I once spent an entire weekend going through my parents’ house looking for a book I had authored in kindergarten. My mother had saved this book, and I had read it several times in my youth, the images and illustrations still lucid in my mind. And now, having children who could read and write books themselves, I wanted to share my antique creations with them. I sat for hours unearthing every storage box, flipping through papers, opening folders. When I had exhausted the basement shelves, I teetered on beams in the attic crawl space, lunged over the Pesach dishes, and dug through boxes there. I found some old books by Ann M. Martin, but none written by me.
I sat in the dusty space, inhaling the musty smell, and imagined my precious book lying buried in a garbage dump, or incinerated, the ashes fluttering up and among the stars. It was like a piece of my childhood, a glimpse of my youth, had disappeared.
And yet despite this loss, I am a pretty big hypocrite. I freely admit that I throw away my kids’ creations. There is simply no room to store all that they make, nor do I think that a multi-colored paint scribble defines who the child was at 3. I would need to build an addition to our home or add a silo in the backyard to house every last painted honey dish.
I do keep a “savings box,” a large Tupperware container in which I occasionally deposit a project or an essay that merits eternal life, selecting items that truly depict a reflection of thought or emotion or creativity. I have also designated a cupboard in which certain key items are wait-listed for their trash-can fate (after once throwing out my daughter’s workbook, thinking she was done with it, and then the teacher wrote home a few days later, wondering where it was. Oops). And if nobody remembers or needs that item, it then gets silently tossed. Some of my kids exist in “savings-bliss,” the ignorant state of believing that every math or parsha sheet brought home gets framed and hung. But the painful truth: They are thrown away.
While I’m in confession mode, I’ll just let it all out and pray that my kids don’t read this. Sometimes I don’t even look at the project or review the classwork. I just dump the contents of the folder straight into the garbage, and then I perform a secret move that I will share with you. I take a plastic grocery bag and place it on top of the disposed papers to hide them. If the child’s items still seem to show, I then do a garbage-mix, where I use the plastic bag as a glove and stir the contents of the garbage around so that apple peels, yesterday’s rice, and a wet napkin render the spelling test unreadable. For super-large Seder plates with too much glitter, or sukkah decorations now wet and moldy from the passing holiday, I tie them up in a grocery bag, and journey outside to our dumpster. I am always nervous that the bulky edges will peak out from the kitchen trash and get me in trouble.
I wasn’t always so meticulous in my style. Late at night, with no one watching, I’d collect all the errant papers left scattered around the kitchen, the loathed Scholastic book forms, the hardened Play-Doh sculptures that leave crumby trails in their wake, and gleefully fill the kitchen garbage to its brim. I have also been known to include birthday party goody bags, torn shoelace collections, Rainbow-Loom bracelets, the now defunct Silly-Bandz and a few Lego pieces here and there. I like to minimize the clutter, get rid of that which no longer commands attention so that we can better focus on that which does. And I naively thought that if the garbage can was closed, nobody would actually question its contents.
But I’ve been caught. On many occasions. “Who threw away my Dum-Dum Wrapper collection?” my son beseeches me, after noticing one fly-away wrapper peeking out from a tissue.
“Oh, it must have just fallen off of the counter and into the garbage,” I say. I used to blame the cleaning lady, but then the kids started to confront her, so I had to change my alibi. My son then proceeds to dig through the entire contents of the garbage can, wondering what else might have “fallen off the counter,” and angrily finds a Simchat Torah flag. It is hastily removed, and I then have to iron it with my arm, trying to smooth out the wrinkles and blot at the oil stains with a napkin, to further promote my innocence.
The garbage can is like a melting pot for all things interesting, a collection site for everything that once breathed life, but no longer does—at least in my opinion. “We have different eyes,” my daughter once told me, when I demanded she clean her messy room. “I see it as neat.” But that’s not the only way our eyes differ. The children cannot let go of their things with the same nonchalance as I do, and routinely peer into the depths of the garbage, foraging for what was theirs, and far worse, things they think should be salvaged.
“When you finish that seltzer can, I’ll keep it to make a robot!” my daughter offers. While my recycling-savvy mom would be very proud, I hand her the can, and she indeed does turn it into a robot, which mysteriously “walks away” back into the recycling bin in the darkest part of the night, as do the milk-container-bowling pins and the princess crown from the cereal box we simply had to cut out.
Recently, we replaced the desk in my office space in our house and, as I cleaned out the drawers, I discovered an old journal of mine from college. I took it out and flipped through its pages, the handwriting loopy and flamboyant, and then threw it back inside. It was like looking at an old, awkward picture; both liking and hating it at the same time. My writings had seemed so precious, recording my innermost thoughts to eternally save. But as I look back at who I was, I don’t really want to remember myself so distinctly in youth. It doesn’t seem accurate. It’s not me in the moment, not a reflection of my current values and ideas, not who I want to be remembered as. I am now a summary of my parts, and that journal is only one small part, etched in history.
Maybe it’s okay to throw things away. Maybe it will be good that my child won’t remember her misspellings in first grade, or how she used to write some of her letters backwards. The loss of these things—of their art, their books, their writings—is the loss of recorded youth, but not the loss of active growth. And every now and then, I save a part to complete the picture of their development, a picture which is still, painstakingly, being painted.
Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer living with her husband and four children in Teaneck. She is working on her first book. More of her essays can be found at www.writersblackout.wordpress.com.
By Sarah Abenaim