I used to save everything. I think that’s why I love boxes so much. Everywhere I go, I seem to fall in love with another decorative tin, another brass or wood box. It’s a habit that takes up a lot of space.
I was given a “treasure chest” as a young child that still sits underneath my bed. It’s pretty big– maybe two feet wide and a foot and a half high. That’s where all my class pictures are, diaries I started and left incomplete, felt flags signed by all my camp friends at ESF, pieces of a Princess Jasmine Halloween costume that I put in there because I associated the tiara with a kindergarten friend who died when we were five. Drawings from an imaginary world, marble notebooks filled with stories. Over time, the treasure chest lost some of its innocence. I hid bottles of liquor there in high school, and buried deep are print-outs of high-lighted medical journals from a time when I thought a close friend had an eating disorder.
The two little boys I nanny for have similar boxes under their beds. Instead of a flowery treasure chest, complete with locks, they have plastic bins, like the kind you’d keep under your dorm room bed for extra socks or notebook paper. In these boxes they keep their “Precious Things,” which I learned about when I was asked to go through their closets and pick through the clothes that were too small for them. “A” is 8, “M” is 5. If you follow me on Twitter you’ve probably read my #nannydiaries hashtag and gotten to hear some of their quips and phrases. These boys are wildly intelligent. “M” is especially emotionally mature, often asking me questions about life, death, and relationships. He asks about Zack a lot.
Anyway, as we sorted through their closets they insisted on keeping some of their favorite t-shirts and putting them in Precious Things even though they had grown out of them. This I understood. My closet in Devon, Pennsylvania is home to my Bat Mitzvah dress, my prom dress(es), my favorite pink cotton dress from when I was four with the hearts on it (my yia-yia lovingly sewed a layer of lace onto when it got too short), my favorite zip-up hoodie from high school, and strangely, a few of my zade’s suits which are stored there for reasons I do not know.
However, this morning, as I was scraping dried up bright blue toothpaste from the boys’ bathroom sink, I took a look at the two large plastic cups on either side of the faucet. Toothbrushes, at least a dozen of them, each encrusted with fluoride, sat awkwardly in each cup. Collections, the boys had insisted when I first started sitting for them. No. These were bacteria breeding grounds, and it was grossing me out. I started channeling my neat freak Aunt Tammy and summoned “A” and “M” into the bathroom with me.
“These,” I said slowly, “have got to go. Pick the one that looks the cleanest and we have to throw the rest away.”
“A” looked at me fearfully. “NO!” he cried, tears immediately sparking from his blue eyes. “No! You can’t.”
“Because I love them. You can’t take them away.”
I had each boy bring their handfuls of toothbrushes to the kitchen. I boiled water, poured it into a measuring cup, and swirled each toothbrush until all the dried paste and spit and mold had dissolved and fallen to the bottom.
“Look,” I said, holding the glass up to the light. “That’s bacteria. That’s yucky. These toothbrushes will make you sick if you keep using them. You have to throw some away.”
“A” started crying again.
“A, M, you understand what I’m saying, right?” “M” nodded. “Pick one to use, throw your least favorites away, and the rest we will put with your Precious Things.”
“A” lifted his head. “Okay.”
This attachment to, of all things, toothbrushes.
“Do you not want to throw them away because they remind you of being little?” I asked.
I understood this, too. I once cried into Sara’s shoulder in the bathroom at a sixth grade YMCA Carriage House dance because the DJ was playing Savage Garden and “Truly Madly Deeply” reminded me of the fourth grade and “being young.” I shit you not.
And with that, one by one, after inspecting the characters on each colorful handle- Spiderman, Batman, Cars, Yo Gabba Gabba (these were deemed “too babyish” and discarded)- we disinfected and bagged the most Precious, to be kept under their respective twin beds.
I went through a phase in middle school where I kept every note my mother left taped for me on the side door because I was scared she was going to die and I wanted to have everything that she had written or touched or thought. This included post-its that said things like “pls empty d/w” and “went to yoga, be back at 4” and “love you, have fun at kelly’s” scrawled inside giant heart. I still have these, amongst many other notes and letters, pictures and invitations, in boxes, under the bed.
“M” asked me about dying today. “Can you die if you’re a letter or a number?” His face looked puzzled. “What about metal or glass? What about food? Food dies, because we eat it, right?”
I explained to him that only the animals that breathe and the plants that grow can live or die.
I wonder, if years from now, the boys will look through each of their Precious Things and remember why they believed them to be so precious.