What’s Left Behind

Who decides what to preserve as the true mementos of childhood? Parents usually do, and it tends to be the easiest things to keep: drawings that can be slipped into a file folder, blankets and stuffed animals that can be shoved in a closet. But what about the random bits and pieces that take up just as much of their attention?

I know I’ve driven on US-45 in southern Illinois on sunny spring and summer days, but I always picture it in the winter, with gray skies and two-week-old snow on the ground, the kind that’s been there long enough to start melting into ugly, misshapen ice and turn filthy black along the edges of the road. It’s one of the many routes I can take to get from Chicago to my parents’ house in Poseyville, Indiana. The towns along US-45 are drab and desolate, some slightly larger than others, delineated by whether they have a McDonald’s and a Marathon station or a Citgo with a quickie mart. Louisville, Geff, Hord, Cisne, Flora: they appear universally tired, towns you remember from childhood but left long ago, returning briefly to visit your grandparents once or twice a year, for only old people still live in towns like this. The houses themselves appear to be asleep, hunkered down on their lots, dirty clapboard sidings mirroring the mottled, sagging skin of their inhabitants. Some children must live there or at least visit regularly, according to the broken down Playskool cars and rusty swing sets scattered around the front yards of houses lining the road, but they’re never present when we drive through, as if they hibernate through the bleak winter days.

While driving home one Sunday morning with my family after a holiday visit to Poseyville, we stopped at a light in Fairfield, one of the larger towns along this stretch. A church stood at one corner of the intersection, and a handful of people were getting out of their cars parked along the street to go inside. A man who looked like he was in his sixties—solidly built, thick neck, a full head of gray hair parted neatly on the side, wearing the square, silver-framed glasses that seem to be standard issue for men of his age in this part of the country—hoisted a little girl, surely his granddaughter, out of the back of a maroon minivan. She was wearing a knee length winter coat with fur trim, and her hair was pulled up in pigtails. She must have had one of her nice dresses on beneath the coat, ready for church.

The girl was clutching what looked like a clipboard, forest green with a silver clip at the top. It could have been something else just two days after Christmas, an Etch-a-Sketch or a board game or a coloring book, but children cling to unexpected things. I wondered if her grandfather gave it to her so she could color on the ride to church from their house out in the country. One can never account for a child’s taste. What counts more is who gave the object to them, or when.

What happens to such objects when a child moves on, discards it for a real toy or some newly significant, incongruous object? Who decides what to preserve as the true memento of that child’s experience? The parents usually do, and the odd items that their children glom onto just get circulated back into the household. The grandfather will lay his clipboard back on the passenger seat of his pickup, to use for holding receipts from the county co-op as he drives around to check his crops, and the granddaughter will find something new. Instead, what’s left behind tends to be the easiest things to keep: drawings that can be slipped into a file folder, blankets and stuffed animals that can be shoved in a closet, and increasingly, digital photos and videos that make a tempting facsimile for any physical object.

Every time we visit my parents’ house, they manage to unearth another relic from my childhood, saved specifically for the day when a male grandchild would be there to play: a box full of Transformer toys, a crate of GI Joe figures, endless cases of Hot Wheels cars. My son, Carter, just calls them “Daddy’s old toys,” significant to him mainly because they were mine. He’s fascinated when my wife Debbie and I tell him about things we did as children, as if he can’t believe that we once had similar interests. We tell him how we used to enjoy watching Sesame Street or the old Spider-Man cartoons, and he runs down his list of new, computer-generated shows to see if we watched those too, disappointed when he finds out we didn’t. He instinctively wants that connection to our pasts without knowing why.

Parents get it right sometimes. Those Transformers and GI Joes were the perfect thing to save from my boyhood because they, along with the pile of baseball cards still sitting in the closet of my old bedroom, account for the vast majority of my play time as a kid. At the same time, however, it’s only a subset of the things I played with, the random sticks and balls and buckets that were thrown away for lack of space or sentiment. I don’t blame them for not keeping everything. In fact, it would be creepy if they had. I helped them decide which things to keep and which would go to the consignment shop as I got older and my interests changed from army men and robots to music and computers and real cars. The things that survived did so as a matter of convenience more than in the interests of preserving a particular phase of childhood.

My parents weren’t overly sentimental with my old things. After I moved out, they didn’t waste much time in converting my old bedroom into a guest room and overflow storage for my dad’s clothes. They didn’t save my old twin bed or keep the same posters hanging on the walls. Now, most of their energy is put toward my two children and my two nieces. The toys in their house now are either newly purchased for the grandchildren, or are things that were once mine or my sister’s that have been expressly saved and repurposed for the little ones.

Periodically, Carter and I sort through his toys to decide what he wants to keep and what we can give away to charity. This usually happens after a big haul of new stuff on a birthday or the holidays. Debbie and I pitch this idea to him as doing something for the greater good, appealing to his still developing sense of justice. “You’re really lucky to have so many toys,” we say. “Some kids don’t have any, so you should share these old ones if you don’t play with them any more.” So far, he’s played along, and while his first instinct is to weed out only the broken trucks and mismatched action figures, we’ve managed to keep his stuff from taking over the house. Yet, he doesn’t possess a shred of sentimentality. The die cast Thomas and Friends trains that meant the world to him one day are traded for Happy Meal toys the next.

Starting at around age two until past his fifth birthday, Carter was obsessed with a series of toy trains called GeoTrax. They came in elaborate sets with add-on buildings, figurines, and sprawling networks of tracks. He and I used to spend hours building new track layouts and concocting stories about the characters, but as he got older, the trains were abandoned for new things. I made subtle hints to encourage him to play with them again, picking up the remote controls and rearranging some of the tracks. He obliged occasionally, but he just wasn’t that interested anymore.

The trains were an obvious target for donation since they took up so much floor space, but I wasn’t ready to move on. I couldn’t muster the emotional courage to give them away for a long time, but one day I finally posted an ad on Craigslist for the whole set. I quickly arranged a sale, and just as I was coordinating their delivery to the mother of another train-loving little boy, Carter decided he wanted to play with them again. I cancelled the deal and happily built the tracks for him again, but this lasted another week before he lost interest again. The trains are now sitting in a box in the closet, collecting dust until the day I get around to selling them again.

A month after the trip home from Poseyville when I saw the girl with her clipboard, I took Carter to his first Chicago Blackhawks hockey game. He was enthralled, bouncing on the edge of his seat and dancing after all four of the goals the eventual Stanley Cup champions scored against Columbus that night. After the game, he ran around the house with a slipper, stooped over and swatting a plastic block along the ground. “What are you doing?” I said.

“I’m playing hockey. That’s the goal,” he said, pointing at the wall underneath one of the windows, “And this is the puck.” He showed me the block. I watched him play and he reported the score to me each time he whacked a shot off the baseboard. The Blackhawks won again, of course.

If I save anything representative of this stage in his life, it won’t be the slipper and plastic block he used to imitate Patrick Kane. It will be that train set, the kind of toy that collects dust and takes up closet space, simply because it fits my Platonic ideal of his childhood. The items with the true meaning, the ones that sent him into another world where he was a hockey star drilling one timers into the back of the net, will be gone. What’s left behind says more about my version of his life than his. Parents tend to forget that childhood has a second perspective.