Memory boxes don’t work. Only if you have a perfect memory already, uninterruptible time and fuzz-free brain beans to organise them with photographic back-up, keep them safe from a series of plumbers your landlord met down the pub, have corruption-proof storage space and a supernatural knowledge of which old film favourites will spawn sequels decades later.
Years back I bought nice wooden boxes – one for each of my children. In the last house, with no accessible loft or garage, I kept them safe indoors under my bed. After the landlord’s 18-month failure to fix a leaking bath in the next-door room I discovered the damp had spread across the bedroom floorboards below the barely-trodden area of carpet, soaked up into my wooden boxes and ruined the contents.
The drama of moving house set back the heart-breaking job of dealing with it for several more months – I couldn’t bear to confront it. Eventually I took a deep breath and emptied everything out. Cleaned up the objects as best I could and hurled all the little soft toys and baby clothes and shoes into the washing machine.
Don’t ever do this. Never do this. Just don’t.
How you think you’ll never forget who’s tiny shoes these were, who’s favourite little pram toy. Especially if you have four children and things get handed down or adopted by a younger sibling. With no orderly photographic nudges to remind me which little rattley or hand-knitted cardigan belonged to which little cherub I was all at sea. I wished I had framed these treasures alongside a picture of the cherub wearing/holding them.
Box frames instead of hidden stash – why isn’t this a well-known pearl of wisdom from our elders?
Speaking as an elder now to any parents with more than one – take photos of them with all the favourite things and hang them up as a matter of course. Photographic back-up needs to be part of the house, not hidden away in random nooks. That way they are not just your memories, the pictures themselves also become part of the whole family’s memories, they’re part of their world. And they’ll also remind us to take better care of the family treasures.
Then maybe you won’t have a lanky teen bond with the colourful twisty snake you just cleaned up and told him was his special nibbly… and then three weeks later find a picture of his older brother gnawing it in his stroller. Eeek.
Stumbling across pictures of your children at the bottom of a drawer (or in a neglected computer file) are wonderful reminders of their squidgy days but can also poke you in the ribs, knock down your towers, lose you a bet or bring you to your knees. Finding a picture of my two eldest running their beanie horses across the television screen to the opening scene of the film Spirit filled me with joy – and anguish.
Where are those two beanie Spirits? I’d never chuck them in the charity bag – but they have disappeared. My mum had bought two copies of the DVD which came with the toy so that she and I would both have the film (our video was taking a battering) and the kids would each have a Spirit to run across the screen. When I see that photo… I plunge. It’s silly – they’re in their twenties, they haven’t watched this film since they were little and if they did would they need the beanies? My gut say ‘Yes of course they would!’
Quite a few special toys have disappeared, things I swear I could never have knowingly chucked. Every time they bring out a Toy Story sequel I feel equal parts excited and despondent. Where did Woody and Jessie go? I fantasise I’ll find them in the next house move.
I have doubly failed: failed to match up the special shoes/cute baby jeans/toy to the right owner, and failed to hang onto the special things in the first place. When you’re overrun with stuff that somehow finds its way into your house, the special things easily get lost. Sometimes we’d black-sackify things in a scurryfunge as visitors were parking the car and squash them into unfeasible places. What if they got mistaken for actual rubbish weeks later? Ohhhh…
A clean dry spacious mouse-free storage is a rare privilege, especially if you rent. Most of us had to carve walkways through chaos if we hadn’t regularly handed things on to younger friends or charity-shopped the excess but we could be tricked into thinking our still- young kids are ‘big’ now. We might not realise that some toys are meant to just sit and guard, and some are meant to wait for the right moment to be rediscovered. Childhood isn’t strictly linear.
Recently I found a Facebook group for owners of a small Mattel Talk-Up doll from the early 1970s. The threads are bursting with people in their fifties overjoyed with their back of the garage finds and sharing their memories. We may seem silly – but we are the elders now and we have fully realised the value of childhood memory.
Decluttering sounds like a nice tinkly-tea-cup word but it belies a dark undertow, a modern pull to be Instagrammably acceptable. I urge you all to tiptoe with gentle sentimentality, and double check the photo stack/digital file (and curiously placed bin bags).
Obviously if your kids are given something hideous, chuck that photo quick…