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Something about fall means that I’m supposed to deep clean things. The change of seasons marks the end of living outside, the need to prepare for hibernation, the transition to holidays and resolutions.

As a traditionalist, and having been raised in a family that cleaned every Saturday, I’ve somehow skipped the weekly cleaning obsession but still feel a need to re-reorganize and start winter armed with full knowledge of our stored possessions.

So recently, in a random attempt at what I define as cleaning the garage, I found a tote of memorabilia. Random, yellowed and curled pieces of paper. Although there weren’t many photos, the ones I’d kept were a little blurry, off-center and of unrecognizable people. An athletic letter. A speech pin. A dot-matrix printout of my freshman college report card. How had all this ended up in a corner under the spring lawn statuary?

It struck me that I was a nerd. Scrapbooks (before they were cool) held newspaper clippings (before everything was digital) of my life as it had been reported in a small-town newspaper. A “Senior Memory Book,” pasted full of documents and pockets of notes and pictures, fell apart in my hands, the binding stressed and cracked. Soon sports scores, music competition evaluations and a seventh grade report on Marie Sandoz – complete with construction paper cover – lay at my feet.

In all that mess on the garage floor was the beginning of an adult life wrapped in the fragile ego of a teen. Treasures that meant so much that I’d held on to them for … well, a very long time. But I’m guessing that about the time I became a mom, I packed up those artifacts and relegated them to an obscure corner of an attic. Then a basement. And now finally the garage. I don’t even remember moving them.

I don’t even really remember owning them.

It seems almost symbolic, the discovery of the tote. Next fall, I’ll be an empty nester. Evidence of that life and personality, hidden under the camouflage of motherhood for decades, was like a mirage. After years amid the clamor of day-to-day living with four children – decisions, potlucks, games, conferences, physicals, baths, discipline and milestones – the tote held a history that was just mine.

And I thought about the selfies that my daughter and others like her are using as their time capsules. I kept some of each child’s artwork, a testament to sentimentality. But I have very few print photos of each one, and even fewer papers, proof that they could write poetry or analyze history lost in cyberspace, somewhere between “send” and “download.” What happens to their photos when the internet crashes? How do they show their grandchildren what amazing people they were in 2018? How do they have proof that they passed Comp 102?

Printouts of text messaging seem absurd. Photos of one eye or nail polish design are probably not iconic art. And yet, my kids just seem less worried about preserving pieces of their soon-to-be past. I wonder if some day, they’ll feel a need to connect to something tangible, like an old iPhone.

I felt a little foolish, putting those archives back into the tote instead of into the recycling. But I did, sorted by year and size of the document.

Whoever opens that tote under the hedge trimmer will know I was an organized mom.

Mary Beth Rathe is nearly an empty-nester, with four very differently gifted kids in the young adult stages of life. With three out of the house and a senior in high school, the days of filling life with everyone else’s activities are limited– and her calendar is opening up. Maybe the newfound time will give her the chance to be a more thoughtful parent.

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L Magazine editor

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