Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving thanks for...the kids' clutter (really!)

Having planned in the week leading up to Thanksgiving to count down the days in my blog by giving thanks for the various non-essential delights that grace my life, you’d think I’d be extra attuned this week to anything that might meet the criteria. The general idea is to go beyond what I call the massive things – the presence of family and friends; physical and mental health; food; shelter; freedom – and acknowledge the many other beloved everyday things that might not make it into a Thanksgiving toast.

But after I mentioned in another communication that due to an inexplicable failure of wireless connectivity in my home office I’ve been working today in my son’s room, at his little wooden desk, surrounded by his sports pennants and baseball cards, Twitter correspondent Jack Ferriter pointed out to me that there’s another item for my list of non-essential but wonderful things worthy of Thanksgiving week thanks: the clutter of toys and other paraphernalia that reflect my kids’ presence in the house.

Of course, when it comes time to pick up all their stuff, thankful is often the last thing I’m feeling (unless my inspiration for picking everything up off the floor is the imminent monthly arrival of the housecleaner, for which I always give thanks). But it’s true: our children’s beloved chotchkes remind us of their unique qualities, their hobbies, their passions, their idiosyncrasies. In Lionel Shriver’s mesmerizingly horrifying novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, one way Shriver conveys the character’s psychopathic tendencies is by describing the sterile tidiness of his childhood room, in which not a toy or game or stuffed animal or book mars the surface of the furniture or floor. This detail has stuck with me for years in its ability to imply a child’s chillingly un-childlike personality.

So when I view the clutter that follows my kids around like Pigpen’s dust cloud in Peanuts, I remind myself to feel grateful.

Along with the sports pennants on the wall and the baseball cards scattered across his desk, Tim’s most prized objects include his 10-year-old stuffed frog, Ba, and his newer but somewhat shabby gray elephant, Vicon. Both animals can usually be found draped across whatever chair or tabletop is nearest to Tim if he’s in the house; when he’s at school he leaves them on the mudroom bench so that he’ll see them as soon as he gets home. Tim also treasures the race numbers he collected at a series of road races he ran over the past two years as well as myriad baseball trophies and ribbons, and the coin collection his grandfather gave him, and a pile of baseball hats from every team he’s ever played on.

Holly’s clutter is a little less resonant with significance than Tim’s. Whereas Tim’s clutch of special belongings comprises things he’s had for a long time that are infused with special meaning to him, Holly just plain collects odds and ends, most of which she eventually uses in crafts projects (or plans to, anyway. Or so she says). Strewn across the rug in Holly’s room are beads of all sizes, straws, pipe cleaners, barrettes, recipe cards, paper clips, post-it notes. “Can I have that?!!” she pleads when I remove the disposable packaging from almost any grocery, whether it’s the cardboard carton that strawberries are packed in or the Styrofoam tray from a package of drumsticks. Kleenex boxes, cereal boxes, egg cartons: they all end up in Holly’s room. Last month I made pumpkin cupcakes for Halloween; now the unused cupcake papers are on her bookshelf. She loves to collect little odds and ends of all kinds. What isn’t to be used in a crafts project instead becomes a stand-in for a character in one of her imaginary play scenarios. One day she was engrossed in a game of imaginary school in the kitchen while I prepared dinner. I plucked a piece of dried macaroni that somehow hadn’t made it into the pot of boiling water with the others off the floor and threw it away. “Mom!” she gasped, horrified, “that’s the principal!”

So Jack Ferriter is right: their possessions, permanent and temporary, valuable and disposable, are all items to be thankful for, because these trinkets and chotchkes represent their personalities, for which I am always grateful. And if it sometimes seems that I spend a lot of time picking tiny beads out of the soles of my feet or dusting baseball trophies, I suppose it’s a small price to pay compared to the gratitude I feel for my unique and wonderful children.


  1. What touching observations, Nancy. I love the names of Tim's animals, and that they're still important to him. I love the variety and quantity of Holly's collections. (And the principal story is hysterical.) And I love that you are able to stand back and appreciate this "clutter."

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