You Can’t Take It With You

Photo: Jaimie D. Travis

“Can I take this to school today?”

Nathan has a purple beach bucket loaded with a flashlight, a Sponge Bob wallet, stuffed with fake money and old credit cards, three rocks and some crackers. This is how it started. First it was crying at school. Now he wants to take everything with him.

The first day he took a bale of hay that he conned his gramma into buying for him at the art supply store. Kid size, it was only two dollars. He will not unwrap it from its original plastic covering. He put it in a Ralph’s plastic grocery bag for double protection.

As we get ready for school, he’s toting the miniature hay.  Daddy keeps pointing at it over his coffee, going, “HEY! HAY! HEY!” while we all stare at him until we get it. As we leave to go out the door, he’s still holding the hay.

“Honey — what’re you doing?”

“I just want to take this. Can I take this hay?” His big orphan eyes.

“What do you need it for at school? You want to show your friends?”

“I just want to take it. Just this. Nothing else.”

We’d recently started a new rule – No New Things in the Car. Started because we could no longer see the floor of my car, the kids climbing in and out over a sea of dolls, toys, shoes, candy wrappers, books, lunchboxes, kleenex, old cups and broken sunglasses. And that was just the top layer. We hadn’t seen Nathan’s best friend Karina for a while. But I was hoping for the best.

Every time I washed the car we’d fill three garbage bags with junk, and the bags would sit in the living room for weeks. In the car there’d be a breath of blue, a hint of a void. There was so much free space that for several hours we could think of having another baby, or even getting a bunny.

Then a doll appears. A pair of socks. The legs of a toy. Badminton rackets. A deflated basketball. Old lollipops. Golf tees. It’s autumn in my car, and the kids are shedding new stuff each day.

“Only ONE thing in the car,” I amend my new rule, and my husband shakes his head.  Nathan had such anxiety at school. Taking a bale of hay wasn’t going to hurt anything.

At school he put it in his cubby. I looked at all the other kids’ cubbies. Dora backpacks. Princess lunchboxes. Spiderman sweatshirts. My son – hay bale.

There’s something great about requiring the unnecessary. It twists a new coil in the brain, turns a light on in a dark place, somewhere up in your head, to have a son who values hay bales over backpacks. It isn’t the thing he values as much as the valuing of something, relishing the specialness of some novel new object.

It’s so soon that life is filled with the necessary, the wallet, the proper clothes, the right change, straight thinking, the steps to the top, success, achievement, purpose. This is his time to float. Nathan shows me the value of focusing on the one thing at the moment that brings you joy. And then taking that thing (preferably in a plastic bag) everywhere you go.

The next day I’m holding Emma the two-year old under one arm in her pajama top with milk smeared all over her face, rushing to get us out the door to Nathan’s school on time. I block Nathan with one foot at the door.

“Wait, what’s that.”


He’s holding a beaded leather notebook and an old soap dish in a Ziploc bag.

“What’s that?”

“I’m taking it to school.”

“You don’t have to take something every day,” I say.

“You’re taking something,” he says, looking at Emma.

The next morning the pool man comes early because something has been sucked into our pool filter and he’s about eighty years old and it’s not looking good for the pool or the man on wet, slippery cement. Nathan stands somberly at the diving board, taking in the fixit activities very seriously. I’m yelling to the pool guy that I’ll be right back, chasing  Nathan to get him out the door. He clutches two rolls of paper towels, one under each arm like a wrestler. Looks up at me with big eyes. “Can I take these,” he says, urgently.

The next day it’s his red play tool kit, inside are some magnets, a hammer, and a piece of cheese.

The next day, a roll of tape inside a trash can. I have to draw the line, some line, any line.

“You can’t take that with you,” I say.

“I can,” he says, assuringly.

“You can’t take everything with you.”

As the floor of my car fills up once again, and I am living the end of “Titanic,” all the stuff floating up up up until we drown or jump, Nathan brings “just one more thing” to school. A pumpkin. The little plastic table from the middle of a pizza box.

A piece of black plastic pipe. Two dolls in a Tupperware bed with cloth diaper blanket. A roll of adding machine tape fastened with a yellow paper clip. A tiny rake and two shovels in an eyeglass case.

For a while he couldn’t go to sleep unless the Tupperware bed was next to him. Now it’s the tiny gardening tools next to his pillow in their eyeglass case. “Babies can pway with them,” he tells me very seriously at naptime, and I look at his tiny teeth. “Not the rake. But the shobels. They’re not showp.”

He found his treasures at Half-Price Wednesday at the thrift store. He put them in an eyeglass case. He looked at all the other eyeglass cases, sitting on the floor, opening them, looking up at me with earnestness. One had dark blue velvet on the inside. “Mommy, you want this one? It’s soft inside.” His big blue plush heart shining out at me. That he can find treasures on the floor of a run down thrift store, that he feels rich with the choices, his life a bright stream where the oddest throwaways have possibility and light.

As I make meal after endless meal, watch “Mary Poppins” for the thousandth time or take another trek to the cultural Mecca that is my grocery store, I think about Nathan and his bags of treasures. As I haul them in and out of car seats and brush their teeth and pull on tiny pants and tie shoes and answer questions like “Who invented food?” and watch them fall asleep and see their live faces and silent fingers I think I know what Nathan is talking about.

He stands at the door, four years old, wearing my striped tights and holding a fishbowl filled with marbles.

I’m taking it all with me.