Treasuring the messes of childhood

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 25, 2014

When Henry came to visit, he stood at the French doors in the living room, pressing his nose against the glass, and we talked, he and I, about trees and birds and passing clouds and other fine things that we love.
“Henry,” I said, “do you know what kind of trees those are?”
He grinned his smart Henry grin and said, “Palm trees!”
He was right, of course.

Henry is my 2-year-old grandson. He has soft dark curls and chocolate brown eyes that shine with a light all their own. And he’s about 3 feet tall, a fact I just estimated by measuring from the nose prints he left on the glass and adding a few inches for the top of his head.
I wish you could see him.
I wish I could see him, too, along with his cousins and their parents and uncles and aunts.
Talk about a beautiful mess.
My husband and I share five grown children, their others, and four grandchildren, ages 3 and younger. They all live in California, 500 miles from our home in Las Vegas, a distance my mother would have called the far side of the moon.
We visit often, but not often enough. That’s how it is with people who own your heart. Enough is never enough.
This morning I tried again to clean Henry’s nose prints off the glass. Couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s been two weeks and I’m still not ready to let them go.
Every time I walk through that room and see those nose-shaped smudges all lined up like fat little birds on a wire, I picture Henry standing there, grinning up at me, and I light up like Christmas, all over again.
Call me easy, but I’ve had similar reactions to various handprints and footprints, big and small, bathtub rings and turkey carcasses and empty pizza boxes and crushed beer cans and the inevitable stale Cheerio that I find on the floor after a visit from my children and grandchildren.
I love those things. They seem to say, “We all got together and had ourselves a good time.”
Years ago, I’d have seen them not as signs of a good time, but just stuff to clean up. I still clean them up, eventually. But I’m in no big rush to get rid of them.

Messy isn’t always a bad sign; sometimes it’s just a sign of life.
I wish I’d learned that sooner. I wish, when my children were growing up, I’d spent less time worrying about cleaning up after them and more time lighting up at the way they made me feel.
For the record, I always delighted in my children and my house was often a mess. But I might not have minded the mess so much had I known then what I know now: Today’s mess is tomorrow’s treasured memory.
Life, at its best, is messy and chaotic and unpredictable and basically beyond control. Especially with children.
A little order can do a lot for your peace of mind, and even for your sanity. But creating order should never be more important than finding joy — if only the joy of survival.
Looking back, I wish I could’ve saved every fort my oldest built in the living room. Every flower my daughter picked for me from the neighbor’s yard. Every note my youngest played on the piano or banged on the drums. All the things they said or did or drew or spilled or broke.
We can’t save all the pieces of our lives. But we can try to savor each piece as it comes along and remember it when it’s gone.
My daughter called last night to tell me a story. While reading to Henry, she had pointed to an illustration and asked, “What kind of tree is that?”
“Palm tree,” he said, quickly, “like Nana’s house.”
I will savor that. Long after his prints are washed from my windows, the memories will remain imprinted on my heart.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep hoping for another visit and a chance to make another beautiful mess.
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