How to Throw Away the Memories Our Kids Leave Behind

I’m staring at an empty closet. My son moved out on his own after college graduation, following his sisters, who have also moved away. For years, I thought about them leaving home, and now I sit on stripped beds and stare at their closets. Now the hangers are hanging sideways, lonely, purposelessly taunting me.

When is it time to throw away memories of our kids?

And so I take a deep breath and start the process — the culling, the sorting, the tossing, the donating, the saving, then the backtrack; no, I can’t let this baseball jersey go just yet, not the prom dress — for sure! What a memory that represents. I know this drill very well since I just cleaned out my parent’s home after my father’s recent death, and so I am seeing my life from both sides of this process. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “I am within and without.”

I have a system for discarding things

I have a system, and it works — this process of discarding. Things tell stories–dried corsages, band programs, ribbons, and Valentine’s messages. The printed tee-shirt from a school play, the hat from a Halloween costume, the Junior Varsity letter.

These objects give me a glimpse into the forgotten worlds of my kids’ lives as they journey on, leaving me behind. How cavalier they are! They can so easily let go. “These are memories,” I want to scream! But I know my children have so much ahead of them, and these memories might not have the significance they hold for me. These fragments they leave behind are the main chapters of my life, but for them, just the beginning ones — ones they probably will forget.

I felt joy as my daughter got off the bus with this crayoned picture she drew as she held it tightly in her hand — not in her backpack — but ready to present to me as I waited at the bus stop. The bottom of it is still crinkled. The college acceptance letter, the worn baseball from a hard-hit double, the signed volleyball from a big win. Remember those days?

What do I save?

But what do I save? Whose memories are they? A poem by Emily Dickinson describes a fallen conquered soldier hearing the victory horn from the triumphant troop. His recognition of victory is doubly wounding since it is not his experience, but his interpretation of what the victory would have been could have felt like. Victory is so much more vivid in his loss.

My participation in the events of these kids is likewise so searing since I am once removed — I reveled in their joy, but it was not my experience. It was not my eighth-grade dance — I never went to mine, and I never was a team hero; I can only guess at the feeling of proficiency in music.

But what do I save? Is one trophy enough? Are the flute practice books a toss? How about this dress my youngest daughter wore on our favorite family vacation? I remember her wet head from newly showering, and I feel I can still smell the shampoo on her head on that warm summer evening.

And so my bin system begins. I put away things I can’t part with just now, and in six months, I’ll revisit with more strength. The bins’ contents will shrink, and the donation bags will grow. There is a Greek myth about Tithonus, who was granted eternal life. He forgot to ask for eternal youth, however, so as years pass, he becomes smaller and smaller until he turns into a cicada. I think of this myth as the contents of my bins becoming smaller and smaller, the memories becoming dimmer and dimmer, and the vestiges of them just things.

I cleaned out my parents’ house

When I cleaned out my parents’ house, things were memories of their lives and lives I participated in, yet I am still a stranger. I don’t recognize my childhood room. It’s been repainted, and remnants of me are gone, perhaps in the same slow process I am following. I find a poem I wrote on a pink notepad; perhaps my mom couldn’t let that go, but the drawers are empty and echo when I open them.

I started with surgical precision with my dad’s clothing. With an efficient sweep of clothing on hangers, I lay it all on the bed, but then carefully folded each suit. This was the one he wore to my son’s graduation. Would he remember that, or is it my memory?

The tie I remember under his yellow sweater. I grab a large black garbage bag and dump with abandon the top of his desk — the old pencil sharpener we used when I did my homework on the ping-pong table, the stapler that I used on book reports, and the wooden plaque I made for him at camp that says “hi Dad.” He saved that?

But I took home the dishes we used for holidays, the big turkey platter, and the flowered coffee cups my mom used to set out. And the imported tablecloths were folded and starched, still waiting for a time special enough to use them.

I packed up the rest of their house in bins, and as I look to discard my children’s possessions slowly, I will hold onto the items in my parents’ bins. But these bins stay in my garage, untouched, packed. They are Pandora’s boxes, and I have such fear of them. Perhaps I fear of the letting go of my life as well.

It’s the constant emptying that is getting to me. The freezer stock is fully ready for the big party, but then it gradually empties, and I see my everyday life reflected in the ice cream containers and leftover bowls. The crescendos flatten, the days fly by, the flowers are thrown out, the bags collected, and the tables cleaned.

And now I see it. My parents’ process was my process so it will continue. We rush through our lives with carelessness, and we mark the occasions and milestones with baby books and cake toppers, and the things of our lives are the times of our lives, subtlety inward and a combination of past and present. And so when the cicadas return, I’ll figure out what to save and what to not keep. Maybe I’ll save the ticket stubs to the first play I took my daughter to, maybe the poster from a movie opening night, or my Mom’s perfume bottle, empty but still smelling of times before.

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About LenorePott

Lenore Calandra Pott graduated from Vassar College with a degree in English Literature. She has worked as a securities broker, editor, museum tour guide, freelance feature writer and as a mother to three incredible children now grown and flown. Her work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Journal News and Inside Chappaqua Magazine.

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