Loco Parentis: Stuff Happens

Our parenting columnist climbs atop mountains of clutter and demands to know: Why can’t my son throw anything out?

I LIFT THE LID OF THE WASHING MACHINE AND LET OUT A SIGH. Okay, I let out a string of curse words. There in the drum lies a sodden pile of my son Jake’s gym shorts and sweatpants and hoodies, decorated with snowlike flakes of soaked and pulverized stuff — tissues, math tests, detention slips, Post-its, gum wrappers, Important Notices to Parents. I owe the squall to two facts: I’ve forgotten, once again, to go through his pockets before tossing his clothes in the washer, and Jake has never in his life willingly thrown anything away.

Kids are the world’s major producers of stuff. It starts at birth — hell, it starts before birth, at the shower, when you’re gifted with a whole bunch of rattles and teething rings and fey wooden giraffe puzzles that your kid won’t be able to pick up for months, maybe years, but that you, in the meantime, are going to have to put someplace. The stuff keeps on coming, at Christmas, at birthdays, at — if your mother-in-law is like mine, and chances are she is — St. Patrick’s Day and Groundhog Day and International World Hunger Day, piles and piles of stuff, to be added to the stacks of preschool artwork and boxes of LEGOs and closets full of Halloween costumes and drawers full of plastic McDonald’s Happy Meal crap. And it burgeons and grows and multiplies, like those enormous fungi that spread out over acres and acres just belowground — tamped into cabinets, shoved onto shelves, crammed into closets, ready to erupt the instant you go to get your hat so you can walk the dog.

“Just throw it away,” says my husband, Doug, who is wholly unsentimental. He recognizes sentimentality in others — he apologized profusely when he broke the fruit bowl my mom, who’s dead now, once gave me — but frankly, he doesn’t give a damn about stuff. I attribute this to the fact that his ancestors lived on farms, where, Charlotte’s Web or no Charlotte’s Web, there’s no sense getting attached to the pigs. Our daughter Marcy, who’s 17, takes after him. Most days, her room’s a god-awful mess. But every couple of months, without any parental urging, she’ll go into a frenzy and purge her personal space, tossing out old clothes and shoes and school papers and anything else she doesn’t need anymore.

Her brother Jake, who’s 14, has never felt an impulse to tidy up. Jake saves everything. We’re not talking important detritus, like old copies of Mad magazine or the original packaging to the 10,000 video games he’s purchased or been given while he’s been on this planet. We’re talking the ticket stubs to every movie he’s ever attended. The scorecards from countless rounds of mini golf. Shoelaces. Postcards. Books. T-shirts. Every. Single. Birthday card. He is awash in stuff.

“What are you doing?” he asks suspiciously as I stand in his bedroom, contemplating the bookshelves brimming over with model ships, seashells, magnets, penknives, K’NEX, crayons and pencils and stamp pads.

“I thought I’d straighten up a little.”

“You mean throw things out.”

“I mean straighten up!” I consider the top of his dresser, where dozens of the little animal figurines you get for free in boxes of Red Rose tea form a jumbled menagerie. “You have three of the polar bear, and four owls,” I point out. “You could just keep one of each.”

“You could stay away from my stuff.”

“You can’t think clearly surrounded by all this clutter.”

“It only bothers you,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me.”

He’s right, of course. But it really bothers me. It isn’t even the stuff so much as the indiscriminateness of it, which bespeaks a lack of mental filter, an inability to assign proper rank and meaning to the objets of one’s life. I love it that Jake has kept every one of the letters I send him when he goes away to Boy Scout camp each summer. But what does that mean, really, when he’s also kept every Snapple cap he’s ever opened? Sometimes, when I survey his overflowing desk or peek into his closet, I think of those recluses who turn up every now and then in Manhattan, living in apartments so packed with piles of old newspapers that only narrow tunnels remain. And I wonder: How hard is it to just throw stuff out? What does it mean that Jake can’t?

“READ THIS,” MY DAD SAYS WHEN we go to visit him one Sunday in his retirement community. It’s a flier for another in Pine Run’s relentless series of special events: An appraiser is coming to evaluate residents’ prized possessions, à la Antiques Roadshow. “Cool!” I say, because I’ve always liked Antiques Roadshow, on which my cousin Livvy once discovered that a fairly hideous and very large sculpted wooden flag she’d bought at a yard sale was worth $10,000. “What are you going to bring?”

Pop’s face falls. “I don’t think I have anything that’s worth anything anymore.” When he moved here, he was thrilled that everything was brand-new: carpet, paint, appliances. My siblings and I took the books, the highboy, the Windsor chairs, the china. Pop was happy to pass his stuff on, to be unburdened. He felt lighter. That was three years ago.

I admire the way Pop has peeled the extraneous away from his life, declaring flatly that he won’t accept gifts for Christmas or his birthday, resisting society’s siren call to accumulate. Yet even he seems surprised — saddened — to find where that road has led him: no more windfalls hidden in the attic, no serendipitous treasures in the basement.

There are other ways to accumulate, though. I use the last paper towel in Pop’s kitchen, and look in the hall closet for another roll. There are 10 in there.

I GOT A NOTICE FROM AMAZON.COM a while back that the next — the last — Harry Potter book could now be pre-ordered. It’s the seventh in the series. Books one through five, Jake and I devoured together, out loud. But by the time number six came out, we had passed that cusp where a boy and his mom still read with one another. Evenings are now given over to his computer games. They’re games of quest, and conquest: He takes on personae, fulfills tasks, faces down enemies. Along the way, he has a trove, a cache of stuff that he earns and carries with him. This might be ammo for a weapon, or weapons themselves, or sustenance — food and drink, medicine, even “lifeforce.” But in the games he likes best, it’s trinkets, doodads he acquires not knowing how or when he might need them — much like Harry’s invisibility cloak, or the Marauder’s Map that shows where everyone at Hogwarts is. These games are in a tradition that predates Harry, going back to Bilbo Baggins and his cousin Frodo, and beyond that to Arthurian romance and all the way to the Bible and Samson, who killed a thousand men because he happened to have on hand the jawbone of an ass.

Jake reports on his gaming prowess to his father and me, even though he knows we’re clueless. “Today I made it to level 10 in Rune-Scape,” he’ll say. Or, as the rest of the family watches TV, he’ll exclaim from his computer station: “I just earned my broadsword!” His games allow him to shine in a way he hasn’t figured out how to in the rest of his life. He’s pretty good at soccer. He’s pretty good at French. He’s pretty good at algebra this year, which is a surprise. But he isn’t like his dad, who picked up a trombone when he was 10 and found his métier, or me, who always knew I would be a writer, or even Marcy, whose life has followed the traditional trajectory: Do well in school, get into a good college, get on with your life. Jake doesn’t have a purpose yet. Not having a purpose is as foreign to me as cleaning his room is for Jake. It’s one of the reasons we’re often at odds.

Maybe that’s what Jake muses on when he’s up in that room, surrounded by his Snapple lids and scorecards. He’s becoming an adult, but he’s not ready yet to let go of those touchstones that instantly evoke childhood: its simplicity, its optimistic faith. The future is uncertain. And so he hoards stuff, keeps it in his pouch — because he doesn’t yet know what he’ll need and what it’s safe to discard.

Neither do Doug and I, really. Down in our basement, waiting for the dryer to finish, I stare at all the piles of stuff. Camping gear. Pyramids of paint cans. Boogie boards. Board games — Cranium, Pictionary, The Game of Life. Lined up on shelves are coffee cans Doug has labeled: SCREWS. HOOKS. NAILS. Who saves old nails? Doug the non-hoarder does. He also saves rope — dozens of different kinds and lengths of rope and cord and twine — and lumber. Against one wall of our basement is a messy stack of two-by-fours and moldings and planks, leftovers from the (rare) construction projects he’s undertaken in the 13 years we’ve lived in this house. I don’t know why he keeps it. Each new project entails multiple trips to Home Depot for new wood. Nothing is ever withdrawn from the wood bank in the basement; only deposits are made. Yet he keeps the stack, because his father had such a pile of wood in his basement, because his father did, because once upon a time nails weren’t cheap and there wasn’t a Home Depot within 10 miles of every house in America. Doug would argue this is practical, not sentimental. Sure. Who knows when you’ll need an ark?

Amidst a pile of boxes, I glimpse my old pink tote bag from back when I was Marcy’s Girl Scout leader. I pull it out. Inside are the records of her troop’s cookie sales for seven straight years. I stand with the cookie records in my hand, knowing I should throw them out, knowing there’s no reason in this world to keep them. I look down at the names: Liz, Vanessa, Jill, Jennifer, Jessica. I remember February nights outside Wal-Mart, and the girls chorusing to shoppers: “WOULD YOU LIKE TO BUY SOME GIRL SCOUT COOKIES?” I think of camping trips, and chasing spiders out of tents. Fashion shows. Merit badges. Steal the Bacon. Being needed.

And I understand, abruptly, what led my mother-in-law to bring me, when Marcy and Jake were little, the most random leftovers from Doug’s own childhood: chewed-up bathtub toys, crumbling books, tarnished baby silverware, a faded quilt. Motherhood was new to me, and I sneered at her raggedy offerings: “What the hell,” I’d ask Doug, “makes her think we want this stuff?” I had it backwards. She knew we didn’t. But she couldn’t help herself. Those nesting bathtub cups, the source of so many shared giggles as they popped up amidst a sea of bubbles. That spoon, poised coaxingly so many hundreds of times: “Open up and let the airplane in!” When you’ve loved a child so long and so hard, how can you bear to throw away those memories?

And it’s not the nice shiny stuff you get attached to. It’s the mundane, the everyday, items worn down with use and custom, that to an outsider are less than worthless but to you are as magical as Harry’s Marauder’s Map. They represent, not milestones of achievement or prowess, but the in-between times, the quiet moments when you looked at that face in the high chair and wondered: Who are you? Who will you be?

The same questions Jake is asking himself now, surrounded by his Snapple lids and Pokémon cards and light-swords and … Every seemingly worthless artifact is a talisman, a token of faith in the future, from a time when what lay ahead didn’t seem so daunting. When he was sure that he would do great things.

It’s the same reason, really, that I’m hanging onto those Girl Scout cookie records. They take me back to when none of my charges had started smoking or drinking, had gotten pregnant, had been disappointed or beaten down by life. In those columns of names and numbers, there is only profit and promise.

We hoard what we need to face what lies ahead. For Doug, it’s lumber and rusty nails; for my dad, it’s a 10-pack of paper towels. For Jake, it’s just about everything that’s ever come into his life. The past may be a mess, but it’s a lot more tidy than the future ever will be.

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