Poems & Essays

16 Jun

Emptying the Shelves

General/Column 2 Responses

We live in a small house, and it feels even smaller thanks to the stuff we’ve packratted into it over 18 years. With thoughts of moving to a new place growing, I’m trying to reduce the clutter.

A prime target is books. Bookcases line the walls of nearly every room in the house. It’s my completely my fault. A lifelong reader, I attract them. I like books. And I’ve spent most of my kids’ lives trying to turn them into readers. When they were babies and toddlers, I read to them. Some parents in my cohort would say “Three books! They get three, then it’s time to sleep.” Not me. I stacked books by the bed and read until one of us was asleep, often me. My younger son would notice that my mouth wasn’t saying the words on the page and demand, “Read it right, mom.” On weekend afternoons I would try to read them into naps, to no avail. As they outgrew being read to, I began buying them books—one each for Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, or for summer reading, or just because, trying to find the one that would be the key that unlocks all books. They took the bait once, during a summer beach vacation: They both read “Mockingjay.”

Now 18 and 14, they regard books as clutter, stuff that should be moved out of their rooms in favor of more important stuff, like their thrift-store finds. (Two dollars for a Tommy Hilfiger shirt and one morning of no-drama dressing? A complete bargain.) So I have taken to packing our fabric grocery bags with their old children’s books and hauling them to the Better World Books donation bin parked outside the local public library, then throwing them in.

Bagging the books is easy. And so is dumping the bad books. I hated “Curious George Makes Pancakes,” a cynical corporate attempt to capitalize on the original George books, but my son loved it. It flew into the bin. As did anything bearing a logo: Transformers, Lego Knights, Pirates of the Caribbean.

But others refuse to leave my hand. “10 Minutes to Bedtime,” “Rainbow Fish,” “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” “Franklin Rides a Bike,” “Hershel and the Hanukah Goblins,” “Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb,” “Hondo and Fabian,” “Mr. Willoughby’s Christmas Tree,” “Go Dog Go,” “Big Little,” anything “Frog and Toad” or “Little Bear” or featuring a certain clever pigeon—I can hear myself reading all of them, the voices I made up, the kids snuggling close, breathing slower, eyes blinking as the pages turned, then the gradual roll over into sleep. Or me waking up, still “reading” to the kid likewise dozing, and the slow, careful extraction of my awkward body from the bedclothes, the voice in my head telling me I could just stay there. The nightly repetition, the exhausted ritual, the last moments of parenting in a day dominated by work: As much as it was about the books, it wasn’t about the books.

But I knew then, and I know now, there’s no staying in place. The kids may never become readers, although I think I’ve gotten the older one intrigued by Richard Russo’s Straight Man, but as they head out into the world, gaining independence and we courageously “let” them make their own decisions, the children’s books heading to the bin remind me that holding on just creates clutter. These outgrown volumes are relics of childhood’s waning days, and I can no more hang on to them than I can prevent the sun from setting. We’ll go to sleep, and tomorrow will be new and different.


Christine Bucher is managing editor at an academic journal. She has written about sports and lifestyle subjects for several magazines, and is branching into essay writing. Her current favorite social media is Instagram where, as @xine13, she enjoys the low-word-count lifestyle.

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  1. Rachel

    June 17, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    Sob! Frog and Toad and Go, Dog, Go and Little Bear—so gentle, so sweet. I love the way you write through this – through the nostalgia, the memories, the holding on – to a place where you let go and move forward. I think about this often, that night-time reading ritual, how it is the calmest and happiest and coziest I feel all day with the kids. I’ve often wondered why people are so quick to move on from picture books…as soon as the kids are into chapter books, off the picture books go. And yet the picture books are often much more beguiling and intriguing, even if simple, written much more thoughtfully, and they allow for that together experience with children from different ages. I suppose it is capitalism–always on with the new. I applaud you for being mindful about this clearing out…you savored every last moment you could with those gentle little creatures falling asleep beside you.

  2. Sharon

    June 17, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    Being read to is a gift that never leaves.


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