A treasure hunt, but no treasure


We have four children, all adults or on the cusp of adulthood. Two are married. Two may marry some day, and if they do, one hopes one will be upright and competent to participate in the celebration.

The cellar, closets, eaves, and other caches of this house, in which we’ve lived for more than 20 years, are packed with books and toys, rugs, furniture, photographs, clocks, skis, TVs, dolls, and tools that we’ve saved for the kids and for their kids. I’ve even got four PCs and Macs on a closet shelf. They’re not powerful enough or fast enough to be worth anything to anyone these days. They don’t know how to play the games that gamers like to play. They’re worthless even for parts.

Occasionally, my wife and I consider which child should get what, and when. Oh, we say, we can’t give them that yet, not until they have a house of their own. Or, the one who has produced a granddaughter might enjoy one of the dollhouses, but wasn’t that the other girl’s dollhouse; maybe we ought to save it for her daughter some day. How do we divide the rugs? Some are much bigger, and better, than others.

Exhausted at the overbearing difficulty of choosing, our conversation withers, and we go on thankfully to other things.

The other day, pottering around in the cellar, wrestling the wind surfer sail into submission, discovering the ping pong paddles and balls beneath the oil tank, jamming the horse blankets into the rack that was expressly designed to store the sails, stuffing the goalie pads and sticks into the rack that stores the partially used gallons of house paint, tripping over the in-line skates, wondering who owned those wooden sea trunks, and opening a musty bag filled with tiny Lego-like figures, I suddenly knew how it was all going to end.

The big day would come. We’d gather the kids. The grandchildren would be scampering noisily around. The time had arrived to choose. We said to the kids, choose. They would examine the treasures, moldy, dusty, un-electronic, and they’d say, You know, dad, toys today are a lot different. I don’t know if the kids will appreciate these things the way we did. We don’t actually have heavy furniture like this in our house. I’m afraid the years haven’t been kind to these linens.

I remember a trip we made to Austria years ago. It was part of a honeymoon trip. The last couple of days, we spent in Vienna. We visited the riding school, we attended a concert by the Vienna choirboys. (Two of the pure angelic sopranos were not angels at all. They had a spat right on stage, surreptitiously poking and elbowing one another. If the conductor saw, he did nothing. The robes they wore hid a great deal. The music did not suffer.)

Walking through the city streets, so institutional and humorless compared with those of Salzburg or Kitzbuhl, we came upon a toy store. It may have been an antique shop, but it was all about antique toys. In the window were fleets, regiments, and divisions of iron soldiers, with horses, cannons, and feathered ceremonial uniform hats. There were naval vessels with three smokestacks and small craft to ferry admirals to and from their flagships. It was a war machine for imaginative children, each piece of the hundreds perfectly cast and decorated in every respect. It was to us then, and is to me now, an assembly of toys the way toys ought to be.

They were altogether too much, too expensive, too many parts. It was like the collection of trains a grandfather gathers over years, hoping his grandchildren with get their parents to add a wing to their house to set them all up. We admired it all and walked on. They were toys for adults, I suppose, and they probably included too much of some dangerous substance, not to mention the sharp points on the bayonets. I can imagine the modern motherly frown on a daughter’s face as she imagined her daughter or son impaling a playdate companion. And the paint probably had lead in it. Definitely not what the federal Department of Toys Children May Be Allowed to Play With would approve.

Besides, what would PETA say about those warhorses? How cruel, even to imagine. What would the iPad generation say about all the moldering toys in the cellar, not one of them WiFi capable.

For all I know, the great army and formidable navy may still be housed in a dusty Viennese shop window. Kids do their mortal combat, their burglary, rapine, and pillaging on the computer or the iPhone now – the imagining already done for them.

Have we been saving all this stuff for nothing, I wonder? Or, have we saved it all for us?