Saturday, June 27, 2009

Visiting Hours

"You don't want Mr. Stuffy?" I asked incredulously, pulling the stuffed bear out of the paper bag destined for Goodwill.

My son was only ten years old, but his answer came as swiftly and as curtly as a seasoned judge denying the twelfth request for a stay of execution. "No."

Mr. Stuffy looked up at me, pleading, his big swirly eyes crossed, and his wrinkled red bow tie askew. My son had made him in first grade as part of a class project. Together we had picked out the brown furry material at the fabric sore, spending an hour running our hands over bolts of fabric, discussing how a bear should feel and look. He had been so proud of Mr. Stuffy and I had been so proud of my him. Not every first grader could make a bear that displayed this amount of compassion and depth working with only fake fur, stuffing and 59-cent eyes.

I quickly looked at the shelf where Mr. Stuffy had last been to find a menacing action figure with an open mouth and a bloody sword. An angry rubber Tyrannosaurus Rex stood beside him, baring his teeth.

“Are you sure?” I said in a voice way too high and syrupy, holding Mr. Stuffy up and toward him, hoping those eyes would soften his heart. “I mean, we could just put him in the closet here and….”

He stopped me and in the voice he reserved for the poor idiot mother who must be dealt with, calmly but firmly said, I….don’t…want…that…thing.”

A few years after the Mr. Stuffy incident, I passed by his room and stopped for a moment to take it all in. The shelves that only a few years ago had held his soccer trophies, scout awards and his collection of Pokemon cards were now supporting blinking, humming metal boxes of stereos, speakers, CD players, the wireless networking system. A triad of computer components now governed his desk, the same desk that used to hold a Crayon lamp and a puzzle of the world. The squat monitor and the keyboard that rushed up to it like a wave sat beside the dominating red tower that blinked out like a forbidding lighthouse. It whirred instructions to its subordinates in a secret language. It had, appropriately, a small metal alien mask on the front.

When our children are infants and toddlers, their rooms confirm our God-like presence. We choose the soft colors of the walls and place copies of Good Night Moon and Pat the Bunny on their shelves. The sock monkey and the pale blue teddy bear sit atop the dresser. We feel proud and slightly smug as we survey the perfect environment we have created for our creations. It is his or her room of course, but our room too. Even the furniture reflects our shared existence—the crib for them, the rocking chair for us.

By the time children reach the ages of five or six, their rooms start to take on more of their own personalities and we are constantly invited, begged, to come and join them in their kingdoms. “Come play in my room!” they say, dragging us by the arms. We sit among their cherished possessions and resist the temptation to straighten, to categorize. Given time, they will explain that the giant cobra is protecting the plastic Snow White figure from the angry pink teddy bear. GI Joe is going to the store to get bananas for the four monkeys, recently escaped from the “Barrel of Monkeys” and currently hanging off his upraised arm. We sit on the bed covered with the Rugrats comforter to read Corduroy and Blueberries for Sal over and over again.

Through the years, the Barney posters come down, the X-men and horse posters are hung up. Animorphs and The Boxcar Children appear on the front of the shelves while Dr. Seuss gets pushed back. The planet mobile is put up one year and the taken down the next. Gel pens and mechanical pencils begin to sprout beside the bed. The top of the dresser fills up with pictures of friends and awards from sports and school. I-Pods and PSP's appear with them headphones and game cartridges.

And while we are happy our children are happy and thriving, it is hard for a parent to watch the girl who only wanted roses and wicker now choose the gleaming metal bunk bed with the leopard bedspread. A harsh halogen lamp replaces the lamp with the happy cowboy and pony. On the shelves “Chutes and Ladders” and “High-Ho Cherry-O” turn into “Clue” and “Battleship” only to be replaced later with slick computer game boxes, scattered on the shelves like dried insect husks. When we enter the room now, it is not to play but the check homework, remind them of chores they need to do, or, sadly, to complain about the condition of the room. “Look at this mess!” we say. “You need to get this cleaned up!”

When they do clean up, you may be surprised at what they are willing to abandon. The purple truck you spent hours rolling back and forth on the floor with him, the doll she slipped next to you in bed each morning before climbing in too, all are now fodder for the Salvation Army. We look at these items and suddenly feel such attachment to them, the passion, surprising and urgent. How is it that these possessions once loved so vehemently, now abandoned, by our children now become our beloved items?

We stand there with the Hop On Pop book, unwilling to put it back in the Goodwill bag. “But this was your favorite book” we say to the little pioneers who are busy lightening the load. We begin (pathetically) to recite the book from memory. “Hop. Pop. We like to hop. We like to hop on top of Pop.” No reaction. We look down at the bag and grab up the model car. “Remember how we worked on this car together?” Another dive into the bag produces the beloved sock monkey.
“Don’t you want to keep your sock monkey?” we manage to choke out. We stand with our hands full of the memories and look pleadingly at our children, but the tiny efficiency experts are busy stacking up their newest acquisitions, electronics unfamiliar to us, and search for more vestiges of childhood to shed.

Some mothers save all their children’s artwork. Others save locks old hair and have the first pair of shoes bronzed. I watched as one of my friends opened the box of her daughter’s toddler clothing. She smoothed out the tiny red velvet dress with the white collar and cooed as the original wearer of those sweet items stomped through the house in camouflaged pants, a chain belt and a nose ring.

I consider myself brutal when weeding out school artwork or old clothing, but show me my son’s tattered copy of Cars and Trucks and Things that Go! or the first Matchbox car my son ever owned and loved (a steel-blue eighteen-wheeler flatbed with twin gas tanks) and I turn into a mass of quivering gel.

When our children reach the teen years and we come to call, we are treated more like Amway salespeople than the honored guests we once were. (For awhile my son had a doorbell on his door that we were actually expected to ring before entering.) Now when they clean up, they are ruthless sea captains. They scan the horizon for anything that smacks of adolescence and are willing to heave it overboard lest it slow down their journey toward adulthood. And that is how rooms once devoted to nursery rhymes, stuffed animals, and wicker become rooms full of stereos, computers, and slick black furniture. And that is how you end up on the outside of the closed door with a box of worn books, teddy bears and an outgrown sweater.

A Mother’s Fantasy: I stand at the end of a long hall that is lined with numbered doors. One by one, I open the doors.

Door Number One: I walk into the room and there is my son, the one year-old, standing up in his crib, his arms held out, still groggy from his nap. I lift his solid body up and out to sit on my lap in the rocking chair in the afternoon sun. We rock and I hum to him and smell his sweet head.

Door Number Five: There he is: in the middle of his blue and red room, dressed for his first day of kindergarten. His blond hair gleams and he laughs and hold up his new Sonic the Hedgehog lunchbox to show me.

Door Number Ten: He is at his desk. His bangs are in his eyes. His Lego models are lined up on this dresser. His shelves display his rock collection and he picks up each rock and shows it to me. His fingers are long and slender.

Door Thirteen: He is standing with his skateboard under his arm, amid posters of basketball players and Star Wars characters. He is headed out to be with his friends, but stops to grin at me as I kid him about his spiked hair.

Door Sixteen: He is at his computer. He leans back in his chair as I enter the room. “What’s up, Mom?” he asks. “What’s up with you?” I ask him. “Just hanging out, you know.” His face is sharper, older, the voice deeper. I sit and look at him in amazement. His face is a blend of the little boy I know and the man who will be.

Door Eighteen: Boxes out on the bed. Suitcases on the floor. He is leaning over a pile of jeans and shirts, deciding which to take to college and which to leave. He smiles at me, apparently reading the expression I have tried to hide and says, “It’ll be OK, Mom.” He points to a stack of his high school papers, awards, albums, and notebooks. “You keep those for me, OK?”

It’s only a fantasy of course. And yet, the collection of details in my mind is intricate and diverse. I remember not only the detail of his room and what he looked like; I know the buttons on his first coat were shaped like ducks. His preschool teacher ‘s name was Rosalie. He has a scar from chicken pox high on his forehead. He used to laugh when we got to page seven of The Digging-est Dog.

He doesn’t remember these details nor does he care about them. So why have they found their way into the folds of my heart? And if I have them securely in my heart, why do I grab for the Mr. Scruffy and the battered toy car?

Our children’s rooms are constant, silent reminders of our sons’ and daughters’ unwavering march away from us and from the little boys and girls we once knew. Our children’s rooms and lives are not static, nor would we want them to be. Their rooms are not museums, but rather informal art galleries in which our children decide what to create, to present, to unveil to a select few.

If you are lucky enough to be admitted, step inside and absorb it all. Look around at the jumbled shelves, the crowded desk, the unmade bed, the crumpled clothing in the closet and memorize it.

Like all good art galleries, there are some displays that will please you, some that will anger you, and some that will confuse you—a tumble of textures and colors.

Hold your judgment, temper your opinions, and honor what is. Remember we are the guests here. Our children are the directors, the curators and the guards of these galleries.

Above all, visit as often as you can. The exhibits change rapidly and before you know it, visiting hours will be over.


Anonymous said...

I love it!!!

Bossy Betty said...

Thanks! I am so glad you liked it!

Shan said...

Ouch! Straight to the heart with this one.

jenny_o said...

How true. You captured this beautifully.

Anonymous said...

If you have the space, KEEP Mr Stuffy, the Matchboxes and books. He WILL want them back when he matures.

Rida said...
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