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Hello, not goodbye

Our daughter’s Hello Kitty thermos was supposed to be passed along, one of those outgrown things that has no place in our new pared-down life. But then a friend posted a picture of a Hardy Boys thermos she and her husband found while replacing a porch. Maybe it’s because the mod outlines of Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson snapped me back to my own ’70s childhood, but something about that thermos struck me in a far deeper way than anything so Tiger Beat should.

The kid who’d used that thermos had long moved from the house my friend now owns, but what if he (she?) had been the one to find it all these years later? Would he have remembered hot soup for lunch? Adolescent angst? His mom? We all save the obvious mementos, the first shoes and school pictures. But what about the ordinary stuff of everyday life?

When my husband and I decided to move and simplify, it was August 2011. We still had to sell our house and build out the loft we were moving into, so we had plenty of time to sort the belongings of two decades of togetherness. I plowed in with William Morris as my soundtrack: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” And that was easy for things like vases and serving dishes, which had multiplied over years of entertaining in a house with space to spare. So, too, the leftover craft supplies, unused picture frames, drawers of files from work projects long past. All the odds and ends of life we keep because we can. Some things were frightfully easy. Without a yard, garage or basement, we’d no longer need gardening gear, power tools or big holiday decorations, so those went without a blink. When we hauled two cars full of books to the library, a metaphorical weight lifted along with the hundreds of pounds of boxes we unloaded. Sorting my clothes and accessories with a ruthless eye (“would I buy this today?”),  I filled countless bags for Goodwill. It was all so liberating, exactly the feeling we’d wanted.

But anything with Tess attached was different. Tess was a few months shy of 8 when we decided to move, and to that point we hadn’t gotten rid of a single thing from her early childhood. It was all neatly packed and stored in the attic, though, so I took it a box at a time, trying to balance practicality (i.e., limited storage in the new place) and sentiment. We couldn’t keep her crib, but we did keep the tiny blue pillow that even today, as it sits on Tess’s bed, conjures long lashes against chubby toddler cheeks. We couldn’t keep the big stuffed rocker where we nursed and sang and read, but every time I close my eyes and hug the nursing pillow we did keep, I swear it smells of milk and warmth and tiny fingers in my hair.

It was hard, sorting through memories of Tess at ages 2, 4, 6. But I kept telling myself, better to do this when she’s almost 8 instead of when she’s 18 and her whole childhood is boxed up and gone, gone, gone. And so, in the end, it was all good. We started by keeping things because they spoke to us, as parents, of milestones, memories, moments in time. Then I talked to a friend who’d just gone through boxes in her parents’ attic, finding toys and other childhood things she’d had no idea they’d kept. And that made me start looking at what we saved through Tess’s eyes, too. What would she like to stumble upon in 10 years? 20? Or more.

By the time we moved in April 2012, we’d sold, donated or given away about 90% of what we’d owned, including most of our furniture. And yet we still purged more as we settled in. It’s an ongoing process, this simplification thing. So when Tess declared the following summer, with the new school year approaching, that Hello Kitty was no longer her speed, I set the thermos aside to donate. We’d already saved a couple bibs and her first set of tiny utensils, so those babyhood feeding mementos were intact. But her big-kid stuff was more used, more worn, somehow very pedestrian and thus fair game for the donate bag.

That’s when my friend posted the picture of the Hardy Boys thermos. Suddenly Hello Kitty loomed large. I panicked when I couldn’t remember if I’d already brought the donate bag to Goodwill, and so it was like Christmas when I opened the closet and there the thermos was, in all its cheesy pink glory.

I’m thinking differently now. We have a little plastic box with a unicorn on the cover and an ice pack in the lid. It’s how Tess took snacks to preschool, and we still sometimes use it. But when it’s languishing in the drawer, untouched as it soon will be, I’ll pack that in with Hello Kitty, where, one day, Tess will see them and remember… what? Hot soup for lunch? Preschool friends? Maybe even mom.

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