Faces. Toys with faces. That's where the trouble starts. I have always had a serious issue with thinning out (code for discarding) our children's old, broken, or outgrown toys. My biggest struggle has been with the toys that look back at me while I'm dropping or stuffing them into an oversized plastic trash bag.
My wife, God bless her, can sweep through a stash of treasured toys with the compassion of an industrial wet/vac. She has the gift of seeing plastic, cardboard and paint where I see Woody, Percy and Po. She does not understand my struggle. For her, my pain is simply a ploy to put off cleaning the over crowded playroom. I don't agree, but I do have to consider that some truth might lurk within her assessment. I've learned to re-listen to my wife's "input," and have discovered much. That's one of the gifts of our sacrament.
It is true, cleaning out the playroom, whose rug has not been sighted since Christmas vacation, is not my first pick for quality together-time. But it is a job that needs doing. Our children have never been the kids who get too many toys. They basically wait for Christmas or their birthdays. Aside from that, it's the little semi toys that come with a kids meal, or the take homes from their friends birthday parties. Throw into that mix the occasional grand prize stuffed animal gleaned from "the Claw." But our eldest is 10 and the youngest is nearing 8. Toys add up. They accumulate. They cluster and pile. They gather in drawers labeled "lined paper." They hide down couch cushions, and the stuffed variety especially like to assemble on bunk beds and along playroom shelves. So, enjoy the task or not, I agree that it needs to be done. It's kind of like thinning out deer. Someone has to do it. But when it comes to bagging my quota of tossed away toys, it truly is a trial for me. Let me present my case.
First, the faces really do bother me. Specifically, the stuffed animals and the action figures (a plastic Calliou or Boots may not technically qualify as an action figure, but for brevity's sake I will stand them alongside one legged Spiderman and Gaston.) As a Dad, I have immersed myself into my children's world, gone along on the ride with them. I watched the Wiggles with them. I learned the songs and danced the dances with them. I collected Blues Clues and pretended not to guess until the third clue with them. Their make-believe friends became my friends. As my kids moved from rug crawlers to two wheel bike riders, I delighted in their delight. I learned to squint and see stars instead of street lights. My kids taught me wonder again, and how to lean just enough into imagination to see life in a cloth face. So, it hurts a little to shove Tommy Pickles into a trash bag. I feel a little guilty watching one of the Country Bears tumble into the abyss of crumpled drawings and broken crayons. (Don't even get me started on drawings - another post.) The faces wear human expressions, and more than that, they were important to my kids, and even though they are now outgrown, some of them still are important to them. Why else do we always schedule the toy purges for times when the kids are not around?
Second, I have a well exercised imagination. I am very much to blame for giving some of the life to these "items." It has become a bedtime tradition with my daughters for the assortment of stuffed kittens, monkeys, baby dolls, and pokemen to come to life in the land of blankets. The drill goes like this: Dad, while tucking them in, drifts suddenly to sleep, which is the queue for whichever stuffed creatures are nearby to come to life and spontaneously partake in a mostly whispering, sometimes giggling, and sometimes (too loud) laughing "playdate." The girls have become very creative and are usually ready with themes, such as Animal Olympics, Animal Idol, Hide & Seek or just random silliness. I can't be too certain. As I've said, I'm already asleep when things kick off.
With my son it has always been all about the action. Heroes and villains, battles and quests - even in blanket land. We would begin by choosing teams, playground style. Certain characters were "protected" from my draft. I would never even think about picking Robin, Knuckles, or Optimus Prime. Still, He-Man, Donatello, and a couple of Bat Men would suffice. It really didn't matter who I picked anyway. His side always won. Eventually.
Imagination, like a muscle, gains strength the more it is used. The problem is, the same child-like "eye" that sees the kitten in the cotton also hears a plaintive "meow" as said feline is bagged away.
The third thing is probably the most telling. The passing of toys is a graphic reminder of the passage of time. When my son was two, blue was his favorite color. He had a non poseable, cape-less Superman that he carried everywhere. Superman had a bald spot on the back of his head from my son's thumb. Within a year it was Thomas the Tank Engine. Still blue. Cooler toy. More friends and accessories. Robin followed, with a color preference change to red. Next came Raphael, the red bandanna'd Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (at least he had an Angel's name), then Optimus Prime, and then Knuckles from Sonic. Each of these favorite toys represents at least a year in my son's life. Learning to walk. Loosing the first tooth. Starting Kindergarten. I used to lie close to his sleeping two year old face and ask God, "Can I get a thousand years of this moment in heaven." I made the same request when he was three. And four. And so on. I am so blessed that God has lent these three young souls to my wife and I. That He has loved us into a family. As a dad I am humbled and proud to watch them become: my son, the soccer playing graphic artist with an eye on his sister's guitar; my eldest daughter, who has already written a song on her little sister's guitar (and performed it publicly twice, with her sister); and the youngest, who seems to be in the biggest hurry to move forward, to keep up with her older siblings, and whenever possible, to pass them.
I love this day, where we are as a family now, and I can't wait to discover the road ahead with them. I pray it is an eternal road. But even now, a certain toy can make me ache for the younger them, and remind me just how fast this temporal life plays out. And so, things become symbols, and symbols become metaphorically weighted and harder to throw out.
I know my wife will understand when she reads this. And then she'll say get over it and hand me another bag. She's right. They are just toys. Material things which will pass and be replaced. But I know she feels it too. Her weakness is clothing, but she has a solution. When she discards their old play clothes, she cuts a swath of material from it first and keeps it. She is planning on making a quilt at some point down the line. Maybe I could save pieces of their toys and construct a sculpture. No - all those faces would just make it creepy.
NOTE: discarded toys and clothing are of the stained, torn, drawn on, and hairless doll kind of variety. Clean, usable toys and clothing are donated to charitable organizations - faces and all.