It’s that time of year again. When your offspring are medium-sized, that statement covers new school uniforms, shiny clean shoes and pristine book bags. When they’re bigger, and they only live at home over the summer, there are different considerations.
It’s the time when the detritus of the half-remembered college year that ended in early summer – the cheap washing tablets that are adequate for student launderettes but bring suburban families out in hives, the key texts for next term’s modules that, despite all good intentions, were never opened, and the piles of cast-off kitchen utensils – have to be collapsed into the boot of the family car. When the frantic last-minute checking of baggage allowances and weighing of rucksacks is replaced by working out how you fit two bass guitars, an amplifier and a TV into the back of a VW Golf. When there are always five pairs of jeans on the washing line and people still end up travelling with the pockets still damp. And when you realize something profound about your young-adult offspring, or at least I do.
I love them and would be happy to have them live here most of the time, like they always used to. What I can’t take any longer, what will send me cheering and throwing open windows through the house as the vehicle bearing them away turns the corner out of sight, is not themselves but their Stuff.
The first time they went away, a general purging went on, followed by a few months of relative calm. Their abandoned bedrooms became useful overflow storage cubicles. We had space to breathe. When we came downstairs in the morning, the living room still looked the way it had the night before. It’s easy to develop the sense that life, from now on, will be like this. Even the happy chaos of Christmas and Easter seemed like brief interruptions of the new, minimalist regime.
And then they come home for the summer, and the awful truth dawns on you. They have been out there, all this time, collecting stuff of their own. And as George Carlin memorably said, “Have you ever noticed that their stuff is shit, but your shit is stuff?”
I can remember the feeling of dull dismay gradually forming in the pit of my stomach as my husband and son unpacked the car and, TARDIS like, box after box appeared. And then, a week or so later, the process was repeated with our daughter. Everything was going to be put away – soon. And so it was, if you can call the semi-permanent occupation of the dining room “away.”
I remember our daughter being furious that there was still a drum kit in her bedroom. (She plays drums for about ten minutes, once every six months, a mysterious process known as “band practice” that generally involves carrying said drum kit downstairs and setting it up in the middle of the living room, conveniently placed directly in the line of sight from sofa to television). I won’t embarrass her by posting photographs of her room; that would be below the belt, but you’ll get the idea when I tell you that when she asked if she could have her boyfriend to stay over the weekend, my husband muttered under his breath, “He’ll probably find a couple of other boyfriends under the bed that she’s forgotten about.”
With my son, the issues are different. First there is the subtle mental invasion of his eclectic choice of music streamed throughout the house, all day, every day. The eighteen different types of tea. The three copies of Cabin in the Woods that appear, a DVD that nobody actually remembers borrowing or buying. The Diplomacy game that takes up semi-permanent residence on the dining room table.
Worst of all is the kitchen equipment. We don’t begrudge either of them their domestic independence, but it’s rather startling to discover that we have 63 mugs in the house, at least half a dozen frying pans and a pile of knives and forks that have been in a box on the kitchen windowsill for the last twelve weeks. As for the books, open and bookmarked and commented on, all over the place – well, at least they’re working. Sometimes.
If all this sounds negative, it isn’t meant to be. We love to see our kids. We relish their growth and development, even the aspects of it that seem slightly baffling, like our son’s rejection of CD’s and downloads for the bulky, scratchy vinyl we regard as antique. (Thank God for the Internet, it makes it much easier to buy a new stylus, something we never expected to need again). We appreciate that they value the security of a safe nest that will always be there for them to return to, although we do question whether that really has to include every bit of Lego they ever played with and the roller skates that last fitted them at the age of eight. Damn it, we’re glad that they do, occasionally, want to come home, and hopefully for reasons other than lack of rent money.
But oh, it’s lovely when they leave. Or at least, when their stuff does. Well, some of it anyway. Come on, we’ll help you pack. No, we don’t know where their phone charger is. Or the suitcase, for that matter. But as for huge cardboard boxes, no problem. They’re in our bedroom, all 15 of them, and you’re welcome. It’ll be nice to be able to see through the window again.
When they’ve finally left, we’ll crack open a bottle of wine and get back to watching Brideshead Revisited on DVD, having abandoned Charles and Julia in mid-Atlantic three months ago. That is, of course, assuming that the remote control hasn’t ended up with the X-Box cabling two hundred miles away.