Ten years ago my husband, Pat, and I threw almost every knickknack we had into a box before our firstborn could destroy it. We put the box in the basement of our apartment building, intending to reunite with our stuff when our son was older. The box sat, like a time capsule, in a cage seven stories below us. When we finally decided that it was safe to bring up the box, however, we couldn't remember what was in it. Which raised the obvious question: If we had done without these items for so long, why resurrect them now? We agreed to leave them below ground.
This simple act started a domestic reassessment of how we viewed material things. First, we became realistic: After our older child poked holes in our furniture with his fork, we chose the floor sample of a dining-room table—with a few nicks and missing screws—rather than buy a new one.
Yet in spite of the fact that Pat and I had reduced our interest in stuff, by storing heirlooms and making peace with damaged items, we still had a lot of it. Our apartment bulged with papers and plastic things, art supplies and rocks. It seemed that stuff literally stuck to our now two children. Every time they walked in the door, they brought in more things that piled up by their beds and on top of their desks.
Added to that was what I can only call "debris." What was it? Little scraps of paper? Tiny sticks and folded plastic straws? The boys left a trail of it everywhere they went, spilling out of their pockets and the cuffs of their jeans. Although the debris was not technically "stuff," the boys were just as attached to it as they were to identifiable items.
"Don't throw that out," my older son, Spencer, would say as I turned his jeans pocket inside out over a trash can.
"There's nothing in here but sand," I'd point out.
Spencer would pop up from his chair and lean over the garbage can and retrieve what looked like a thin, plastic cuff to a juice bottle. "It's a launcher," he protested. Apparently, my sons have an arsenal of things to launch in the event of an attack on our home, because every other item I question is a launcher.
We weren't merely being buried under toys and every little thing my sons couldn't bear to give up, we also needed an extra room for the stuff that the children gave us: hand-painted picture frames, tulips made out of egg cartons, poems lovingly penned to their father and me edged with tissue-paper flowers.
How could I possibly part with these mementos? It turns out that the answer to that question is that it gets a whole lot easier. Initially, I bought a decorative box to house their crafty gems, but it quickly filled to capacity.
At that point, I started simply throwing stuff out after the kids went to bed.
Occasionally, they would ask for their construction-paper clock with the moveable hands, for example, and I would have to face them with a hangdog apology. But they started to accept that most of their artistic endeavors were temporary. Pat and I began keeping a file for each child of items with which we simply couldn't part, and one of my bookshelves was cleared for all their school journals and stories. I defy anyone to throw out a little boy's account of a war between Denmark and the planet Mars.
Casting a cold eye on my children's keepsakes allowed me to view my own amassing of personal mementos with drill-like detachment. It turned out that I wouldn't miss the gift cards from our wedding, or the wooden eggcups I bought in Poland but never used because I didn't then, and don't now, eat soft-boiled eggs.
When it came time for my children to purge their own toys and souvenirs, they had a harder time of it. I would give them each a brown shopping bag with the instructions that they should throw out anything in their room that was broken or that they no longer used. After an hour spent playing excitedly with every rediscovered toy, they emerged. In Spencer's bag I found an armless knight and a deflated soccer ball. Murphy's bag offered up a short piece of string and something plastic that he claimed was a launcher that had never worked.
Frustrated, I suggested that we go back into their room and sort through their toys one by one. For each item, I asked them to make a case for keeping it. If they could tell me a credible story about it (how they used it, where they had gotten it, what they planned on doing with it in the future), they could keep it. Arguments like "It's my favorite color" and "Because Daniel has one" were not good enough.
Together we managed to pitch quite a lot, and rounded up plenty to donate. But for those things that they chose to keep, the stories were often moving and even enhanced the value of the chosen item. Murphy made a case for almost every rock he had collected. He knew which rock came from which beach, describing one blustery day of searching for a perfect skipping rock. And Spencer wanted to keep a cardboard car he had gotten at a restaurant he had gone to with his dad on a father-son camping weekend. He even pointed out its practicality—he could store paper clips inside the car.
When Pat and I applied the same criteria for freeing ourselves of even more possessions, we found that we too could give up a lot. However, what we chose to keep were things that not only had a story but epitomized a time in our lives. There is, for example, the sculpture of a nude couple holding up a crystal ball.
The first year of our marriage, Pat and I were living in New York and acting in a play in the West Village. We lived in a charming garret that was so small we could wash dishes while sitting on the couch. We often frequented a glass shop down the street where the merchandise was too pricey.
In early June, though, we paid off a student loan and were feeling flush for the first time. So we went to the glass shop and found the piece that sits in our living room today. It cost two hundred dollars and we agonized over whether or not to buy it. The thought was exciting and terrifying. The owner wrapped it carefully and we carried it home like it was the baby Moses.
Two weeks later, we got the shocking news that the show was closing. We had gotten no warning and we were both out of a job. I remember sitting on the couch and hating the sculpture. How could we have been so stupid as to throw so much money away on that thing?
It wasn't elegant; it was garish. An embarrassment. We put the sculpture in a box earlier than was necessary just to rid ourselves of its silent recriminations.
On our last night in New York, with our future very uncertain, we lifted the sculpture out of the box and placed it carefully on the kitchen counter.
"It's really beautiful," Pat said, putting his arm around me. "Let's stop hating it."
As if one could simply elect to stop hating, my young self silently scoffed.
"I can't stop just like that," I said. "We'd have two hundred dollars if we hadn't bought it."
Pat slipped his arm off my shoulder and repositioned it so we were looking from a different angle. "What if we changed the story?" he said. "What if the story isn't that we were stupid and spent our last dime on a silly item? What if the story is that we were optimistic, we were in love, and we were living our dream—and this is our reminder that everything is possible?"
I'm not a woman who switches on and off that easily, so Pat's romantic-comedy dialogue only irritated me at the time. But through the years, the sculpture has come to epitomize those words. Even though it is mere stuff, it has also come to stand for freedom from fear of the unknown.
Nowadays, when I am visited by nagging doubts about my children's future, the sculpture offers reassurance. Totems like these are worth keeping.
Of course, the sculpture also could make an awesome launcher.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Parents magazine.