I was folding my shirts into rectangles of approximate drawer height when she appeared in the doorway.
“Hi my love. I’m organizing my closet.”
She paused, looking at the clothes piled on the floor. Then she smiled. “I want to help you!”
Technically, it was against the rules. But despite evidence to the contrary, I kinda like breaking the rules. So I finished folding my tops and began to explain The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to my five-year-old.
“So here’s the deal. I read this book on how to organize my closet. You start with tops, which I just did. What do you think is next?”
“Probably bottoms!” she said with a giggle. She was right. So we dragged every skirt and pair of pants I own into a pile on my closet floor.
I explained the art of joy-based decision making and she immediately understood because if there is anything a little girl can understand, it’s joy. She gave herself the job of pile making and she named them. Happy pile. Sad pile.
As one pile became two, I began to think the rules were wrong. Her sweet, “But does it bring you joy?” every time I lingered over a pair of pants I haven’t worn in years helped move us along. We were onto the next category in no time, tumbling every dress and jacket I own into a pile at my feet.
“This one,” I said, holding a striped maxi dress that just doesn’t fit like it used to, “it used to bring me joy. But it doesn’t anymore.” I handed it to her for the sad pile.
Her eyes grew big. “But I like that dress!”
“I did too. But it doesn’t really work for me anymore.”
We moved on until a gold satin dress rose to the top. “This dress has brought me so much joy!” I said, hugging it to my chest, “I’ve worn it to so many big occasions.”
“You wore it to the wedding!” she said. ‘The Wedding’ is the only wedding she’s been to in her short life.
“I did! But I don’t really like to wear it anymore. It brought me a lot of joy but I think we’re done.” Her face fell as gold satin landed in the sad pile.
When every item had been sorted, she helped me toss the sad clothes into a bag. But when we got to those dresses, she stopped for a final plea on behalf of gold satin and stripes. I walked her through the goodbye ritual I’d read in the book. We held each dress and thanked it for it’s work, for the joy. I thought the ceremonial goodbye would be good for us both.
But she burst into tears.
I reminded her what we were doing. “We’re just cleaning up, and some things will go. These dresses brought me joy but don’t anymore. And that’s ok. They can go bring someone else joy now.”
“But they bring me joy!” she wailed through her sobs.
So I broke another rule. I let her take the dresses. They now live on a couple of hooks her closet.
I sometimes forget how much of my children’s lives are wrapped up around me. Not just the things I say and do, though that’s where I put so much of my focus. The knowledge of how my words and actions mold their lives is what holds my tongue when I’m about to say something I shouldn’t. It’s the inspiration for all of the good words that leave my lips. But I forget that so much of their worlds are also made of the tangibles of me. The dress I wear on a regular rotation all summer, the blankets I curl up under in the winter, the t-shirt that is my favorite lazy day uniform. These make the fabric of their worlds. They have favorites among the things I wear and they tell me so when I wear those things. They’ve begun dye threads with memories.
And, of course, I can’t blame them. I’ve saved a box-full of baby clothes for each of them. Not every outfit that ever graced their floppy bodies but the pieces that hold a special place in my heart for one reason or another. The outfits they wore home from the hospital. The dress she wore on her first Christmas. The pajamas that he lived in his first days at home. These things bring me joy when I hold them, smell them, look at them. Seeing that bit of lace peeking out of the box or running my hand along the soft fleece calls up those early memories better than anything else I know. I rest that onesie in my lap and suddenly I can feel how small they used to be, how new they were. I can smell their milky breath and see their big eyes flutter to sleep. Sometimes we need that clothesline back to moments past.
She’ll probably never wear those dresses. In a few months she might forget why she wanted them in the first place. They might eventually make their way to the donation pile. Or maybe not. Maybe she’ll keep them. Maybe she’ll never wear them but she’ll keep them simply because they remind her of me. Because when she runs her fingers along the gold satin she’ll travel back to the weekend we drove to the beach for a wedding, just her and I, and she’ll feel sand between her toes. And when she wraps those rainbow stripes around herself, she’ll remember summers of long dresses and she’ll smell the grass and see bubbles floating in the air and sidewalks covered with chalk.
And she’ll feel joy.