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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.

I’m Still Here!

Dear Readers and Friends of The Tarnished Years,

I know it has been close to two months since I posted an entry. Some of you may wonder whether this means I am no longer publishing the blog. Let me assure you this is absolutely not the case.

As you know, life has a way of throwing curveballs at us, and redirecting our best intentions along an unanticipated detour.  After my son’s wedding in October, I found myself running in circles to catch up on things I had let slide during the period leading up to the big day.

Once I felt I was ready to make my re-entry into my pre-wedding routine and get on with my life, I was hit with what I have come to call “the plague.” I imagine many of you have gone through, or are in the midst of experiencing, this illness that seems to take its cues from the invasion of the body snatchers. Mine started as a slight soreness on just one side of my throat, followed by a full-blown sore throat that made me wince every time I swallowed. Soon the stuffy nose, rattling cough, headaches, and numbing fatigue showed up to the party.

One doctor diagnosed it as a virus that I just had to wait out. She gave me the good news that it would get much worse before getting better. Yippee! After a few days, she sent me to an ER doctor who said I had either bronchitis or pneumonia—they are really the same thing, he explained—and prescribed an antibiotic.

Nearly two weeks later, the sore throat is gone but the other symptoms remain. When I cough, it sounds as if someone is popping bubble wrap inside my chest. I go through more than one box of tissues a day, and the headache is relentless. I still need to nap at least once or twice a day.

“Why is she complaining to us?” you may be wondering. First of all, who doesn’t like to complain when they are sick and tired of being sick and tired? But the primary reason is that I want you to know that The Tarnished Years is still very much alive, and I hope to have a new post—one that is not a litany of maladies—in about a week and a half. I hope you will hang in there, and I hope none of you have this same bug or, if you do, that yours comes and goes more quickly than mine.

Meanwhile, Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and a wonderful holiday to those who celebrate something other than those two. As always, thanks for reading.

Letting Go Because I Love You

Before I begin this post, I want to thank all of you who have been reading this blog and following The Tarnished Year’s Facebook page. I hope you continue to enjoy and learn from my pieces, as well as from the featured articles. I also hope you find comments by fellow readers to be thought provoking and present points of view you might not have considered previously. My intent in leaving space for comments is to stimulate discussion amongst my readers.

Please tell your friends and family about us. If any of you are interested in being a guest blogger, you may reach out to me at Rhonda@TheTarnishedYears.com.

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The title of my last post, Stuff Part I, (posted October 2nd), suggested that my subsequent post would be Stuff Part II. There will be a Part II, but events in my life compel me to write about another topic first.

I often think of raising children as a series of transitions. They go to preschool for the first time, and every few years there is a graduation: from elementary school to middle school to high school. They have their first haircut. They get their first tooth and, later, lose their first tooth. There’s their first sleepover and the first time they go away to camp. They learn to drive and go out on their first date. Each one of us has our personal Achilles heel, that one transition (or transitions) that makes us sad. You may be puzzled about why you feel this way, and then you realize it’s because you are wondering where your little boy or girl has gone.

Until three weeks ago, the most wrenching transition for me, personally, was when I dropped each of my sons at college for the first time.  I still cry every time I think about it. It marked the first time I felt that they were leaving me behind. I worried that a fissure might develop in our emotional bond, inviolable up to that point, because I now would play little to no part in their daily lives. I wouldn’t know their friends or when they had a paper due. I wouldn’t be able to walk into the next room and give them a hug. Of course I was excited for them, but it was excitement tinged with a feeling of loss.

Then came my son’s wedding day, and I realized all those prior transitions were bush league by comparison. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, I was aware that our nuclear family was being altered permanently. It nagged at the back of my mind, but I didn’t dwell on it. I did not cry as my husband and I walked him down the aisle, nor during the ceremony. But in addition to feeling joyful, it was bittersweet for me when they said their vows and walked through the crowd as husband and wife, wearing the widest, most radiant smiles I have ever seen. Perhaps some of you had similar feelings when your child married.

I have joked on more than one occasion that when I attend a wedding, I want to take the couple aside and tell them, “You have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what you are getting into!” Yes, I am trying to get a laugh, but I am not entirely joking. When your children get married, you hope you have helped them develop the wisdom, common sense and courage they will need pretty much every day of their marriage.

Newlyweds—my son and his wife included—have faith that they will be able to handle any challenge they encounter, fortified by their love and respect for one another. Having observed my son and his now-wife for six years, I agree. They love and understand and support one another unconditionally. I can’t imagine a couple more prepared to deal with adversity when (not if) they encounter it.

As I am not a soothsayer, I have no way of knowing what bumps in the road await them. In my head I can reel off a list of the more common ones: one spouse feels the other spouse spends too much time at work; your child is sad or struggling and you have to decide what (if anything) to do while your heart twists and contracts with pain; disagreements over money or childrearing issues arise; someone is diagnosed with a serious illness that puts a strain on the whole family; there is bickering about trivial things (you always forget to take out the garbage, you never turn the lights off when you leave a room) that stealthily erodes the edges of a marriage, perhaps doing more damage than larger arguments.

I am confident they will function as a team, collaborating to solve difficulties that come their way. But I also know I will have to watch, silently, from a distance, as they do so. My mother-in-law used to mime zipping her mouth closed when she had an opinion she knew she had to keep to herself. I will be rooting for them all the way, but it will have to be from the sidelines. They will need to navigate their paths, both as a couple and as autonomous adults, without my input. Much of what comes to mind when one thinks of being a parent—nurturing, advising, molding character, leading the way—is now a thing of the past for me.

At the reception, each parent had an opportunity to speak. My remarks began with a few amusing anecdotes about my son’s childhood, continued with some playful ribbing about my daughter-in-law’s reaction when she first met our family, expressed our delight that she was joining our family, and told everyone what perfect partners they were for one another. (They really are.)

Then I directly addressed my son and his wife.

______, marrying _____ will be the most profound change you have experienced in your life so far. You are starting your own family unit, distinct from the family that your dad and I have nurtured and cherished for 31 years. Now your primary responsibility will be to your wife, to this new family the two of you will create. That is, of course, how it should be, and it is a type of happiness I have always wanted for you. However, while you and _____ are building something new, your father and I can’t help but feel some degree of loss, as if a rope connecting us to one another is fraying a bit.

No matter how much you and _____ love one another, marriage is SO hard. The fact is the two of you have many challenges ahead that right now you can’t even imagine. So, I would like to leave you with these words that are from the book and movie, Corelli’s Mandolin.

Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being in love, which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those who truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.

I wished them a marriage and a life of intertwining roots, of growth that creates one indestructible tree out of their love. We all raised our glasses and drank a toast to the newlyweds. And then it was time to dance.