My 24-year-old daughter picked up her prepuberty self-portrait, a school art assignment jockeying for space amid my overcrowded bookshelves. “Awkward!” she proclaimed. “How embarrassing.”
Jokingly she accused me of being a hoarder.
"Go through your room,” I suggested. “See if there's anything to purge."
"You want to throw away my past?"
"You just said those things embarrassed you."
"All my friends’ parents let them leave some of their stuff behind."
Now living in her own apartment, she was ambivalent about letting go of her childhood. It was safe to hold onto a shrine in my house, a museum she could visit to reminisce from a more mature perspective. Yet her preschool paintings were taking up precious closet space. My budding artist had replaced original renderings with Instagrams of bottomless brunches.
Throughout the years I'd tried to whittle down her stuffed animal collection. My husband was in the toy business. Our daughter tested new products, the youngest marketing executive in history. Her zoo multiplied. She couldn't sleep without “Puppa,” her first word. When she packed for college, she left Puppa in my care. Missing her, 150 miles away, I'd visit Puppa, overseeing her room like a guard dog from her empty bed.
How could I toss her first soccer jersey? The sweater she wore home from the hospital as a newborn, knitted by my blind, 90-year-old grandmother. Her silky paisley middle school graduation dress, a leap into womanhood. I perused papers she'd written; surely she'd enjoy a few classics to look at when she's older. Millennials exist in the impermanence of their digital world: Instagram stories disappear in 24 hours. Someday she'd thank me for a nostalgic journey back to when she wrote with an actual pen. I couldn't throw a photo away, even hundreds of shots to get one tireless toddler to look into the camera.
I have only a dozen photos of my childhood. My parents were first generation, raised by widowed mothers. My mother was raised in an orphanage due to poverty. My father worked three jobs to put us through college. There wasn't time for photographing memories. I saved Cleo, my lone stuffed animal. The rest of my childhood memories are out of focus.
My mother took me to the library every Saturday, but buying books was out of our budget. I filled my daughter's bedroom with interactive and board books. Brown Bear was the first she read aloud. Occasionally I read well-worn picture books to myself, imagining the child at my hip, listening, enraptured, snuggling.
Recently my husband transformed our daughter's bedroom into his home office. I was shocked to find that he'd squeezed her stuffed animals into the floor of her closet. The giant green frog, a birthday gift from a girl who's still her best friend; its arms used to envelop and comfort my daughter. The mournful beagle that used to squeak, a gift from my late mother, who never had toys in the orphanage. I wasn't ready to get rid of the mélange of soft creatures. Each one told a story.
When I was in college, my parents sold our house, downsizing their empty nest. My mother was Kondo on steroids, tossing away my childhood without my permission. Gone is my mystery novel, written in fourth grade. Even my dog went — to the new owners. I never said goodbye to the poodle I'd comforted on our kitchen floor his first night away from his mother.
I'd buried the trauma of losing my childhood possessions, unable to ever excavate it. Short on space, I refused to declutter my daughter's childhood without collaborating with her. My plan: We'd bond over storage bins, while Puppa silently supervised our joint time capsule operation with the smile that's permanently etched into her fragile face.