My children are hoarders. I mean, not Prime Time Special, bring in the forklift kind of hoarders, but hoarders nonetheless. Every item that comes into the house is the most wondrous [insert category of object here], and every drawing is sacred, and every graded test a reminder of a more halcyon time. I have to remove outgrown clothing under cover of darkness or create an elaborate diversion during the day (“Hey, look! Is that a big sign that says FREE COOKIES?”), lest the wailing and gnashing of teeth commence.
Otto is meticulous and organized, and while he has a vast quantity of STUFF, himself, every object has a place and a filing system and is part of a rigid hierarchy. His strategy with the children is to try to help them ORGANIZE their things. In other words, it’s okay with him if they keep everything, so long as it isn’t all over the floor.
I am neither meticulous nor particularly well organized, and I don’t have a single sentimental bone in my body. In my world, if I don’t have a spot for it here on my desk, it’s not something I wear regularly or something I need to do my taxes, INTO THE GARBAGE IT GOES. I am forever trying to get the kids to part with their “treasures” by lovingly pointing out that FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, IT’S A GRANOLA BAR WRAPPER. LET IT GO.
This is an ongoing struggle in our household that I anticipate will be resolved very soon, like after both children move out. I’ve made my peace with it, mostly.
Anyway. What comes next here is going to seem completely unrelated, but I promise to bring it around at the end. Pinky swear.
Once upon a time, Otto didn’t drink coffee. Ever. Otto is a story teller, and his Standard Coffee Story was that he had a cup once back in college and was then awake for two days straight (only, to properly get the feel of how Otto tells it, take that sentence there and stretch it out to be a half-hour-long tale of medical intrigue). No, he wouldn’t drink coffee ever again, because clearly he had some sort of sensitivity.
Meanwhile, the man drinks Coke Zero like it’s going out of style, including frequently having some RIGHT BEFORE BED. So I had pointed out multiple times that really, coffee doesn’t have THAT much more caffeine than soda, I was sure he could drink it if he wanted to. Oh no, he would say, telling me the story of the Two Day Coffee Tragedy, again. Not possible.
But I drink coffee. Not a lot, mind you, but I do love to start my day with a cup. I love how it smells. I love how it tastes. I love the ritual of it, and the little bit of waking up help of it. And so I would brew my coffee every morning and every so often, Otto would comment that it smelled really, really good. And he wondered if maybe he should try some.
I think we were out to dinner somewhere when I was served the most extraordinary cup of coffee I’ve ever had. “Otto, you have to taste this,” I said, handing him my cup. “This is SO GOOD. You will love it.” So he tasted it. And he did love it. And pretty soon I’d put away my single-cup pod coffee maker in favor of brewing half a pot in the morning so that I could have my cup and Otto could take a travel mug of it to work with him.
[Lest anyone is concerned, so far as I know he has never been kept awake for two days straight as a result. I strongly suspect he made that story up at some point, and after telling it so many times now believes it to be true.]
All has been well in Coffeeland, and one evening after dinner Otto was at the sink, doing dishes, while Chickadee and I discussed something random there in the kitchen, and Otto picked up the nondescript travel mug he’d used for coffee that morning and said, “Is this mug special to you?”
I cocked an eyebrow in his direction and repeated, “Special to me?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Like, does it have sentimental value to you or anything?”
Now I was flat out peering at him like he was on crack. “Sentimental value? What? That’s YOUR mug. No. Why?”
“Well, I discovered this morning that it leaks,” he said. “So I think I’m going to throw it away. But I wanted to make sure you didn’t want to keep it anyway.”
Now even Chickadee was looking at him like he’d lost his mind.
“Yes!” I said. “I want to keep that leaky mug! I LOVE leaky mugs! They’re my MOST FAVORITE! I love it best of all and if you throw it away I will CRY!” Chickadee began to giggle, and Otto rolled his eyes and began making NEVERMIND gestures.
“In FACT!” I continued, “I am going to make a SHRINE to that particular mug. It’s the GREATEST MUG EVER in the history of LEAKY MUGS!” Now I was laughing, too, and Chickie clung to me, staggering from the weight of her laughter, and Otto turned full around to glare at us both.
“I don’t know!” he protested. “Maybe I would throw it away and then you would get upset, or something. I was being COURTEOUS! I wanted to ASK, first! Maybe you wanted to use it for something ELSE.”
“Mama,” gasped Chickie. “You should put that special mug in a SPECIAL BOX!” We erupted in fresh gales while Otto continued to look wounded.
[Both children have Special Boxes. I don’t have one, but clearly I SHOULD. You know, so that I have someplace to put my favorite leaky mug.]
“Otto, when have I EVER been upset about something BROKEN being THROWN AWAY? If it’s broken, toss it. I spend half my life trying to convince people in this house to throw away useless things.” He shrugged and turned back to the dishes, chucking the mug into the trash as he turned. “NOOOOOOO!” I cried, “THAT WAS MY FAVORITE! GIVE IT BACK!”
Chickadee was now completely prone on the floor, laughing so hard she couldn’t get up. I fell to my knees as tears squirted from my eyes and I tried to catch my breath.
“SPECIAL BOX!” she squealed. We held each other and howled.
“You know…” began Otto.
“WHAT ELSE IS IN YOUR SPECIAL BOX, MAMA?” squeaked Chickadee.
“All my SPECIAL THINGS!” I told her. “Like, remember that straw that had a hole in it, and it didn’t suck up your smoothie because of that? THAT’S IN MY SPECIAL BOX! And some lint I found in my belly button, THAT’s in my special box!” We guffawed and rolled around on the floor while Otto glared at us. I spotted a small piece of leaf the dog had tracked in and grabbed it. “IT’S THE MOST SPECIAL LEAF EVER!” I crowed. “THIS IS GOING RIGHT INTO MY SPECIAL BOX!”
Eventually Otto finished the dishes and wandered off, leaving me and my daughter to discuss all of our favorite special things there on the kitchen floor. Like gum wrappers. And holey socks. And all of those sorts of things.
Since then, “SPECIAL BOX” has become the phrase of choice to describe anyone being ridiculous about anything, or simply a tool to elicit a giggle. So there is still Lego all over Monkey’s floor and clothes all over Chickadee’s, but at least we’ve gained that.
Last week when Chickadee didn’t advance from the Regional Science Fair to the State level, she took it really hard despite our reminders that winning two levels, particularly as a 6th grader, was fantastic. She agreed to go out to dinner that night, but on the ride over sank deeper and deeper into self-flagellation, and so by the time we arrived she was in tears and refused to discuss it but also refused the idea that we should just go home.
She sullenly grabbed a toothpick off of the hostess stand as we waited to be seated, and once at our table, she put her head down and cried. I rubbed her back and stroked her hair and nothing I did helped at all.
Finally I tapped her on the shoulder. “Chickadee?” She looked up. “Can I have that toothpick, please?”
“Why?” she asked, tear-streaked face looking small and sad.
“Well I don’t know WHY you felt the need to take that,” I began, in my most lecturing-mother voice, “But… I need it for my special box.”
She looked at me for a second before the corners of her mouth twitched upward. Then she wiped her eyes and handed me the toothpick.
“I’m going to put it right next to that special straw,” I whispered, giving her a squeeze.
The moral of the story here is EITHER that sometimes good things come out of spousal torment, OR that my family is mean and sad but easily amused. I’m going to go with the former for now.