I cleaned out a closet the other day, and there, amid the photo albums and school scrapbooks, I discovered a long-forgotten treasure. It was just a tattered, yellowed spiral notebook, but I remember the days when it occupied the place of honor in our kitchen, right next to my telephone directory (the young mother's lifeline to survival). The spiral pad was my ''Say Book,'' the place in which I could record all the clever and amusing observations my youngsters made about life. And record them I did.
One of the first entries involved the eldest, then three years of age. I had asked him to get me an item on the kitchen shelf. ''I can't reach it,'' he protested. ''My toes are too short.''
His two-year-old brother was listed one morning when he had rummaged through the garbage pail and pulled out a banana peel. ''Look, Mom,'' he said, turning a puzzled face to me. ''This banana's empty!''
Also recorded was the day I had allowed both boys to keep some candy in their dresser drawers, but cautioned them not to eat it yet. Later, when I found bits of wrappers in their room, one had defended himself: ''We didn't eat the candy, Mommy. We hid it.''
''And where did you hide it?'' I asked.
''In our tummies.''
From the moment my first child began to string sentences together, I realized that his observations would be priceless. Children have such a unique way of expressing themselves; their comments are an unending source of delight and fascination to parents, offering us a heightened awareness of their world and a new way of looking at our own. But words are quickly forgotten; like wisps of smoke they tend to slip away forever, unless they are committed to paper. That's why I bought the notebook and kept it nearby in the kitchen. As our camera provided a visual chronicle of a child's growth, my notebook could capture his maturing verbal skills, the questions and comments that helped him learn about life, the moments I didn't want to forget.
''When the snow melts,'' our four-year-old asked, ''will the sidewalks grow back?''
But at six, according to the notebook, his growing sophistication was evident. ''If babies grow from seeds,'' he observed, looking around at our large , young family, ''then we must be God's flower garden.''
Parents who wish to start a permanent record of their children's sayings needn't invest a lot of time or effort on the project. The only ''musts'' are a notebook and pen, placed in a convenient; a sharp ear; and the willingness to write things down now, before time dulls the memory. It's a good idea to date each entry and perhaps add a line or two to describe the situation or setting. Parents can also expand the idea by adding family ceremonies, significant celebrations, and other important episodes.
Such note-taking is most fruitful when children are small and innocent. As they grow, they become more self-conscious, less willing to share tidbits if they know Mother is waiting with pencil poised. But the notebook can still document an older child's observations; parents can simply remove it from view and add material at more discreet moments.
A ''Say-Book'' won't win any Pulitzer prizes, but its pages can provide a warm collection of memories for each family member. With a minimum of time and effort, we can preserve the magic moments of childhood.