Archaeologist mom excavates kids' rooms and sees keys to their culture in the debris

April 21, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

WHEN MY children were babies, their bedrooms looked as though Penelope Leach and Martha Stewart had been locked inside for a month. Stimulating colors and toys battled with handmade tributes to their birth.

There were primary colors in the wallpaper and black-and-white patterned toys in the crib. There were also cross-stitched samplers and hand-crocheted blankets. Unisex decor and yellow sleepers. Classic children's books lovingly inscribed by me as well as a careful selection of toys designed for tactile stimulation and hand-eye coordination.

Their rooms were a perfect environment for their perfect, new-formed selves, and I could step into those rooms any time and inhale the sweet smell of my babies and see with satisfaction that not a thing was out of place.

That was then. This is now.

Their rooms are no longer a tribute to their birth, but evidence of every battle I have lost since. Their rooms are no longer an environment designed for their development, but evidence of delays in that development. And when I step into those rooms, I inhale mysterious odors, and I see that I have my work cut out for me.

I have tried many times to come to terms with my children's messy rooms, including that time-honored technique of shutting the doors to them, and have settled on a kind of meditative approach. This is my karma, I say as I enter, Zen-like in my tranquillity. I wanted children and these are the two I got and this is the mess they make.

If I am like Siddhartha, I am also like Margaret Mead. I sift through the artifacts of their lives for keys to the society of childhood from which I am banned. What have I learned? Boys and girls are different. The evidence is thrown all over their rooms.

Neither sex would recognize a clothes hanger unless he or she were beaten with one, so there are clothes all over their floors. In a boy's room, however, these clothes are dirty. In a girl's, they have been cast off in fits of indecision.

In my daughter's room, there are pictures of kittens and ballerinas and a collection of stuffed animals, each with a name and a life story. Pierced earrings are scattered like confetti, and hair bobs dot the room with random color. And there are bottles of pastel-colored lotion and bath gel that must be purely ornamental, because they are never used.

In my son's room, there are posters of race cars and soccer

players and Cal Ripken and a collection of frogs, some of which are not alive and some of which may not be alive much longer because they have not had a decent meal since they left the rain forest.

While my daughter's room smells like a scratch-and-sniff ad from Cosmopolitan, my son's room smells like a peat bog.

My daughter selected wallpaper with pink flowers. My son selected wallpaper with red stripes.

My daughter has a chalk board on which she writes notes to God. My son has a T-shirt that reads: "Aggressive by nature. Soccer by choice." It is usually dirty and not in the hamper.

Each has piles of books. The difference is, the ones in my daughter's room have been read.

My daughter has set an afternoon tea for dolls in her room. My son has ground nacho chips into the carpet.

My daughter has kept every little thing she has ever been given. In her room there are old birthday cards, handfuls of costume jewelry from Grandma, microscopic Barbie accessories and every souvenir her father has ever brought home from out of town. Each is as precious as a talisman.

There are plenty of mementos in my son's room, too, but that is because he doesn't see the point in throwing anything away if you can just drop it on the floor.

In my daughter's room, there is a pile of papers from which she teaches school to her dolls. In my son's room, those papers are homework assignments he has forgotten to take to school.

This is how I spend those rainy mornings after my children have left for school, sifting through the debris in their rooms for clues to what they like, what they are like.

The bottoms of their closets, under their beds. These squirrels' nests reveal pieces to the puzzle of what is important to my children (Micro Machines or a postcard picture of a baby seal) and what is not (Barbie high heels or church clothes).

And this is how I found a note, yellow with age, that I had written to one of my pack rats years ago. It might have been that this child was too lazy to throw my note away. But I prefer to think that the child had saved it.

It was titled: "10 Things I Like About You."

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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