Unpacking my childhood bedroom over the holidays felt like unpacking my strained relationship with my mom

It’s a few days after Christmas, and my mom has asked me to come home to Northern Virginia and go through my old belongings. My parents are preparing to retire this year and sell the house—for real this time, they promise. Enticed by the idea of making pancake breakfasts with my young nieces and watching Disney’s Frozen for the millionth time, I’ve agreed. In between spilled baking soda and “Let It Go,” I knew there would be plenty of time to rummage through what’s left of my own childhood.

Oh Elsa, if only it were that simple.

I asked my mom not to give away my old stuffed animals until I made it home.

“I want to look them all in the eye one last time and say goodbye, I said.

She honored my request, although now I regret it. Their beady eyes stare at me through the clear vinyl bedding bag that they’ve been stored in. Even decades later, Ducky’s quacker still quacks. Mooky, the pink walrus from Gund that sat upright, still reaches his arms open for a hug. Snuggles, the white seal I brought with me to Thailand when I was nine years old, still smells like comfort. Where will they all go? Toy drives won’t take them, not with their matted, greying fur.

But it’s not just the stuffed animals that nag at my conscience. What happens to the piano after we give it away? It has taken its share of beatings in an Asian household with three children. Or what about the stacks of family photographs curling at the edges? They will never make it into a proper album, no matter how enticing the craft store sales are.

I sit cross-legged on the basement floor, surrounded by empty CD jewel cases, weathered friendship bracelets, and scribbled notes and secrets folded tightly into college-ruled paper. My boyfriend sits on the futon watching basketball as I sort through 20 years of life stuffed into a surprisingly compact stack of decorative hat boxes and a red suitcase with a broken zipper. I don’t know what to do with all of this stuff—it seems like a waste to throw away the old ‘NSYNC posters and dried out chapsticks that have made it this far. I have no use for any of it, but can’t seem to establish a merit system that will help me decide what to keep and what to toss.

The truth is that my mom could have thrown it all away. Though I would have fussed, I would have also very easily forgotten about it. I hadn’t thought about that laminated Goo Goo Dolls magazine article in decades, and I could have gone on without it.

Decades. It’s a new concept that I grapple with.

I have a new box of keepsakes now. It lives on the floor of my closet in the Los Angeles apartment that I share with my boyfriend. It’s full of things I consider “grownup mementos,” not the wrinkly post-it notes my friends and I used to pass in algebra class. This box contains things like funeral programs from friends who have lost parents, birthday cards that my parents send less and less often since I’ve moved to the other coast, and ticket stubs from all of the “firsts” of my current relationship.

The funny thing about going through my old belongings is that most of the stuff I thought would matter ended up having no bearing on my life at all. Most of what I cherished enough to save turned out to be junk: receipts from movie dates with boys whose names I can’t even remember, autographed band merchandise from musicians that I realized were just as terrible as everyone warned me, various incarnations of “best friends forever” Claire’s jewelry from friendships more dead to me than MySpace.

What I didn’t expect to find under this mound of crap was a different view of my mother.

I had made up my mind about that woman a long time ago, maybe as far as back the day I sobbed alone on the stairwell after a big fight and thought to myself, I’m only six years old and I hate my life. We had a strained relationship while I was growing up. It only eased in the last few years, after I moved to the opposite coast to get as far away from her as possible. Rocky mother-daughter relationships run in my family, much like freckles and Xanax prescriptions. I am determined to break the cycle.

My mother was mean, but not in a tough-love sort of way. She was just cold and belittling. She yelled at us “because she loved us,” she used to say. She never allowed herself to laugh at my jokes. It was more important for her to not mess up her hair and makeup than to play with my brothers and me. All too often, my oldest brother Peter, dropped me off at my elementary school classroom with my face wet with tears from a fight I had had with her earlier that morning.

Although it’s easier to recall the times she messed up or wasn’t there for me, buried underneath all that useless junk, I discovered good moments along the way too. Quiet ones that I had never considered before—the many handcrafted birthday cards and cheesy Hallmark trinkets lined up in a row before me. Why she only did kind things in silence, I’ll never know. Like slipping a birthday card under my closed bedroom door or arranging gifts on my bed for me to find when I got home from school. At 5 foot 1, that tiny woman’s flaring temper turned otherwise fleeting bad moments into large scale productions, guaranteed to overshadow any kind gesture she might have snuck in earlier.

It all seems petty now, the dread of coming home after school to a fire-breathing dragon because I didn’t clean my room. Never mind the fact that she woke up at 5 a.m. every day to drive my brothers and me to school in Bangkok traffic because we hated taking the bus, or that she always picked us up after school with hot food waiting in the car. She has all of my “artwork” saved or on display around the house, from sloppily glued doilies on construction paper to lumps of painted clay that insist they are either a seal, turtle, or cat.

The house was always clean, the laundry was always done. Yes, maybe it was the work of Rebecca, our kind cleaning lady, or my grandma if she happened to be in town, but either way, it was handled. We had a home-cooked dinner almost every night. The refrigerator was always stocked. My mom made sure all three of us finished our homework before bedtime. The science projects we forgot at home still somehow made their way to the school office in the nick of time. Peter got to run track and go to his after school club meetings. Eric, my other brother, somehow always got his clarinet reed on time for Monday music classes even though he never remembered he needed it until Sunday nights when the music store was about to close. And I had my piano lessons, sleepovers, and bedazzled designer jeans. It may not have happened exactly how we wanted it to, but she still made it happen.

We weren’t the family that had game nights or curled up with popcorn on the couch to watch movies on the weekends. But then again, most families aren’t.

So maybe she’s the only mom I know who shops at Wet Seal and FaceTimes me just to show off her new eyebrows. Maybe she always mentions that she wears a smaller size than I do every time we see each other. But what would happen if I finally gave her a break?

Filed Under