“Today is our crying assembly,” Becky informed me this Friday morning. “We all sit in the school hall and talk about how the Year Sixes are going to secondary school, and we’re all changing classes. And then we cry. Yes, all of us. Yes, even the teachers. Yes, even Mr Clarke.”
And then, I think to myself, then, you and Ben will come out of your classrooms with an armload of papers, report cards, junk models, random snippings of cardboard, heartbreakingly sweet exercise books (“I can smell…flowers, Mr Clarke” “I can hear…the hej trimmur”), bad photos, battered indoor shoes and your mouldering PE kits. And then, I will cry. Because while I can see how much these things all mean to you, I have nowhere to put any of it.
Unsurprisingly, I think my kids are brilliant. I could quite happily fill the whole of cyberspace with endless anecdotes about how amazing they are. I love everything about them, from their mad early-morning conversations with the cats, through the barrel-rolls they always do across our bed on the way in or out of the bathroom, all the way to how good the backs of their necks smell when I kiss them last thing at night. My husband and I are both in awe of their endless creative obsession with plasticine, to the point where he had to build them a website so they could share their modelling brilliance with the world.
But oh, dear God, those giant bags of detritus that come home at the end of the school term.
It’s not that I’m completely heartless (or at least, I hope I’m not completely heartless). I can see this stuff has meaning. I understand that, when Becky looks at the cardboard tube covered in tinfoil and stuffed with shreds of orange and yellow tissue, she’s reminded of the day the Olympic torch came to our town, and we turned out first thing to go and see it, and – contrary to my cynical expectation – it really was a lovely, exciting sight.
I can also see how much work has gone into it behind the scenes. Before Becky could make that torch, someone else had to decide how to fit the Olympic theme into the creative-arts part of the curriculum, then choose an appropriate project, then work out a suitable construction method for children aged eight to nine, then test that method, then allocate the right amount of time for it to be completed, then assemble and prepare the bits to do it. And I’m genuinely impressed by the result. As Olympic-torch junk-models go, I think this one is awesome.
It’s just that I’m not sure I really want an Olympic-torch junk model sitting in my house, on the mantelpiece, for the rest of time.
And let’s be clear; if it stays, it really will be “for the rest of time”. In this house, we get more attached to things as time passes, not less. After something’s been part of the landscape for more than about three weeks, it takes on a meaning of its own, and can’t possibly be thrown away. We have Hallowe’en spiders hanging above the table which have been there for over three years; Christmas pictures that have happily seen in their second summer solstice. Suggestions that they might be taken down provoke expressions more suitable to amputation.
I’m taking full responsibility for this. My kids are like this because I’m like it too. As I type this, I’m looking at a small cardboard box that probably used to have a single chocolate in it, sitting on my bookshelf. The box is empty. The box is made of cardboard. The box is plain and dull. The box has no objective value whatsoever. But the box has been on that bookshelf for months, and when I think about getting rid of it, I feel sad. So it stays.
This is why I have to throw out ninety-nine per cent of the stuff my children bring home. It’s not because I don’t value it; it’s because I am in danger of valuing it too much. I could fill my entire house with an archive of their childhood. I could preserve everything, from pre-verbal finger-paintings to sixth-form essays, stacking it up around me in towers that I have to crawl between in order to reach the front door. And then when I die, they would come into my house and look at it and be baffled, and think, “What on earth did she save all this lot for?”, and get rid of it.
Ben’s recent school residential was on the theme of Elmer, the patchwork elephant. And while sorting through Ben’s weird scribblings and jottings and odd pieces of painted clay and enigmatic sheets of red A4 paper with one corner cut off and a single green line drawn across the centre (“No, mummy, I need that! That’s my secret pass to get into the Power Ranger base!”), I came across this.
Whoever it was on the school staff who looked at a plastic detergent bottle and saw the form of Elmer, waiting patiently to be released – may I please tell you that you are brilliant? Because you are. Even if I’d been clever enough to see it in the first place (which I wouldn’t), there’s no way I’d have been able to summon the manual dexterity needed to cut it out, cleanly and neatly and leaving no sharp edges. But you did. And then, under your gentle guidance, my son applied squares of tissue to it – squares you will have prepared for him, and not just for him but for all his classmates, so you must have accomplished your detergent-bottle-Elmer miracle up to thirty times – and together, you and Ben created Elmer.
On the one hand, it’s made out of a cut-up detergent-bottle and some squares of tissue paper. On the other hand – it’s made out of a cut-up detergent-bottle and some squares of tissue paper. It’s the best junk-model I have ever seen in my life. It’s so good that even Becky – whose normal attitude towards her little brother’s productions is tolerant kindness – stopped on her way to the kitchen and said, “Hey, look at that…that’s brilliant.”
Kids, I hope you understand why I throw out most of what you bring home in those tattered, leaking carrier-bags. I don’t want to turn your home into a terrifying paper shrine to your entire childhood selves. But Elmer is staying. He’s going on the mantelpiece, next to the photograph frame Becky made three years ago, out of cardboard and string and dried flowers and silver spray paint. Or maybe he’s going next to the elephant my grandpa brought back from Africa when he was shipwrecked there in the Second World War. My grandpa’s elephant is made out of ebony with ivory inlay. Elmer’s made out of a detergent-bottle and squares of tissue-paper, and he’s got googly eyes that you buy in packets of 100. And he’s staying.
And when you’re cool and moody teenagers, you’ll both be mortified that I still keep a home-made photograph frame and a detergent-bottle elephant, and you’ll beg me to throw them away, and I’ll laugh, and I’ll tell you they’re staying. Because I can already see there’ll be a day when you’ll be adults, and will no longer bring home bagfuls of stuff for me to inspect, exclaim over and then dispose of. I’ll tell you that parenting is a journey, and that every journey generates its souvenirs – oddly-chosen perhaps, and beautiful to no-one else, but still we keep them, because that’s what human beings do. And these days that are passing now will never come to me again.
And you made these things for me when you were six, and they’re staying.