I’ve been throwing away my past, lately. Discarding relics of my youth to make room for all of the recent memories, and rapidly approaching material from my children. The act has been bittersweet, but I’ve known for a long time that these days were coming.
Moving always provides great opportunities to shed the talismans of good and bad memories that we accumulate and keep in the back of closets, or squirreled away in boxes in the basement. Well, here in California not many people have basements, so here, they’re most likely in a corner of a garage. I just liked the alliteration of box in the basement, and until we moved to California five years ago that’s exactly where all of my objects had been lying, protected from the dust of decades by layers of aging newspapers and corrugated cardboard.
When we arrived in California five years ago there were five boxes that came off the back of the moving truck that I could not bear to open, because as soon as I opened them I knew I’d have to do something with the contents, and I knew that what I would eventually do is find a better home for the contents than the inside of a cardboard box.
A year after settling into our new house the five boxes remained unopened in a corner of the finished attic of our house: a place where our boys routinely went to sit down with Legos and action figures to play. On one particular day I was sitting playing with them when one of them asked about the contents of the boxes; they held all of the parts and pieces from my train set.
In my mind’s eye as a twelve year-old boy my train set was epic: 128 square feet of my own private, self-contained imaginary world controlled entirely by me. My parents were not in a good place in their life at that time, and that tension did not escape me. The tension was often unavoidable but I was a 12 year-old boy and I really didn’t understand the complexities of what was going on between my parents.
I immersed myself in my new-found escape. Hour after hour I spent creating landscapes from grassy plains to mountainsides, even a bridge over a large ravine that connected two separate tables on which I built this world. Dollar after dollar I saved and spent on fake grass, fake trees, and of course the trains themselves: engines and rolling stock. And after buying the trains I would customize them, making everything look old and weathered, as only the impatient hand of a 12 year-old boy could. Rust colored paint, a too-wide paint brush, and the over-zealous use of a Dremel Motor Tool lead to some very authentic weathering of these trains, as long as you did not stand much closer than eight feet away from the set.
All of this had been broken down, the tables left behind, but the parts and pieces meticulously wrapped in the days’ newspapers, and packed into cardboard boxes, and now I was about to open these boxes to give my boys a glimpse of my childhood.
As I opened the first box, I paused, not sure if I wanted to see what was inside, and definitely not sure if I wanted to share the contents with my children. As brittle tape on the first box snapped, both of my boys clamored to see what was inside. They crinkled past the paper holding the train yard light stands, the electronic train controllers, and weathered train depot. None of the things had handled 28 year of storage and six moves to different storage facilities and homes very well. The boys immediately found lengths of flexible track and two of my favorite engines.
At first I hovered while they handled these toys only as a four year-old and six year-old would know how, and I panicked. But then my oldest asked what I used to do with these toys, and I sat and told them about the train set. I wanted to pick the engine he was holding out of his hand to tell the story, but I didn’t. I instead picked through the remains of the other boxes, looking at all of the other little pieces that had been part of many memories.
“Can we build a train set too?!” he asked.
“Sure we can.”
I don’t know if I really meant it when I answered that way. First there is the practicality that we don’t have a corner in our house that would easily accommodate even a small train layout. Then there’s the practicality that while they are this young, if “we” were to build a train set the “we” would really just be me, and I didn’t have the heart, or the reason to do it: at least not the same reasons I did when I was younger.
I left the boxes open for my boys to explore and eventually their explorations lead to some of the parts and pieces becoming irreparably broken. That is when I put everything that was salvageable into one large box and tucked that into a corner of the garage.
I really didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I kept telling my wife that I was going to keep the parts and pieces until the day the boys were old enough to want to build a train set of their own.
The week finally arrived, however, where I came to the realization that the day they wanted to build their own train set may never come. I went out into the garage and opened the box. I stared for a while, even picked up a piece of rolling stock and an engine, snapping one piece back into place, then I closed the box and dialed a number I had stored on my cell phone.
“Just Trains? Yes, I was wondering, do you take used trains? No. Not for consignment. I just have a lot of old stuff that is still in good shape and could use a home.”
The next day as I left the model train store I knew I had done the right thing, but I couldn’t stop the feeling of loss, of wanting to cry.
Like leaving behind an old friend when you move to a new town, I backed up the car and gave one last, long look to the store front, then drove away. A fleeting thought of a ten year old boy coming to the store’s annual spring swap meet, finding some of my old trains, and being excited about giving these toys a new home quickly dissolved my sadness.
Did I wish that ten year-old boy could be my son? No. And besides, if either of my boys miraculously spawned the desire to build a train set, I’d want them to start with trains of their own, to build their own memories.