My basement was the kind of basement that, when kids went down the stairs and saw the amount of toys down there, they stopped mid-step, clutched the handrail, and trembled with excitement.
My basement was legendary to friends’ kids. There weren’t enough shelves or floor space for all the goods, so the toys scattered across the floor: Lego bins stacked beside illegally parked trucks, dolls splayed every which way, and pint-sized chairs formed an unattended tea party, complete with mini-porcelain dishes.
But after one too many crippling heel incidents, I told my kids it was time to clean up — they could have a garage sale to sell all of the toys they were finished with and they could keep the profits. Money is a big motivator to 14-, 12- and 9-year-olds.
So, for two weeks, after school and on weekends, my kids descended the stairs with cardboard boxes foraged from grocery stores, eagerly looking forward to that spring Saturday when they’d make millions. They argued — of course they did. These were big decisions. What to sell? What to keep? But that promised garage sale money ensured the “sell” boxes filled much faster than the “keep” boxes.
As the basement carpet became more and more visible — which I rediscovered was a rather nice greenish-gray with a classic square pattern — my own demeanor became brighter. I envisioned a Murphy bed for guests, or a cozy couch and bookshelves, or maybe even a home theater. I was happy to have some clean, open space to dream over.
But that was just the beginning. I was overjoyed to see that my kids were capable of cleaning up! They were capable of sorting through belongings and not keeping everything, a feat I never learned growing up. They were learning valuable life skills.
Then, I saw the puzzle on the top of the items in the “sell” box. It was a toddler puzzle called A Day at the Fair, with pop-up pieces for the entrance, the French fry stand, and a cute little merry-go-round that spun. Oh how my middle child loved this puzzle. We’d assemble it, and then play with the moving pieces. She was exceptionally good at puzzles, but this puzzle was one we always did together.
I said we couldn’t give away that puzzle. I had high hopes of playing it with grandchildren someday. I also had strong memories attached to that puzzle — of being a parent who really takes the time to play with her child. My middle child was not going to have middle child syndrome, one of those kids who didn’t get quality time with her mom and who was always being squeezed out by the older and younger child. If I gave that puzzle away, I might not remember the times that I did take to play with my middle child, and the guilt would flow. This puzzle was proof of good motherhood, as well as evidence that my preteen — who was now self-sufficient and didn’t need me to help her with homework, much less a puzzle — was once a toddler with rosy cheeks and ringlets who loved me unconditionally.
My oldest responded with an emphatic, “You want to keep everything! We’ll never make any money this way.” She’s wrong, of course. I don’t want to keep everything. True, I don’t want to give away the Lite-Brite that I gave my kids because I never had one as a child. I don’t want to sell the classic wooden puzzles with peg handles, or the doll house, or even the Rock’n’roll Elmo. I have good reasons for each item, and the reasons are memories.
I felt like I needed to concede on the puzzle — I had already nixed selling too many of the toys that they had duly argued over. I have a family history of clutter and saving too much stuff. Also, there’s supposed to be freedom in giving things away, some sort of joy and life-changing magic and yada yada. Plus, I had been the catalyst to get rid of all the toys. So I thought of ways I could keep the memory without keeping the puzzle.
We could put the puzzle together one last time, my daughter (a wise 12-year-old) and I. We’ll assemble it together and she’ll steal all the good pieces like always and then tell me to turn the Ferris wheel in the right direction. We’ll laugh as we put the pieces back in the box, content that the little person who bought it the next day would enjoy it just the way we did. And when the grandchildren come along in twenty years, there will be new puzzles. A fitting solution, almost as satisfying as popping in that last puzzle piece.
A more likely solution involves a pouty tween playing the puzzle with me, angry because the puzzle is made by a company called Infantino and she is definitely no baby. She wouldn’t remember any happy times with the puzzle, and therefore we are both glad to get rid of it. We even give it away for free at the sale to the first person who glances at it.
The third solution is this: I write about the puzzle and try to capture the memory of that small girl, so serious and so smart. I try to capture the feeling of a younger me, struggling to enjoy these moments with my child while thinking of all the other things I needed to do, loving the quietness of puzzle time in spite of myself.
And here I am, writing, and yet I’m failing to give myself any closure whatsoever. Instead, I sneak the puzzle up to the far corner of the attic where only I will find it again, some day, a long time from now, when my grandchild comes over to play. I will have all the time in the world to put a puzzle together, and spin the pieces whichever way they deem is the “right way.” I will marvel at the memories of putting those very same interlocking pieces of cardboard together, and delight in how generations of chubby knuckles are solving a puzzle with only one real solution.