How many things do we keep “for our children”? How many of the multiple multitude of things – our first toy, our grade school report card, an embarrassing picture of ourselves at 11, those things our parents collected away in shoe boxes and files – how many of these sometimes silly things do we keep for ourselves until slowly, inexorably, we cross some obscure timeline and realize that we’re really keeping them for our children, that we’ve been keeping them for our children all along?
As the scenario plays out, when we imagine showing them to our kids, they laugh, they say, “I want that” as they reach for it. And, just like that, our memory becomes theirs.
We save our things for our children. And we save our children’s things for ourselves.
How many things did I keep of my daughter’s, my only child? I kept her rattle, her thread-spool snake, her Elmo – her very first toy request. I kept a few outfits from year one, then a few from year two. By year three, it was a a fait accompli. Year four, the three remaining pair of jelly sandals made it into the box to remind us both of the year Aunt Dana bought her eight pair, knowing she would outgrow them by year five. Camila would mix-and-match those jellies so gleefully. That jelly year made us feel rich.
I have boxes of the mementos Camila and I collected over her girlhood years. We were keeping them to enjoy as relics or tangible memories, as hand-me-downs for those girls she would have one day, those daughters we would dote upon as I had doted upon her. By her teenage years, she was managing her own memory boxes. They were her private treasure, each year whittled down to shoebox size.
Now, when I buy something, something beautiful, I realize I am buying it only for myself. It will be no heirloom, no family treasure. As a result, my sense of sentimentality toward my own things has shifted.
One of my degrees is in literature – and at one time I had the books to prove it. I had enough marked texts alone to fill a few boxes. I remember loaning Camila my paperback Signet Shakespeares when she was in college. She had grown up talking about his themes so, I reasoned, reminding her was no crime.
But of what use are they now?
And of what use are my own childhood plaques and trophies? Though I never intended to force them upon her, I could only imagine talking to her about them, sharing them with her. Who else would possibly be interested? And to whom else would I possibly admit keeping them?
When Camila turned 16, I gave her my cedar chest, which had been my mother’s before me. But before presenting it to her, I had to empty it – so my treasures went into a couple boxes marked, no surprise, “Treasure.”
Now, I have boxes newly marked with the same word, but these are Camila’s treasure. And I cannot part with any of it.
Rather than go through Camila’s things, I have realized that it’s much easier to go through my own.
So far, I have donated 12 boxes of books to Goodwill. I have five more boxes that I’m donating to a hospital’s patient library. I have sold four floor-to-ceiling bookcases and have reduced my in-house collection to a few volumes that fit on only a few bookshelves. Most are books I haven’t read, books with unknown merit.
I am making other changes. I am learning again to buy only for myself, re-learning how to consider only myself. I no longer buy for Camila, though I sometimes put my hand on a shirt she would love or upon a color she would wear. When I was younger, after the college years but before the childbirth years, I lived in the world of my own ego. Shopping, for example, was only about me: What do I want, want, want, I would ask myself. Like anyone in their 20s, I was all id. Anything I did, anything I thought of doing, was based solely on my understanding of my personal desires.
I realized, after having Camila, that having a child was the easiest and surest way to kill the ego. One cannot, after all, ever be the perfect parent – and it is very hard to have any time or energy to even think of yourself with a toddler in the house. And then, according to the natural sequence of things, I thought of myself less and less, until I had been entirely enveloped in my identity as a parent. I was no longer living for me; I was living for my daughter.
Now I am re-learning how to live for me, but at the same time, I am searching for a balance, a way to maintain my motherhood-centered vision while learning to embrace myself, my needs and desires, in a new way.
Last night, Dana and I were simultaneously streaming a movie set in Paris. We would occasionally text each other as we watched, sharing an observation or feeling. At some point in the texting sequence, we were sharing a funny Camila memory, the memory of her putting her feet in the fountain at the Louvre. Then we paused the movie as we remembered a scary story of her getting lost at Notre Dame. Then another funny memory surfaced… As we watched this movie set in Paris, our own trip was coming back to us – with Camila in the center of every scene.
Somewhere during that hour of texting, that break back into memory, I realized what my real treasure is now. What my real treasure has been, all along.
My real treasure is Camila’s living memory. I find it in being reminded of her hijinks, her adventures, her mishaps. I find it in stories, anecdotes, off-hand observations. I see Camila in her stories and in pictures, those printed and those amorphous, in my mind. There is no sequence, no order, no preference, just that wonderful revolving and surprising sequence that is collected memory.
As long as my family live, as long as her friends live, as long as life continues for me, so too does Camila continue. There, within those memories, she lives. And those memories keep her alive.
The faded pages of my girlhood scrapbook are now simply faded pages of some old memories that I no longer keep. But the images in my mind of my girl – dancing, laughing, loving her life so much – those are my keepers. And I don’t need to open a scrapbook to see them.