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She looked up at me with the most hopeful, delighted green-blue eyes, “Look what I got, Mama!”

And out from between the sole of her ballet slipper and the shoe’s bottom, my collector of all things sparkly daughter pulled out a decent handful of fringe and sequins, all of which had fallen onto the stage or onto the floor in the shared dressing room during her first-ever dance recital. She had swiped them before, during (I saw it!), and after the dances and dress changes.

“Can we keep it, Mama? Please?”

Imagine a record-screeching halt and all movement around me stops, like in a television show where the main character breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience. That’s what I’m about to do.

I did not want to keep these things. They’ve been on the floor. They are dirty. We live packed into one room at my parents’ house where we already mountain climb over her stuffies collection and Barbie gear. And besides, these little bits? They’re trash, aren’t they? I mean, technically, yes. Ten minutes after our stage-left exit, the custodian would have graciously swept up hours’ worth of dress particles and restored sparkle-less order to that stage and dressing room.

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But to my little girl? To those most hopeful, delighted green-blue eyes? Those little bits were actual, literal treasure.

So what did I do? I gave an answer that goes against every fleshly desire, against everything I said I’d do with/for/to my kid before I actually had one. (This concludes my talk to the audience; I’m facing my daughter again).

“Sure, honey. How about we create a Trash to Treasure box?”

You would’ve thought I’d lassoed the moon. She lit up, flung her arms around me, and was absolutely thrilled, “Really?! Thank you, Mama! Thank you!”

When we got home, I found our smallest Amazon box (there’s my silent protest), I wrote “TRASH TO TREASURE” on the side in our fattest permanent marker, and it resides under her loft bed. Daily, it is added to. Daily, I put the kibosh on items that have food residue. (We’ve got to have some boundaries, yes?)

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I totally agree with the sentiment that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Also, this was actual trash. But not to her. And so, if I care about her spirit more than I care about my frustration with trinkets and gadgets and little itty-bitties that fill our room, I have to let the lesson be on my end instead of hers.

I’m the kind of parent who is always in teaching mode, and I’ve really got to stop that. She doesn’t need every lesson on the known planet before she’s 18. That’ll actually be to her detriment. Will she be picking up trinkets and gadgets and trash off the stage when she’s 17, storing them in the sole of her ballet slipper? Probably not. Might she remember that her mama offered a smile and a special box just for her? I hope so. Might she remember that her mama delighted with her in the small things? Again, I hope so.

I keep thinking I need to teach her all of these specific lessons, but I’m realizing that the more I try to force them, the harder they are for her to learn. To me, that’s the lesson, and it’s not for her. It’s my own reminder, my own lesson, that I need to chill out, enjoy her littleness while it’s still here, and remember that I teach her well enough just by loving the socks off of her every single day. Because she is now, and will always be, my greatest treasure.

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Elisa Preston

Elisa Preston is a writer living in western New York with her soldier/pilot husband and her first-grade daughter. When she isn't traveling to somewhere warm and sunny, she's dreaming about it. She spends her days bike-riding, baking, writing, watching Gilmore Girls, and hanging out with her family.

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