One of the first rituals of lamentation I indulged in when my older daughter left for college was to rummage in her closet and dresser drawers to see what clothes she left behind. In the familiar pieces of fabric, I could imagine her fully realized body. Soon I began to take things, like a pair of black leggings and a soft, overwashed T shirt, which I donned as a way to carry my daughter against me like I did when she was a baby.
A few years later, when my son and other daughter — twins — left home, my pilfering became a habit, not quite compulsive, but more than casual. From my son’s room I took headphones, computer cords, gym socks, and pajama pants. From my younger daughter, I added to my collection of shoes and clothes, discovering on the way items of my own that I hadn’t seen in years. I took lipstick and eyeliner, ignoring warnings about the risk of infection from old, used-by-others cosmetics. From each room, I selected books I knew their hands had held. I read Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” an early feminist novel about a woman who feels confined in her roles of wife and mother, more interested in the notes my then high-school-age son had made in the margins than in the book itself.
But it was the superfluous school supplies that I coveted most. I am old-fashioned. I write in longhand; pencils and paper are the oxygen for my words. I have my favorite mechanical pencil, a Pentel Twist-Erase with 0.5 graphite, but I hoarded the pencils my children left behind — Dixon Ticonderogas No. 2 used for standardized tests, disposable pencils from Staples, pencils imprinted with the name of a pediatric dentist, or those from a swag bag handed out at a party. I stashed them in my desk, my pocketbook, in the drawer by the phone; I would always have a writing implement within reach.
I had my own collection of legal pads, as well as journals gifted to me by friends wanting to get the perfect gift for a writer. But the unexpected trove of semifilled notebooks I discovered in old backpacks and on desktops made me feel the rush of limitless writing opportunities. Often, only the first 10 or 15 pages were filled — a few pages of physics equations followed by notes on revolutions, then a little bit of Shakespeare, forensics interrupting here and there. What else had my children learned? Where was the rest of the knowledge they must have gained and recorded?
My son’s handwriting looked no better than it had in third grade, but his equations were works of art. My older daughter wrote in a rounded script and made many doodles in the margins. Her sister wrote in characters so small her notes on Mao looked like they were meant to be secret.
When I came to the blank pages, though, I forgot the notebook’s previous purpose. I was taking notes from no one except myself. I wrote about what it meant to be me. Me the mother. Me the wife. Me the daughter. Me the friend. Me the dog lover. Me the writer. Me the me. Not me the student. I never studied physics except for the lessons I learned from my father, who tried throughout his life to explain the world to me. I remember little about the Bolsheviks or Mao’s “Little Red Book,” although growing up in Lexington, I couldn’t escape learning about the American Revolution just by breathing the air. My knowledge of forensics comes from police procedurals on television.
Sometimes I imagine, when I finish writing and close the notebook, that my words and those of my children have a conversation. The equations parse my sentences, trying to solve the mysterious X of who I am. Shakespeare offers feedback on my use of language. Mao wonders what all this self-examination and focus on the individual is all about. Forensics searches my stories for the unique sequence of thoughts and ideas that make up my DNA.
Some of my ramblings eventually become published essays. Some stories never crawl beyond the lined pages, but they aren’t necessarily private either. I look at my son’s childlike script, the rounded letters and the microscopic writing of my daughters, and wonder how my stories would be seen through their eyes. What parts of me would they recognize, and in what ways would I appear a stranger? As they struggled through my bad penmanship and incoherent drafts, would my stories become a part of their schooling?
I also think about my journals. My husband once said that if I died before him, he would destroy them. He doesn’t want our children reading them. But killing my words? Yes, there are entries my children might have trouble reading — the ones where I am not my best self, where I sling anger at their father, confess moments of bad mothering, give voice to hidden desires that fall outside the life we were all living, where I am stupid, haughty, gullible, or superficial. But isn’t that the point, to show the muck and murk through which I grew?
I fantasize about bequeathing the notebooks and my personal diaries back to my children. I imagine them writing between the lines, inserting their own thoughts and reactions as a way to continue the conversation between the bindings, even when I’m not here to answer back. Of course, if I knew where their notes on quantum physics were, I could argue that I still existed somewhere, and the conversation would never end.