My 13 year-old daughter decided to clean her bedroom last weekend. Yes, this happens so seldom that it’s worth writing about.
For a year or so, her room has reflected her own internal transformation: artifacts of little girl fantasy bumping up against young teen reality. Tinkerbell and Barbie coexisting uneasily with algebra tests and bras.
I’d been telling her for months that she needed to clean her room. I’d intended only that she straighten things up. It was her own decision to do such a radical purge. (I like to see this as a successful change management strategy: I got her to think it was her idea, and she fully embraced it). She wanted to make space for the new parts of her life, and to hide the immature remnants that embarrass her now. She wasn’t just cleaning a room. She was curating an identity; translating the changes she’s been navigating as a middle schooler into her own surroundings.
She grabbed boxes and recycling bags and got ready to purge. I sat on the edge of her bed and got ready to save.
I recall giving my own bedroom a similar makeover at the same age. Like her, I culled the Little House books from the same bookshelf that’s now in her room. I replaced my set with bad teen romance novels; she replaced her set with the Hunger Games trilogy. 13 year-old-me had gone through the same drawers, digging out piles of old drawings and notebooks to make room for textbooks and binders, and Teen Beat magazines filled with photos of Duran Duran.
When I did my purge, I threw everything out. All the childish diaries, polaroids, and drawings. I was so wrapped up in making space for who I planned to become that I was quick to erase all signs of who I’d been.
I’m not a hoarder, by nature. I like things orderly and neat. But I regret the memories I threw away. Especially since my link with that past is so tenuous now, with my mother’s memories of my childhood fading. I can’t depend on her to share those memories with me, or to reminisce about my childhood. Her memories of my childhood are jumbled up in memories of my sister’s and brother’s childhood; “childhood” has become, for her, one big amorphous event, its boundaries indistinguishable among her three children. At times, her version of my youth is completely fictional, leaving me feeling like my childhood was a desert island and I was the only inhabitant.
My childhood photos are on slides – fragile and hard to access, just like my mother’s memories. I have a few photo albums filled with polaroid prints, but those images are fading, their colours no longer true. The only real account of my childhood that remains is in my own head, and I’m terrified that those memories will one day fade, too. That’s why I regret the things I threw out when I was 13. They were only notes and diaries, scribbles and snapshots, but they were hard facts about who I was at a moment in time. They were a truth, or clues pointing to a truth. If I still had them, could I point to them and awaken my mother’s memory? Could I preserve my own?
As I stood in my room during that cleaning fit, surrounded by garbage bags, my mother came in carrying a book. It was my baby book — one she’d meticulously filled in her perfect handwriting in the early months of my life. She wrote of my firsts, and the funny things I did. She wrote of her love for me. She carefully included my impossibly tiny hospital bracelet, a lock of my baby hair, and my first tooth.
I still have that book, and I treasure it. It contains whispers of memories no one else knows — little secret moments between my mother and I. I was too young to remember any of it. Maybe she no longer does. Part of me believes, though, that somewhere deep inside, she does remember.
So, as my daughter began throwing artifacts of her little girl life into rubbish heaps, I was torn. I knew I couldn’t save everything; it goes against my orderly nature. And we just don’t have the space to store boxes of papers and mementoes that might never see the light of day again. So, I helped her decide what might be important to her someday, and which things to let go.That was obviously much more difficult for me than it was for her. At 13, she’s ready to leave that little girl world behind her and fly into whatever adventures are ahead. At 48, I know the fine balance in leaving things behind and honouring who you once were. I do believe in living in the moment and moving ahead, but life — and my mother’s illness — has taught me that there are times when memories are vitally important to grounding us, to understanding who we were, and how we became who we are now.
It turns out my daughter is more of a pack rat than I was at her age. She was unwilling to part with most things, so they went back into her drawers to await the next big purge (maybe a pre-university purge?…I shudder to think how close that is).
At the end of it all, I went into her closet and showed her where I kept her baby book. And we sat and looked through it — at the impossibly tiny hospital bracelet, the lock of baby hair, and all the memories of our early days together, when we were connected by a bond tighter than any other relationship in life. We’ll always have those memories. Always.