This Thanksgiving my wife Kathy had planned to prepare for our family every dish from the holiday chapter of our new “The Happy in a Hurry Cookbook, 100-Plus Fast and Easy New Recipes That Taste Like Home.”
The Grinch may have stolen Christmas, but COVID derailed Thanksgiving…for everybody.
So instead of all being under one roof, we connected with our three kids virtually, pretending it was almost normal as we strained to see their postage-stamp-sized faces in Zoom’s “Brady Bunch” boxes.
Earlier in the day, I’d gone into the basement looking for a humongous turkey roasting pan and something pleasantly nostalgic happened.
We’re not hoarders, but right now in our basement we have almost every toy the children ever had growing up, still scattered on the carpet as if they’d been playing with them 20 minutes ago. But it was actually almost 20 years ago.
Standing amid all their toys so many happy memories came rushing back, and our grown-up kids were all 20 years younger, right there with me in the basement.
The irony was that pre-pandemic I was getting to the point that if the kids didn’t want to take their toys and saved stuff to their places, maybe we should donate them somewhere.
We were at a crossroads, and every time the kids would come to visit, I’ll suggest we go down and “streamline” the basement, which is code for your parents can’t sell this joint with all this junk and we’re never gonna get our dream house with the master bedroom on the ground floor!
Peter had gone down into the basement more than a few times, and every time he started cleaning, he’d open a backpack or sports locker and the tchotchkes and memorabilia would transport him back to grade, middle and high schools.
To him it’s not a warehouse of toys and memories, it’s his official National Archives curated by his parents, who will never throw out his extensive collection of odd keepsakes, like a half-empty water bottle from the world premiere of Adam Sandler’s “The Water Boy.” Unless Adam Sandler drank out of it, I have no idea why we’re hanging onto it.
We also have an extensive collection of Wheaties boxes with illustrations of World Series and Super Bowl champs on the front—and the actual Wheaties still packed inside.
I know they’re collectors’ items, but if the Food and Drug Administration knew we had cases of breakfast food that was supposed to be consumed when Bill Clinton was still president, they’d surely send in a Hazmat team.
So Peter has never been helpful at streamlining.
I knew that Sally would be the toughest to convince since she’s the youngest, and most sentimental of our children, who went through a very long period in life when she would not eat any food item that had not danced in a TV commercial. She would be a hard sell, so I cut to the chase and started out with one of her favorite toys.
“Sally, save or donate?”
She looked at it for about five seconds, clearly remembering a memory, and then said, “Donate.”
I was shocked. We moved on to the next item. I held it up Carol Merrill-style and she zeroed in on it a moment and said, “Donate.”
Next item? “Donate.”
After going through what must have been 50 items, I was floored. She’d filled one giant Hefty bag after another.
“I will always remember and love these things,” she said. “But you can’t keep it forever, and it’s OK if you get rid of all of it.” Which was exactly what I wanted to hear. But then I had a little heart pang and thought to myself, “Why have I been saving this stuff forever?”
The final clean-up contestant, Mary, methodically went through her clothes from Boston College. They were all classic styles, and she wanted to save them, which made sense because they all still fit. Same thing with her law school wardrobe. So we stacked up a tower of Tupperware tubs in one corner and turned toward the toys. “Donate or save?”
She studied a doll she’d slept with for two years, “Let’s donate Molly; some lucky little girl somewhere will love her as much as I did,” she said. But as I started to put Molly in a Hefty bag, she balked. “Wait . . . I think I want to save that one.”
“OK, how about this?”
She was momentarily in a trance, remembering where she was when that item was the most important thing in the world to her. “That’s another one I’d like to keep.”
So I put that on top of her Boston College collection. She looked around, gave me the sad face, and said, “Dad, I would like to save everything. Is that OK?”
No, I wanted to clean the basement, because I knew we had carpet under there somewhere. But at the same time I’d been saving everything for them–for their kids, their memories–and this was validation that I’d done the right thing.
Mary looked at the bags of toys Sally had marked for the garbage. “Sally doesn’t know this, but she’s going to want some of these things someday,” she said, and with that Mary picked up the bag and dumped it on the floor. “Look,” she said, “it’s Sally’s whole childhood. You can’t throw that away, Dad.”
When you put it that way, she was right, I couldn’t throw away somebody’s childhood, and I didn’t. It’s all still down in the basement of the house we’ll never move out of.
Kathy has thoughtfully and nostalgically placed the kids ’ iconic toys, things like Curious George, Teddy bears, and childhood blankies–in Plexiglass shadow boxes just a few feet from where the kids fell asleep with them for a generation.
When I see them, I’m instantly transported somewhere in time when the kids were little and Kathy and I wondered what the future would hold for them.
So far, so good.
After the pandemic and the next time the kids are all home, I’ll ask them if they can help me carry up something heavy from the basement, and then I’ll ask them if there’s anything down there they want to get rid of, and they’ll say yes but really mean no. It took me 30 years and three children to realize it.
Our kids didn’t make it home for Thanksgiving this year, and I guess it’s OK. I actually had a pretty nice afternoon with Curious George, an Adam Sandler water bottle and Molly the American Girl Doll.
I never did find the turkey pan.
Adapted from Steve & Kathy Doocy’s “The Happy in a Hurry Cookbook, 100-Plus Fast and Easy New Recipes That Taste Like Home.” Click here to order.
Used with permission of William Murrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.