As my boys get older and their interests shift from matchbox cars vroomed on the carpet to computer games that make my head spin, it seemed only natural we’d start to clear and cull the clutter of toys which have defined our lives for the better part of twelve years.
Digging through the crates of cars and bins of bulldozers, sorting the Playmobil knights and pirates, stacking the Thomas track to pack should have been cathartic. All the space we will reclaim! All the weight to shed! And it was. For a little while. Until we got to the bottom of all the cars and trucks and things that go.
Dumping out the Matchbox cars I realized, with the beginnings of a lump in my throat, there was a story behind almost every one. This one was a Matchbox match of the black VW Golf we had in NYC, fondly dubbed, The Daddy Car. That one was the Mini-Cooper my husband had to go back to the beach for after it had been accidentally left behind in the sand. The big blue monster truck? We bought that one to placate a cranky toddler right before a long car trip. There’s the clutch of construction vehicles which came to the playground every day for three years, forklifts and front loaders traded between hot little hands, now scarred and chipped with playground digging. There were race cars and emergency vehicles that populated the road rug we kept under the bed. And at the very bottom of the box, dusted with lint were Lightning McQueen and friends.
One of our favorite pictures, taken when we were still a family of three, shows us tanned and relaxed in the Florida sunshine, a chunky toddler smiling a goofy grin to the camera. In his sweaty hand, he clutches a toy Chick Hicks. We collected those collectible cars and each new acquisition slept under a pillow, was carted around in pockets and fists. Those cars were the bread and butter of his play for years.
My younger son’s taste was more eclectic. Frying pans and toy kitchens, and lest we forget the empty Listerine bottle phase. But his passion was construction vehicles. The knowledge I acquired with boy child number one was put to the test with boy child two. Backhoes, front loaders, rollers, pavers, scrapers and forklifts. We had a bag of yellow, plastic diggers that came to the beach and another bag of yellow, plastic diggers for the park. His eyes lit up like Christmas every time we passed a construction site. We spent hours watching buckets full of dirt and rock rise into the Cypriot sun. We even once went to a trade show where we were entertained by backhoes strutting their outriggers to Lady Gaga. Go figure.
The Toy Story trilogy, for all its cute adventure and syrupy sentimentality is, at its heart, about the inevitable passage of time. By packing those well-loved toys in a box labeled for the attic, kids take the final step over the threshold of adolescence and close the door on childhood. And while I sympathize with Woody, well-loved cowboy, playmate, and friend, the character I identify with most is the oft unseen mother.
You see, the mother isn’t just packing up a box of toys to be donated or even a box of memories. She’s packing up all the magic she witnessed over the years; the undiluted imagination, the possibility, the joy that zooming a bunch of cars on the carpet or digging in dirt brought to her children.
My older son takes his bike into the Danish woods with friends and cycles around now. Maybe they’re making the same sounds he used to make when he was a toddler pushing a tiny bulldozer around the sandpit while he flies over dirt minds and careens around trees. I hope so. My younger son spends hours upon hours making intricate models of World War II aircraft and micro-mini Star Wars fleet out of Lego. Nerf weaponry has replaced the construction vehicles. Computer games have replaced the wooden Thomas track.
And I am left with the phantom limb syndrome of all those toys and the memories they evoke.
In the end, the memories remain even if the toys don’t. I packed up three giant baggies full of matchbox cars to deliver to the school after school program. The Duplo and the giant mobile crane that took up precious square footage in an apartment with limited storage. But in a box to travel to wherever we go next went things I couldn’t quite part with:
The Daddy car and ‘Man’, the action figure we spent weeks looking for, only to find in the inner workings of our printer the day we were packing to move to Cyprus, long after his absence had been forgotten. Randy, the driver of Unit 2. The pirate ship and a small selection of backhoes and forklifts and site-dumpers. And of course, Lightening McQueen and his car-patriots.
They will stay with us, like the snapshots I have of those two smiling boys, to infinity and beyond.