosh overalls, 18 pairs of shorts, six parkas, and on and on? Because I couldn’t decide whether to keep the pajamas decorated with cowboys or the ones with aliens. Should I keep the red plaid flannel shirt or the blue one? I didn’t want to decide—and with all those cabinets I didn’t have to!

Art: Or, as my kids refer to it, “shitty artwork.” I probably have 98% (a conservative estimate) of the art created by my precious angels: drawings, paintings, homework containing drawings, handmade cards, ceramic and clay objects. Some are framed and hang on the walls of my house. Others sit in display cases. The rest are jammed into those cabinets on the third floor. They are stored in boxes, folders, and scrapbooks. Lots of boxes, folders and scrapbooks.

Some of the items are absolutely worth keeping. There’s a ceramic eagle sitting on a nest, and a cross-section of a planet made from clay, with aliens working industriously in the various compartments—both are creative and required a lot of skill. And no one can fault me for hanging on to cards the boys made for me, my husband, or their grandparents. But why keep page upon page of yellowing, dried out paper covered in scribbles?

One of my friends (who was probably on the brink of staging an intervention for me) told me about a service called SouvenarteBooks (www.souvenartebooks.com). A professional photographer takes pictures of each piece of art, and creates a book from the images. The books are museum quality, printed on archival paper, and assembled into a beautiful hardcover coffee table book.

I really liked this idea. I was hopeful it was the solution that would liberate me. When I received my books, they were everything the web site promised and more. They were gorgeous.

So here it was—time to fish or cut bait. I am sure you have guessed the outcome. I had my beautiful books, but I also wanted to keep the actual artwork. It hurt too much to imagine any of it ending up as landfill. For all their teasing, I told myself, my sons wouldn’t really want me to throw out something they had made with their own hands.

The next time Son #1 was home, he noticed one of his clay pieces on a shelf in the family room. He picked it up, turning it over in his hand. “Yes!” I thought to myself. “He likes being able to hold something he made.” Then he looked at me, laughed, and said, “I can’t believe you didn’t throw out this piece of crap.”

I guess I was wrong.

Maybe I Should Not Have Come to This Place

The first time we went to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was during the summer of 1986. I was pregnant with my first child. My husband and I fell in love with the wide soft beaches, the absence of crowds, and the ocean water that was so much warmer than what we were accustomed to in New Jersey.

The easiest types of vacations to take with young children are beach vacations. It’s hard to interest a four-year-old in the Coliseum. So we returned to Duck every summer for about ten years, with our first son (beginning when he was six months old), and later with two boys in tow. All four of us grow a bit tender inside when we pull out a memory of those days from the back of our minds, where it has been slumbering.

The island on which Duck is situated is a spit of land tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound. It’s on one of the many barrier islands along the North Carolina coast. Each side of the island is a different world. The air on the sound has a ripe smell, like plowed dirt. It’s so unlike the sharp salt smell on the ocean side, it’s hard to believe the two are less than a mile away from one another. I would go to the ocean to get some sun while I read, or to take a walk, or jump in the waves with my delighted and laughing kids. I went to the sound to sit, look across the water at the horizon, and think. Even now, I think of the ocean as outgoing and appropriate for the daytime. Conversely, I think of the sound as introspective and well suited for the end of the day as the sun is leaving, telling us it’s time to rest.

Our family’s favorite activity while on vacation in Duck was, hands down, crabbing. This consisted of sitting on the pier and dropping chicken necks, hooked onto strings, into the shallow brown water of the sound. It’s surprising how strong those chicken necks are. You would expect these fragile crescents of tiny, thin bones to snap after one or two insistent tugs from a crab’s pincers. But they never do. They always hold up until the crabs have picked away nearly every sliver of slimy, three-day-old meat.

For us, crabbing was always an end-of-the-day activity, having spent the day at the beach and therefore feeling lazy from the heat and the fresh air. I liked to end the day on this calmer water. The boys would be brown, despite my conscientious application of sunscreen, with a red flush across their cheeks and noses. We would go to the sound before returning to the house to shower. If I kissed one of the boys, I would taste salt and smell cocoa butter.

Sitting on the dock I would notice the sun softening into runny shades of orange and pink, as if someone had run a hand through it and smudged it across the sky. As dusk drifted in, the daytime sky deepened into dull silvery tones that matched the dock’s weathered boards. The horizon would blur and I could almost believe the sky was melting into the sound.

While I was contemplating the water, a great deal of action was going on around me. A tug on the string indicated that a crab had taken the bait. My husband would call out “Netman!” and the boys would spring into action.They took turns fetching the net. What pleasure I felt watching them hop around with anticipation.

We all would eye the water expectantly as my husband gathered in the line. The boys hoped for a big, fat one because my husband threw the little ones back into the water immediately. Once my husband eyed the size of the catch and gave the OK, whoever was “Netman” would bring the net underneath the crab. Together the boys would caution, “Be careful Daddy, don’t drop him,” as the crab wriggled until, with a flick of the wrist, my husband dumped the funny looking creature into the bucket. The boys would giggle at the scratchy metallic sound the claws made as the crab scuttled around the bottom of the pail.  After we’d been there a while, a pile of crabs accumulated.

Eventually, the boys would beg, “Ooh Daddy, please, let them dance, please.” My husband would smile at the boys’ pleasure in this small thing and dump the crabs onto the dock. For a moment they sat perfectly still, as if they were dazed and uncertain where they were or what had happened. Then they would skitter sideways along the dock, making a scratchy sound as they moved over the graying wood planks. It’s remarkable that they always know which direction will take them back to the water. Both boys would clap, glad that the creatures were back where they belonged.

One day we were joined on the dock by another family. They mentioned that they were going to keep the crabs they caught and have them for dinner. Since we never ate them, we offered them our haul. When they left with their buckets brimming, I looked at one of my boys and saw his lips quivering, his eyes shiny with the tears he was trying to hold back. He had overheard the other family talking about eating the crabs and he was shattered. Quick moral assessment in my head: Would it be acceptable to lie to him so he wouldn’t be so bereft? No brainer for me—of course it was. So I told him the family was taking the crabs to play with them on the sand near the ocean, and would put them into the sea when they were done. Big mistake! Through the copious tears that now coursed down his cheeks he asked, “But then how will they find their families?” My sweet boy.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I returned to Duck for the first time in many years. It was only the second time we were there without children. We had perfect weather and enjoyed a wonderful week being relaxed and lazy, noting what had changed (not much), and visiting favorite old haunts. One new addition was a wooden walkway that meandered for about a mile along the edge of the sound. We enjoyed walking there every morning. Then, one day, we came upon this scene:

 

A family with two young boys crabbing. The family we used to be so many years ago. Sadness wrapped me in a tight grip and wouldn’t let go. I didn’t just cry—I sobbed, for at least an hour. I cried for time lost that I could never retrieve, time that I viewed as possibly the best time of my life, come and gone. I wanted to be on that dock with two little boys, my little boys.

I longed for all the sensations to which young parents are privy. I wanted to feel the dense weight of a baby in my arms, with legs and arms so fat there are creases where there are no joints, with chubby, dimpled hands that look as if you could screw them on and off. I ached to again feel my baby burrowing his creamy face into my neck and to listen to his tiny little baby grunts.

I wanted my seven-year-old son back, the one who climbed into my bed and snuggled as close to me as possible. He would be slightly damp from his bath, and I would be able to smell the shampoo in his hair, the soap on his young smooth skin. That boy who was now a memory would slip his slender arms and legs around me in a full body hug, listening with rapt attention as I read a story I had read to him hundreds of times before.

But then I thought about what I have now. Two beautiful (inside and out) young men, who work hard and have a strong moral compass. Who have already achieved great things, and overcome serious challenges that would have defeated me. Who have each taught me fundamental truths through their exemplary behavior. Who make me laugh. Who have amazing lives ahead of them that I have no right to wish away by longing for the past. Who always make me feel happy and supported and loved.

What more could I ask for? I am extraordinarily lucky. Why would I want to go back twenty-five years when what I have now is so precious and rare? I think of a saying I once heard:

Don’t be sad because it’s over.

Be glad that it happened.

The next day we walk by that same family. I hope they are making memories they will cherish. It’s their turn. I smile and wave and continue walking.

Be Kind…Be Patient…And Smile

When I was diagnosed with lymphoma in November 2010, I made a promise—to myself, to G-d, to the universe. I vowed that if I were to make a complete recovery, I would never, ever, ever again sweat the small stuff, or be rattled by petty annoyances. I also pledged to use all my senses to experience life on a visceral level, rather than going through the motions in a preoccupied, disconnected state.

From now on, I would revel in experiences through which I had previously sleepwalked: the warmth seeping into my pores on the first sunny day of spring; the joy and wonder of a baby wrapping her soft fist around my finger; the decadent delight of a food coma brought on by a sumptuous meal; the satisfying crunch I hear when walking through piles of dried leaves on a chilly November day; the consuming love I feel when both my boys are home and the entire family squashes itself on the couch to watch National Lampoon’s Animal House (or some similarly silly movie). Cancer had slapped me upside the head and hollered, “I hope now you realize what’s really important in life.” I had no doubt I would straighten up and follow those instructions.

I’m sure you can guess what came next. Once my doctor declared me to be “cured,” I went back to my former life, in more ways than one. I could go out and run errands because I no longer had to worry about being exposed to other people’s germs. I could eat salad and fresh fruit again. I didn’t have to go to the hospital every day for radiation treatments. I could get manicures and pedicures, and go to the dentist (yippee!). Eventually I could walk around without a cap and not resemble an egg.

But it wasn’t just the rhythms and activities of my daily life, that reverted to the way they had been before a routine CAT scan showed a misshapen lump growing under my left arm. Little by little—like an icicle melting as the weather warms–my outlook, my attitude, and my ability to tolerate inconsequential irritations returned to their pre-November 2010 state. I became angry when the cable guy was an hour late and called the dispatcher, saying awful, condescending things to him.  When we went to see Hamilton, and the understudy (who by the way was excellent) was substituting for Lin Manuel-Miranda, I fumed for the entire show. Instead of being appreciative that I had hair again, I cursed its frizzy texture. In fact, I hadn’t learned much from my life-threatening illness.

I recently made the acquaintance of a young woman named Aubin Mandel. She was diagnosed with esophageal cancer on October 27th, 2016. Aubin is 37 years old and had become engaged shortly before her diagnosis. This past winter, she underwent five rounds of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of radiation. On February 14th of this year, she had major surgery. Two months later, in April, they found a new mass on her liver, later diagnosed as stage 4 metastatic cancer for which she is currently undergoing another round of chemotherapy.

Aubin is remarkable in many ways, not the least of which is her optimism. She recently wrote a piece that she has graciously allowed me to share with you:

“Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

This quote really resonates with me, and is something I try and do everyday. Everyone leads a different life with different struggles. I believe we are all struggling in some capacity and I know for certain that we will all face adversity and hardship in our lives, some more than others.

I have been able to keep my hair, this round of chemo and the last, and I look relatively healthy. I hear it all the time: “Omg. You would never know!!! ” I am extremely grateful for this, for my own mental strength, to not be reminded every single time I look in the mirror, and for being able to go out and face the world and not be looked at and treated as “sick.”

From the outside, for people that don’t know my story, life looks pretty darn easy, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Life is difficult right now. I struggle, I feel terrible for weeks at a time, I get sad, I have sleepless nights, I am scared, I am confused, I get angry with life and for everything I have had to go through, and for everything that has been taken from me. A lot goes on behind closed doors that most people know nothing about. And this is true for ALL of us.

“We have NO idea what it took for someone to get out of bed in the morning, to look and feel presentable, and to face the day.”

Be kind and good to those around you. The taxi driver. The waitress. The barista. The person in line in front of you. Your spouse. Your friend. Your mom. Have patience. Be understanding. Be compassionate. And, smile. We all have the ability to bring light and energy into someone else’s day. What a powerful thing.

“We cannot change the cards we have been dealt, just how we play the hand.” I am beginning to embrace my journey when I view it as a learning tool for myself or an inspiration for others.”

I am thankful everyday for the people that show me kindness. ❤️🙏🏻

Round 4, here we go!!!!

I have read Aubin’s powerful words again and again and again. They inspire me, as well as cause me to reflect on myself. My friends and I often bemoan the fact that we are getting “so old.” We wish we were teenagers, or back in college, or new parents enjoying our sweet little babies. We want to look young and feel young, be attractive and energetic. Truthfully, youth is beautiful. However, thinking about Aubin reminds me how vain and foolish and superficial these yearnings are–and how lucky I am simply to be alive.

Aubin embraces everything in her life, both the good and the awful. For me, the takeaway message is this: When you spot a new wrinkle on your forehead, or turn away from the mirror so you don’t have to see the skin under your arms sagging like an empty pouch, don’t beat yourself up. The paunch many of us now have, courtesy of time and gravity, is not a calamity. In fact, we are in a way fortunate to be saggy and have cellulite and gray hair, as the following quote reminds us:

“Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” (Anonymous)

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To end on a lighter note, in my last post I promised to “translate” the acronyms in the sample conversation at the end of the post. So here we go…SFLR: Sorry for late response; AFK: Away from keyboard; NP: No problem; WU: What’s up; NM: Not much; CYT: See you tonight; SLAP: Sounds like a plan; GR8: Great; GTG: Got to go; POS: Parent over shoulder; TBC: To be continued; TTYL: Talk to you later. Thanks for reading.