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Before I had kids I was a pack rat. This is a genetic trait. My mother's attic contains more stuff by both weight and volume than her actual house does, and you should see her house. Suffice it to say, if you want to know how a troubled marriage was saved in the July 1984 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, you might want to check my mother's coffee table, which contains several cubic yards of old magazines.
Not that I'm complaining. I inherited the impulse to hang on to useless bits of flotsam, even though I myself didn't grow up on a struggling farm during the Great Depression or endure the privations of world war. Still, in my own attic you could find every note that was ever passed to me in the eighth grade, a large box containing every article I ever wrote for a student newspaper, and every poem I inflicted on a school literary magazine. And the wedding/honeymoon/school-teacher detritus from my pre-parenthood years? That stuff has its own attic wing.
The thing is, I don't save every letter and every birthday card and every draft of every poem anymore. That all stopped when I had children. Specifically, it stopped when I was pregnant with Joe, my third child. One day in the middle of my last trimester I hauled my heft up the attic ladder while I still had a prayer of fitting through the opening. When I had all the baby equipment spread out and saw how much more gear I needed to squeeze into my smallish house -- crib, changing table, rocking chair, baby clothes, about 3,000 stuffed animals -- something in me snapped. Unable to see my own feet, I was already taking my life in my hands whenever one of my existing kids woke up crying at night and I had to navigate around so many Lego and Tinkertoy obstacles in the dark. What was it going to be like in this pack rat's nest with another person's belongings spilling onto our floors?
Since then, whenever I find something that in the old days I would have shoved into the attic -- outgrown clothes and toys, unwelcome gifts -- I save it for the first charity that calls asking for donations. Twice a year, when the kids are at school, I go through their closets and throw out every Happy Meal toy and anything missing a wheel or an arm. Much artwork that another mom would hang on the refrigerator I look at, praise lavishly and then -- when the artist is asleep, sneak into the recycling bin.
Mostly this is a sane policy when five people share limited space. But my children rarely welcome a sane family policy, particularly where their "treasures" are concerned. Just about every day they catch me in some fresh outrage that goes like this:
Joe: "What happened to that great picture I drew of the Jedi fighting all those storm troopers?"
Me: "Um, I thought you were finished with it."
Joe: "I am finished drawing it. But now I want to hang it up."
Me: "Well, I'm not sure where it is anymore."
Joe: "You threw it away, didn't you?"
Me: "I didn't actually throw it away, honey, but I might've possibly set it down with some other papers that could've wound up in the recycling bin."
Joe, tearing up: "M-o-m! That was a good picture! How would you feel if I went around throwing away your good stuff?"
All I can say in my own defense is that this child draws "a good picture" every day of his life. The walls in our house are covered by the good pictures that he and his brothers have drawn over the years and that they aren't willing to take down to make room for the new. Bill Gates doesn't have the wall space to display all this art.
And that's just the case of the purloined papers, which actually linger in the family room for a few days before I try to spirit them away. It gets worse with three-dimensional objects, which take up whole tabletops and which I tend to toss out before the glue is fully dry. Sam, the budding scientist, will reminisce about his first taxonomy project, and I'll have to admit -- because, at 15, Sam's perfectly able to tell when I'm lying -- that it's now under several tons of trash in a Nashville landfill.
It doesn't help that my kids have recently discovered I never wrote a single line in any of their baby books, and that I haven't put a picture in an album since 1996, when Henry was born and suddenly the pictures doubled. Who could possibly take care of two kids, much less document their every move and keep it all organized, too?
Okay, some mothers do. My sister is one of them. Lori has a whole closet filled with all the materials she needs to create beautiful scrapbooks for each of her children: pinking shears, rulers, colored paper, die cutters and templates, decorative borders, photo corners, bright stickers, double-sided tape. She even made a scrapbook for Joe, her godchild, that features every major occasion of his life so far.
But it's really only the wrecked race cars and the millionth drawing of a Jedi starfighter that I ditch completely. I do have a secret stash of precious items. They aren't organized or carefully labeled or beautifully showcased, but beneath my bed there are three huge plastic containers -- one each for Sam, Henry, and Joe -- and inside are all the treasures I can't bear to part with: locks of baby hair; lost teeth; growth charts from the pediatrician; First Communion cards; field day ribbons; letters to Santa; Thanksgiving turkeys made from a tiny, painted hand pressed onto construction paper; lucky pennies; love notes from little girls; book reports; homemade valentines; even a couple dozen Jedi starfighters. I don't show them to my children because I don't want them to know -- not yet, though Joe is the only believer left -- that Santa Claus doesn't really save their letters. But I look through those boxes some nights after the kids are in bed, just to finger the trail my babies left me, like bread crumbs through Hansel and Gretel's forest, as they were busy becoming big boys. Every now and then I'll pull out a crooked little card and set it on my desk so I can read the inscription again and again: "To the best Mommy in the hole wurl."
In the end, I guess, I'm more of a recovering pack rat than a reformed one. I'm not my mother's daughter for nothing.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2007.