By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
The garage sale wasn’t my idea but that didn’t limit my involvement: there is no such thing as a one-person garage sale when you live in a four-person household.
Spurred on by my youngest child’s exhortations — “We could get rid of clutter, and make a little money, Mom!” — and my husband’s unexpected support of her proposal, I sorted. I shifted boxes. I unearthed forgotten clothing and discarded decor, and somehow, without the least warning, I found myself seated on a stepstool in the garage, weeping.
I blame my old homeschool papers. File folders — 26 in all — stuffed with alphabetical learning projects, from apples to very hungry caterpillars to foxes and zebras. What shocked me most was the immediate sense of familiarity I felt as I paged through material I hadn’t seen for nearly a decade.
There were the D’nealian italic worksheets, which resulted in at least two of my three developing incredibly beautiful handwriting; the third opted for a more upright, bouncy style, perfectly suited to her personality.
I chuckled over a pencil drawing by “The Mysterious 12-Year-Old,” in which two horses conversed via comic-strip dialogue bubbles. The signature recorded 2007 as the year of creation. It’s difficult for me to connect the girl who sketched two chatty horses with the college student who will arrive for a summer visit.
To be honest, part of me wasn’t interested in reconciling the two. Why not just stick with the horse-loving sweetie and go ahead with a summer marked by dishwashing schedules and a firm set of parental assumptions? It would be so much simpler to imagine my children with static identities, fixed in the foundation of their upbringing. No surprises. No suspense. Who am I kidding? You can’t raise sons and daughters to ask questions, think deeply and live by their convictions and then expect them to be predictable.
If the possibilities therein are not enough for a mother to process, there is always the problem of the relics. At some point, a parent has to tackle the accumulation of medals, trophies, certificates, homework, craft projects, newspaper clippings, stuffed animals, jump ropes, roller skates and the like. It’s odd to see what survives and what vanishes.
In the garage, as I shuffled through one dusty sheaf after another, a strain of pragmatism tempted me to toss this binder or those papers in the trash can. Viewed from five feet away, several plastic bins looked suspiciously like junk. After I explored the contents, I knew my original guess was at least 50 percent correct.
Yet the results did not let me off the hook: throwing half of it away only meant that I was correct to check everything carefully. After all, I still mourn the loss of the cheery refrigerator magnet that announced, “I’m happy today so you be happy too!” No one recalls when it went missing, or why. Maybe that doesn’t matter, since it’s clear the motto engraved itself on our brains.
Being a mother does not give a woman perfect recall. That’s why they invented baby books (never mind that they are left mostly blank). That’s why I prize the perfect image in my mind of that lost magnet; I know I’ve forgotten so many other details. I am grateful to recall something so sweet and pure with clarity.
The flip side of those gemlike memories is the garage-sale experience, when a wave of mementos rises up to flood your heart. I will admit to feeling fairly disgusted about the phenomenon. My having joined the yard-sale venture out of a sense of duty and loyalty — not so far from maternal virtues, I suppose — did not mean I was willing to endure salty upwellings of emotion.
Yet there it was. The bittersweet sneak attack of nostalgia. When your children are small, people constantly suggest ways to savor the moment. “Don’t ever forget that these days are precious,” say the older, wiser, less sleep-deprived people who pass mothers of whiney toddlers. “It goes by so fast.”
Boy, did it ever. Perhaps because I am still catching up on my sleep, I find it amazing that motherhood still has the ability to sweep me off my feet, rattle my heart, confound my mind and set me down facing an entirely different direction. Perhaps the middling garage sale was not the main goal. I had a good cry. Then I got to work, rightly dividing the treasure-trove of the childhoods I superintended. Those papers, I came to see, record how we got to where we are now, one pencil stroke at a time. The work is still in progress, but the garage looks a whole lot cleaner.