When my son was in junior kindergarten his class took a field trip to the zoo. He enjoyed the day but was upset with me for not having given him money to buy a souvenir at the gift shop. “You have plenty of toys,” I told him, “and you don’t even play with all of them.” It was so not the answer he wanted.
Several years later he went on another trip to a local museum. Same routine. “Everybody got to buy something except for me!” A few months later we were cleaning his room and arranging his special things on his shelf. “Where’d you find this?” I asked him as I picked up one of the items. “Oh, it was in a box in the library and I thought it was cool. It’s a black bear.”
It was not a black bear; it was a hand painted ceramic replica of a black bear, purchased at the zoo in 1974 when I was on a third grade field trip. Fragile as it was, it survived decades of packing and moving, eight houses in all. It was once on my own shelf of special things, later carefully stored by my mother when I went to college. unearthed in the large box of Barbies and wooden blocks after my mother died.
There’s a reason Disney calls these $10 trinkets “tangible memories.”
“When I was in third grade,” I said, “the lions lived in cages called the Cat House, and the polar bears had a tiny home with a small pond painted blue and full of green water. Their coats were green all summer long.”
“No way!” he replied, unable to imagine anything other than the enormous habitat with 100 feet of glass wall where the polar bears now live, just across the way from the equally large sea lion aquarium. We talked about how the zoo has changed and what animals we liked. We talked about being in third grade and making new friends.
For the next field trip, and every one after, I sent a bit of cash.
Last week the children and I were doing our annual get-ready-for-school room clean up, a chore I used to approach with a broom and a garbage bag, the picture of a Pottery Barn child’s room in my mind. Now we start by sorting the too-small clothes, recycling the homework papers, boxing up toys we’re ready to hand down, and rearranging the evolving, sprawling home museum.
My son’s special shelf currently holds the bear figurine, six baseballs, each with its own story, a couple of sports medals and a small wooden canoe that a friend of ours made by hand. My daughter also has a special shelf, four of them actually, with notes from her teachers, some rocks from New Mexico, and about a hundred other trinkets, each precious to her in its own way, none that I would dream of throwing away (although I do encourage a bit of discrimination).
It is not a black bear. It’s a carpool ride in a blue Oldsmobile on the way to the hot, smelly Cat House. It is not a pink paper umbrella. It’s the night we drank Shirley Temples and ate pineapple upside down cake for dinner because school was out and homework was over. It is not a birth certificate, diploma, marriage license, mortgage and resume. It’s a messy, dusty, disorganized collage that I look back on and call life.