I reach to pick up a scrap of popped pink balloon, when I hear the dreaded words.
“Mommy, what are you going to do with that?”
He caught me again.
“Mommy, I’m going to use that for my rocket ship.”
My dubious expression elicits further campaigning from my four-year-old son: “It will be one of the control buttons.”
For over a month now, Alex has protested my attempts to throw away the detritus of daily life. The McDonalds milk bottle? A rocket blaster. The fruit snack wrappers? Those will make the crinkling and whirring sounds of the ship flying through space. His used Band-Aid? He’ll stick it on the ship’s wall to mark the location of the first-aid kit.
Then, of course, I feel that tug of ambivalence; I really want to be left alone to get rid of this trash (I mean, come on! I’m finally getting around to cleaning up!), and I also want my son to journey to the moon. At this point, I usually pause and imagine Alex in the tinker space we don’t have; a space where he is free to collect his flotsam and jetsam (it would look like Ariel’s cavern of jarred forks and pipes!) and free to hide away and build and paint his rocket ship.
Most days, Alex’s salvaged goods have been snuck into the trash, but summer is coming – that expansive time of year when we stay up late and gaze at the stars. A simple plan will do the trick: a bucket in his closet. If Alex wants to keep the next fruit snack wrapper, I’ll say, “Put it in your rocket ship bucket.”
This summer, we’ll start with a box … maybe that big one in the garage with the cutout robot eyeholes and armholes … because you know, heaven (or Alex) forbid we recycle that cardboard! We’ll build the ship together.
We’ll start by walking to the library. We’ll check out some rocket ship books, so Alex can use pictures to help me visualize his design plans. The books will help us write our own launch checklist. We’ll cut windows into the box, and we’ll tape cardboard triangles together to form the ship’s roof. We’ll dump the collection bucket on the deck and decide how to add on the blasters and the control panel. A rocket ship requires sturdy craftsmanship, so this may be the year I get that hot glue gun I sometimes dream of.
We’ll pull out the tarp and the paints. We won’t just paint the inside walls and outside glaze of the ship. We’ll find a frayed pillowcase and paint our flag. Perhaps my daydreaming of Alex’s own certified tinker space was foolish; this is all the tinker space he needs. This space outdoors, with a paintbrush in hand, and a mom who’s jumped off her soapbox lecture circuit about why we can’t keep every little thing. Because as we all know, if we give ourselves the space to remember, it’s the little things that help us count 4, 3, 2, 1, blast off!
We’ll let the paint dry. We’ll glue our pillowcase flag to a meter stick. Then come a rainy day, we’ll dress all in orange and don our bike helmets. We’ll climb into our ship with our checklist on a clipboard. Together we’ll say, “T minus nine minutes.” Then I’ll read off the checklist, “Alex, are you ready?”
And he’ll say, “Check!” We’ll keep marking the minutes to launch, and following our checklist, until we reach “T minus 31 seconds,” when Alex will say, “Go!” Then he’ll start mimicking those engine sounds that boys make so well, and I’ll just smile as I silently count down from 30 – because you know I can’t make those sounds.
“Ten!” I’ll shout, and Alex will join me in the final countdown to blast off. We’ll listen together to the whirr and crinkle of 20 fruit snack wrappers shaking in the air until we land the ship on the living room carpet, and walk along the moon’s surface.
What an adventure we’ll share – searching for craters and moon rocks! Jumping and bouncing all around. We’ll ceremoniously carry our flag from one end of the moon to the other, and plant the flagpole in the crack between the sofa cushions. Then of course, we’ll have to say, “One small step for Alex, one giant step for Mommy!”
Katherine Dalland has been teaching sixth grade for 15 years and is regularly in awe of the young writers she nurtures. She and her husband relocated to Madison, Wisconsin (for the cheese!) and are raising Alex and Aubrey.