After three girls, we amassed a collection of Barbies and American Girl Dolls that would rival any toy store on the planet. My now 17-year-old never played with them much but enjoyed co-existing with them. She would sit in the middle, put them in a circle around her and refer to them as “the girls.” When my 13-year-old was born, we added several more. She would brush their hair and marvel at my ability to braid it. She and her sister got dolls that looked just like them one Christmas, and matching pajamas became a tradition. Then came the baby of the family.
Where my fiercely independent middle child couldn’t wait to ditch the dolls in favor of makeup and slime, the youngest was all too happy to step in and claim every hand-me-down doll and their hundreds of tiny outfits. Sometimes I would groan when she would ask me to play with her, but I was usually drawn in with the promise of being able to choose their clothes.
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She’s 12 now, that little girl, so I should have known the day was coming. It has to, after all, doesn’t it? We pour every minute of our day, every ounce of our energy into them so they can be prepared to leave us. It’s the great victory and the great tragedy of parenting.
After three babies, we’ve learned that while the firsts are easy to remember, the lasts usually float on by like a vapor.
Before you know it, you find yourself wondering when you gave your last bath, read your last bedtime story, or brushed your last head of Barbie hair.
This last was different, though. I walked into her room and saw three trash bags bursting with pink and purple clothes, tiny shoes, and plastic purses. “Those are for my Special Box, Mom,” she said.
The Special Box is where I put the things that are too precious to say goodbye to. I don’t have any remnants of my childhood, so I vowed that I would hold on to the most important items—the defining pieces of their lives—so that someday their own children could see and touch a piece of the past.
I was surprised at how my heart sank at the sight of those bags. After all, I complain about the clutter every week. Yet I let those bags sit there for a few days, just in case she changed her mind. The independent middle child said, “She’s finally getting rid of the dolls, huh? That’s good. It’s time.”
I found an empty Special Box and asked my last baby if she wanted to help me pack up the dolls, but she said she’d rather play Roblox.
I emptied all the bags and soaked in 17 years of memories.
I tried to remember where each one came from—maybe a birthday party or a trip to see Papa—but many of them were nameless little faces. Little plastic parts that make up the most precious years of my life. Occasionally one would sing a song that would bring back a rush of Barbie movie memories.
I carefully dressed them all in something I thought they would like. I brushed their hair and stacked them neatly in their Special Box with visions of Toy Story 3 in my head. As the tears started to fall, the middle child rubbed my back and said, “It’s OK, Mom. You don’t want her to see you crying. She’ll change her mind.”
A part of me hoped she would.
Maybe I could convince her to join me for one more Barbie wedding. She would play along if I asked her too, but that’s not our job as parents, is it?
As I laid the American Girls Dolls down, their eyes closed and I realized that, when they open again, there will be a new little girl holding them. Maybe she’ll be my granddaughter or great-granddaughter. I wondered what she will call me, what her name will be, and what wonderful memories will be unearthed by her mother when she opens the box.
It felt a little like a burial, this last. That room, that little girl, will never be the same. I know we still have memories to make together, but they won’t involve tiny dresses and tea parties. I’ll look forward to a new first, many years from now, when I can tell another little girl about how special that box really is.