The Things We Keep
By Sharon Holbrook
I remember the children being small, but my love for them today is so present and busy and large that it swallows the shrinking past into itself.
I sat on the living room rug last week, surrounded by messy stacks of DVDs and CDs, almost all of which we have ignored for years. I had pulled them all out at once to decide what to toss and what to save. I blame Marie Kondo for this attack on my belongings, of course. Fresh off reading the Japanese organizing guru’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” I was fired up (again) about getting rid of the excess junk.
I’m a serial declutterer, but it’s not because I’m naturally neat and organized. It’s quite the opposite. My head and hands and house are always full to overbrimming, and I desperately try to throw enough overboard to keep peaceful clarity afloat.
Why is that so hard? Right now, it is almost 10pm on a Monday night. On my computer, I have open tabs for my kid’s birthday Evite, the sign-up link for the school picnic I am supposed to be running, a flyer for a race I might run with my son if we decide to train, and, of course, email. Each tab represents a long sub-list of items to do. That’s not enough for me, I guess, so I also have a tab open for an article about why punch is the best drink to serve at a party, because apparently I might throw a punchy party soon — even though I’m not terribly fond of hosting parties. My paper calendar, cell phone, several bills, a health plan reimbursement form, and notes and lists for my nonprofit work cover the desk next to me. I am overstuffed with the bureaucracy of life.
It’s no wonder I can’t think straight, but somehow I feel donating the outgrown Curious George DVDs and reuniting CDs with their lost cases will confer serenity upon me. Maybe it will also magically clean my kitchen and inspire the children to hang their jackets up. And so I sort on. I grab a stack of unlabeled CDs (or are they DVDs?) and mull whether to just toss them or pop them in the computer.
I’m too curious; I must know what they are. The first one is my son’s, a montage of photos from his second-grade year compiled by a thoughtful teacher. Nice, let’s keep that. Next, a mix CD of songs I don’t even like. Easy toss. I catch my breath as the next one whirs to life on my screen. It is a DVD, chock-full of family videos from the year the youngest of my three was born. I didn’t even know this DVD existed.
I ignore Marie Kondo’s tidying-up orders to set aside sentimental items for last. (She warns that they will trap us into relentless reminiscing. She is correct.) I watch.
There we are on Christmas morning, at the zoo, and at the dining room table. I click on another, and there I am in a hospital gown. I had had a c-section that morning. My voice is dry and cracked, and I wear no makeup. My husband is taking the video, and I hear his and my parents’ voices floating in the background. My older children are there too, with their impossibly high voices and impossibly round cheeks. They have come to the hospital to meet their new sister. The 4-year-old gazes at the baby, beams, and pronounces her “good!” The 2-year-old stares at her, serious and silent. Now they want me, and my mother offers chairs, but I don’t seem to hear her, and I eagerly make cozy little nests in the bed on each side of me to snuggle my big kids.
The next one is shaky, a sure sign that one of the children is taking the video. It’s an ordinary day, and the images flash by, blurry, sideways, and now and again clear. There are shoes on the floor, pairs I’d forgotten. The cat wanders by, and toys are sprinkled across the rug. I am wearing my glasses and slippers, and not all the children all fully clothed, so I take it we are parked at home for the duration. It is no day in particular, and it is every day.
I have decluttered, I realize now. I see the evidence there in the videos, the toys and outfits and baby gear that are now gone. Outgrown, and jettisoned. Even that old house is gone — our family grew and moved on, quite literally.
We are encouraged, always, to look forward and keep discarding. Don’t look back. Don’t keep items you never use. Don’t hold onto old, outdated things that don’t suit you anymore. Ask yourself who you are now. And, yes, watching those videos, I didn’t wish for one material thing back. We have changed, after all, as we should.
But — that change that has happened — that is exactly why I find myself wanting to grasp and hold on to those people, those moments. I remember the children being small, but my love for them today is so present and busy and large that it swallows the shrinking past into itself. Looking at them from afar, like a shadowy time traveler, I am surprised by the pure fullness of their past selves, their golden, glistening kernels of individuality, ready to pop into who I know they are today.
The real stranger in the videos is me. I do not recognize this young mother — not really. She is very sweet, and a tender mother to all three children. Somehow, I have let myself forget this part of me, or maybe I never knew her. Those years were at once full and fierce and lovely, and I gave myself over. I truly saw the children during that time, yes, but I was in too deep to see myself as a mother, unless it was in my failures.
I remember yelling. I remember the winter mornings when I struggled to get out of bed, and the evenings when I counted the minutes until Daddy would get home. I remember thinking I thought I would be better at this mothering thing — more patient, more joyful. But now, seeing this woman in the sum of small moments and with the distance of years, I see that she — no, I — was a good mother.
When you’re on a mountain, the climb is rocky, exhausting, treacherous. Once you’re past it, you turn around and it’s lovely, magnificent, breathtaking. How could you have missed it, you wonder?
I’ll continue to declutter the old clothes and toys and almost all of that never-ending stream of youthful artwork. But I won’t let go of all of the past. I’m clinging to the parts that let me turn around and take in that scenic view after the climb, the things that let me fill in the pieces of the pictures of ourselves I was too close to see the first time.
There’s something else, too. Every present day somehow twists and flips into the past, even if messes of bills and to-do lists and homework and calendars don’t seem like the stuff of memories. If someone took a video of me at my desk today, and I watch it in ten years, what will I think? Maybe how young she is, so smooth-faced, and only 40! How dedicated she was, showing up every day for the minutiae of life, simply because it had to get done. (And, hey, look at that old computer!) If my children were in frame, I’d see a warm closeness with those small people, and I’d long for it, perhaps with tears in my eyes. For they will not be small people in ten years.
Just tonight, my ten-year-old hugged me at bedtime, proclaiming, “I want to hug you for ever and ever and ever!” In a decade he will probably be gone, far away at college, and he won’t be saying that anymore — not to me, anyway. I’ll be left to hold on to that moment any way I can.
Sharon Holbrook is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. Her work also appears in The New York TimesMotherlode blog, Washington Post, and other publications, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @sharon_holbrook. Sharon lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.
Photo by Scott Boruchov