Her voice comes to me one evening just as I come in from the cold and dark (this was before the time change, one day when it actually felt like winter for a change). I set my purse on a kitchen chair and lie my coat across the back of the chair as well.
Mama. Her voice is solemn and I catch her tone, looking up finally. She is standing before me all big eyes and small, bird-like arms, legs and shoulders.
Mama, Daddy and I need to talk to you about throwing away my art.
My stomach flutters. Uh oh. Busted.
Behind her, my husband nods his head.
Although this was my first time being confronted, for years I'd be sifting through her art, first finger paintings and scribbles, mostly done here on the kitchen counter and then later creations sent home from preschool. The scribbles progressed to faces, rainbows, trees and flowers. Then she began to add words to her drawings: first her name, then other labels like dog, cat, April, Joe. I sifted through, saving a couple, but mostly discarding them. It was more about the process, I told myself, than the final creation.
Don't get me wrong: I love every single brush stroke, scissor snip, and dotted i. But... well, clutter attracts clutter, right? And clutter after a little while (like, five minutes) feels like oppression and clausterphobia, a dark reminder of the past, to me.
Two weeks ago I celebrated my birthday. A couple of days before, my six-year-old fretted about what to give me.
I'd like to paint you a picture, she said. But who knows what you'll do with it.
And so in the spare bedroom, beside my tiny desk, on the corner of the bed there is now a stack. A stack of paintings, drawings, worksheets, cardboard tied with string, dried flowers. Paper upon paper, two feet tall and growing, all of it created by my young artist. I ask my friends, desperate for their secret, What do you do with all the paperwork?
But no one has a satisfactory answer. Buy a plastic bin and put it under the bed. Take pictures of it. Use it as wrapping paper. Decorate a room with it, ceiling to floor, wall to wall. This last was my idea. I'm daunted. She's only in first grade, after all, and here is this mound.
When I quake before a stack of papers it is because I come from a family that threw away nothing. Just last week I threw away jars of dry beans, rice and pasta from the 90s. Stacks of mail, sometimes unopened, gathering dust. Spare buttons, dead pens, journals started and forgotten three pages in. Birthday, anniversary, graduation, and holiday cards dating back to the 50s. Locks of hair, green participation ribbons, immunization records. Every drivers license ever issued, every paper insurance card ever acquired -- health, dental, vision, car. Old bottles with a couple squeezes of shampoo or conditioner remaining trapped inside, a smidge of soft scrub, used candles, spent flip flops, flimsy slippers and a baby blue sleep mask stuffed in a drawstring velour bag -- a souvenir from the worst vacation ever. All saved for what? Just in case? Optimism bordering on neglect? Maybe it's the other way around?
In this house many a family dinner was eaten on our laps or picnic-style on towels spread on the blue shag living room carpet because the table was buried under stacks of paper: magazines and catalogs, paper sewing patterns, textbooks, calendars, grocery lists, receipts, fliers. It is not like there were no filing cabinets. No, filing cabinets, file boxes, desk drawers with hanging file folders abounded, all bursting with the accumulated paper of a collective family lifetime: tax returns, duplicate checks, book reports and report cards, service records, warranties and owners manuals. Bills paid, statements for accounts long since closed, printed directions fom MapQuest, newspaper clippings, and email correspondance. None of it burned, recycled, crumpled, or tossed. Simply stacked, set aside, and forgotten, destined to outlive its owner.
And so, like a pendulum, I swing the other way: mail is opened and sorted a few steps from the mail slot, receipts declined at the register, magazines read and passed on. A steady stream of paper flows through, discouraged from lingering. And yet, I realize as I stare into my daughter's brown, dead-serious eyes, there is a limit. I realize I may be guilty of sweeping away too much in my desperate attempt at controlling the tide. Perhaps all she is asking for, this child of mine, is a record of her life, a sign she was here.
Don't brush away her baby footprints so fast, mama.