Sunday, March 8, 2009

Laundry Day*

There’s a marble in the dryer. I can hear it going round and round like a rock in a tumbler, sealed inside the drum with the batch of ski gloves and mittens I threw in ten minutes ago. I can only speculate as to how it got there: stowed away in the thumb of a glove? Curled around some small palm before being dropped in on a whim?

I actually don’t give it much thought, because all manner of things--polished, unpolished--have a way of surfacing in our wash. This is probably because I fail to turn out my children’s pockets before stuffing everything from mud-caked pants to…well, mud-caked everything else into the washer. Once, I tossed in a pair of Toby’s jeans only to be serenaded by the sound of dozens of tiny pebbles cascading to the base in perfect mimicry of the downward tilt of a rainmaker. It was beautiful, like some form of time-released magic he had conjured even in his absence, and I would have stood entranced had I not been terrified they were going to break the machine, working their pebbly way into some mechanism or another.

So I reached in, the appliance digging painfully into my waist, and slowly picked them out, one by one, just as I might have with any of the following items (an abbreviated but accurate list, I assure you) I’ve found at the bottom of the cylinder once the water has drained, rinsed clean like gold nuggets cradled in the mesh of a sieve:

safety pins
bouncy balls
rusty locks
barrettes
rubber bands
river rocks
fuzzy dice now soaked

And speaking of not-so precious metals: pyrite.

I mean that literally: I’ve scooped out chucks of the stuff, collected invariably during a field trip to a mining museum or while stacking stones to make a dam, knee-deep in the creek.

Fool’s gold.

But it all is, isn’t it? Trash mistaken for treasure? But consider what surfaced this week: a delicately molded, metal flute of a whale, about the size of a large button. A charm, most likely, that had come undone from a bracelet. It’s fairly weighty, a dull silver speckled with the finest spray of rust along the extended fin, like freckles spanning the bridge of a nose. Quite simply, it’s beautiful.

And I have no idea of its ownership, past or present (finders keepers?).

I’m sure I could sort it out. I could hold it up and wait for a child to lay claim, but I find myself reluctant to do so. Because this random whale flute suddenly seems…sacred. A talisman of sorts of the holy faith of childhood of which I am no longer a member. A mystery I find myself loathe to solve.

After all, I already micromanage their lives so thoroughly, don't I? We all do…as we all must. We know what they eat, because we set it in front of them, and we know what they wear, because we buy it, and we monitor what they play with, and how, and with whom.

Most of the time.

Almost, if not all of the time, when they’re very young, and less and less of the time as they get older. And that’s precisely why these little traces of evidence of a life apart from me are so intriguing, and so simultaneously exhilarating and painful. What are these secret lives they’re leading without us? How do these little clues--a scrap of rubber off a tire, a perfectly-shaped feather--picked up out of the dirt by their discernment alone during the course of their day, fit together to explain the story of their independent selves?

Each trinket, each smudged penny, each childhood treasure set with care on shelves and in boxes marks a place on a path. Together, they form a trail of bread crumbs that I cannot follow, from here to there…from home to who-you-are-away-from-me. Where did Nate, or Calvin, or Toby find the whale flute charm? On the playground after lunch? Under a cache of winter-heavy leaves along the side of our street? Fallen and forgotten between the rungs of a shopping cart spied as we raced down some isle or another of the grocery store? I don’t know.

That’s a secret I’m not privy to, because it was hidden--waiting--at their eye-level and not mine.



* This title is of course used ironically, because as we all know, every day is laundry day.
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