Children produce endless things. How do you decide what to save?

Parenthood may be the ultimate example of on-the-job training, except you may feel like you’re training for multiple jobs at once: cook, teacher, nurse, hostage negotiator. Add to this list the amateur archivist — a role often assumed by mothers, the guardians of our children’s early stories. But how do you decide what to keep and what to throw away – what to remember and what to forget? I would have liked to fill my children’s baby memory books better, but I mostly found it painful at the time, preferring to capture their first smiles and first steps on my phone.

As a writer, I’ve spent my life filling notebooks with what I want to remember, but what I want my kids to remember is a different question, one I’ve been thinking about since my mother sent me touchstones from my own childhood. My parents moved out of Miami and the house I grew up in last year, downsizing along the way. My cards arrived at the right time: I had just lost a job that was close to my heart and the experience left me wondering about my path. When these cardboard time capsules landed on my doorstep, I found pieces of myself in their contents, a jumble of “important” memories I remembered and objects I had long forgotten. In a moment of doubt, they served to remind me of who I was and who I am.

If I ever doubted my decision to become a journalist, here’s proof that maybe it wasn’t a decision after all: notebooks filled in all shapes and sizes, half-stories scribbled on loose sheets of paper legal, even a typescript titled “6TH GRADE STINKS”. I thought of my favorite essay by Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”, where she thinks “the impulse to write things down is particularly compulsive, inexplicable to those who don’t share it… I guess whether or not it starts in the cradle.

I’ve kept a notebook for as long as I can remember, but apparently my mom kept my notebooks before I could remember. I had no idea. The boxes were neatly wrapped – yearbooks and other pampered items in bubble wrap; works of art and short stories kept in scrapbooks with acid-free pages – and the collections they held had been carefully curated over the decades. How did she know what to save? Faced with my own impending storage crisis, I decide to ask him.

“I wanted to save things that I thought would help you remember, and me to remember, what your childhood was like,” my mom told me over the phone. “You’ve done a lot of drawings and you’ve written a lot of stories.” Her own mother threw away her precious memories, including letters from her father. The house was full, “so I can’t blame her too much,” my mother continues, but she also couldn’t find a part of her life that was gone. “The pain of remembering all of this…you try not to repeat things that you thought were a disservice in your own life. You try to correct them when you have children.

I learned that my mother literally saved my childhood artwork after Hurricane Andrew destroyed our home in 1992. “I remember being outside trying to keep your little drawings dry and finding it very difficult because the rain was everywhere,” she said. She was able to save most of them, but in losing and then rebuilding our home, she realized what was most important to keep: photos as well as “everything written that documented our personal lives.” she says. “My dad kept a few little letters for me when I was a kid, and I remember going into his office and finding these handmade cards – and knowing he had them saved made me feel loved. So for me it was a sign of love to save these things.

This love showed when I opened my boxes, assembled with such care. But I had the most fun browsing through the least organized of all the containers: a carry-on suitcase my mom brought when my parents last visited. It looked like it had been packed in a hurry – one last purge. Inside I found my first diary, a chain letter, a scrapbook from a trip to California with dried flowers and sea glass pressed into its pages, random snapshots, a science report from 1993 titled “Bacteria and your skin, how to get rid of them!!!”, a Ziploc bag of old Valentine’s Day cards, my graduation tassels, a number Playgirl my friends and I bought at the mall (and quickly stashed away in an unmarked padded envelope), and a “Slam Book” holiday camp rating favorite songs, best couples, and greatest flirtations.

Everything was so disorganized, so different from my mother. She knew I might not want to keep all the items, she said, but “it’s up to you whether you want to keep something or not. At least you get that last look.

I try to remember this as I sort through my children’s things – that they will want to have a say too. Still, I have to start somewhere. But where?

With few exceptions, old toys, dolls, and clothes disappeared when my mother cleaned up. With children’s drawings, you have to make a kind of “value judgment,” she says. With mine, “Not all of the drawings were important, but if they said something about you and what you might be thinking at the time, then I thought it was worth a look.” ‘be preserved.’

Still, she says, “Sometimes you have to make things magically disappear.”

At home, a snowball named Snowy who lives in our freezer will be the first to go. Other objects call out to me – like a crumpled gingerbread girl made of brown construction paper that my daughter brought home from kindergarten and named “Ana.” Each night, Sydney places Ana in a paper bed next to hers, with a paper cup of water, a paper toothbrush, and a slice of paper pizza in case she gets hungry.

There’s one item in particular that I know I’ll never get rid of, even though it looks like it’s in the trash: a pink princess dress my daughter wore during lockdown. My parents sent it to Sydney by courier at the start of the pandemic, and although it was love at first sight for her, it made me roll my eyes. After a year of wearing all pink (she actually called her clothes “my roses”), Sydney had just started wearing different colors again. But we were in the middle of a global pandemic, stuck at home, and the look on her face when she opened the package calmed my inner Peggy Orenstein. So she put the dress on and, except for the weekly event where I took it off to wash it, she wore it for about six months straight.

During this time, Sydney rarely saw another child other than her brother. She retreated in shyness whenever a “stranger” passed by, be it a neighbor or an Instacart driver. But we were also able to spend more time together — many mornings that spring we walked (and jumped and danced) around the neighborhood listening to Disney soundtracks. It occurred to me that at least a few of these princesses were also in quarantine: Elsa in her ice castle, Cinderella in her attic, Ariel in her underwater cave yearning to “be a part of this world.”

Our backyard has become the world of Sydney. She mixed plantain “potions,” learned the names of each tree and flower, and watched the ants swarm and scatter in her wake. We brought home chicks and a poodle named Chance. Through it all, she wore that dress, and soon that dress carried the magic and debris of that strange summer: grass, sticks, and chicken feathers tangled in its layers of tulle. After Sydney and Chance collided in the aisle one afternoon, leaving Sydney with a broken collarbone, I took her to the ER still wearing that ratty princess dress. The nurses knew they had to let her keep him.

The dress now hangs in her bedroom closet. The bodice is gone, and the skirt is literally torn—she cut it with scissors once—but I can’t bring myself to throw it away. In fact, I could have it framed. It’s the symbol of something: strength, I think, or maybe survival.

Brooke Hauser is a writer in Northampton. Send your comments to [email protected]

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