When I was 4 years old, I sank my teeth into my parents' walnut dresser. They didn't see me do it, but once it was discovered, I was not disciplined. Rather, my mother lovingly dusted my dental impressions for the next 40 years. When, as an adult, I asked her why she never had the dresser refinished, she said, "I just can't."
It wasn't until I had children of my own that I was able to understand that sentiment completely. Recollections of one's kids when they were little are among the sublime pleasures of life. My older son, Alyosha, is now 20 and away at college, but the signs of his boyhood in and about our house are everywhere.
When he was growing up, I performed the requisite duty of marking his height on a doorjamb. Every so often I'd stand him up against the jamb, measure his height, and then make him squat down to where he was when we began the record keeping. "Can you believe you were once this small?" I'd remark.
To which, in his later years, he'd reply, "Yes, now can I go?"
A few years back I hired a carpenter to install a new door. When he was done, he pointed to the old frame, which he had detached, and asked me what I wanted to do with it. One of the sides bore Alyosha's growth record.
"I'll take care of it," I said, biting my lip. But I never did. I still have that long, white length of wood. I don't know what to do with it, but I can't bring myself to throw it away.
Similarly, we have a very big, very old silver maple in our front yard. When Alyosha was 8, he busied himself one summer morning with ropes and wooden slats. When he was done, he had built what he ceremoniously described as "my pirate ship." It was truly an elaborate labor of love, with a rope ladder, yardarm, and lines hanging about the central trunk or "mast." He played in this construction from time to time until he was about 11. And then, one rainy, windy autumn day, I looked out the window and watched as the ropes flapped neglected about the tree.
I intended to take that pirate ship apart, but I kept putting it off – for two reasons. One, it was the work of Alyosha's hands and reminded me of the little boy he once was; and two, every so often a neighborhood child would walk by, pause, and grapple his way up the tree, as if it had been beckoning him. Having always believed that trees are made for kids and kids for trees, I hesitated to undo those ropes.
I suppose this is how a life gets cluttered, despite one's intention to simplify. Besides Alyosha's doorjamb and pirate ship, I have retained his grade-school crafts, folder upon folder of his artwork, and all the cards he ever made for me – one of which came in very handy when he was 15 and told me that I didn't know anything. I immediately whipped out a second-grade card he had written that read, "Dear Dad, you know everything!"
Just the other day I was relating to a friend the existential question of what to do with the doorjamb. Her unhesitating response: "Burn pile." Far from being aghast, I was in awe of someone who knew her own mind with such assuredness, yet loved her children no less than I loved mine.
A few years ago one of my dilemmas was resolved when a second son came into my life. I adopted 5-year-old Anton from Ukraine. When I introduced him to his new home, his eyes immediately gravitated to his big brother's pirate ship. Up, up he went, into the embrace of the immense maple.
That event caused his first smile on American soil, his adjustment having been eased by my attachment to something that another parent might have parted with long ago.
There are many things we must yield to the counsel of the years, including our kids' childhoods. But there are also remnants worth holding onto. Frost phrased this in perfect cadence when he wrote:
I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.