I thought moving house in April was a good idea. A new start in a new place, just as the weather began to get warm. But, as I still hadn’t tidied away the family’s winter things before we moved, unpacking has proved a chore. I found mittens everywhere. Kids’ scarves wrapped around lamps. Hats in shoes. And, occupying the hallway, there was a lumpy Ikea bag of unwashed winter coats.
I picked up the four-year-old’s coat first and it felt heavy in my hands. There was a pinecone poking out of one of the pockets. And some sticks. I set them on the kitchen table, but the pocket wasn’t empty yet. I found more sticks. And pine needles. A crumpled Pokémon card. A milk-bottle top. Stones. A plastic snake. A dried orange skin. And more sticks. Quite a pile of sticks.
My mum would laugh. She was always pulling things from my pockets. Called me a "packrack" and a "ragamuffin" and then she’d brush my fringe from my eyes, smiling. The past few months, she’s watched a long Canadian winter pass, keeping company in my dad’s care-home room, and I thought maybe a smile or a laugh might help. So, I arranged the pocket loot on my kitchen table and snapped a photo to post on her Facebook wall. She likes to see photos of her faraway grandchildren and I was sure she’d like the little one’s stick collection.
It made a nice photo. The muted shades of wood on wood and the pop of the green plastic top. The sticks were all much the same length and, set together on the table, they looked like specimens. There was something museum-esque about the whole collection. Maybe a good image to tweet, I thought. So, I did.
By the evening, I had 25 favourites on the tweet. I told my husband I’d gone viral.
And then it kept going.
We can find gentle patterns in this small clutch of simple things that are loved and brought to light
I’ve now had over 14,000 favourites on Twitter and 4,000 likes on Facebook. The photo has been shared on the Mirror’s website, by The Poke and the David Suzuki Foundation. Each time I glance at the screen, there are a hundred more comments to read. Gorgeous, gorgeous comments from people all over the world.
They say it’s treasure and remind me to treasure him. To keep everything to remember. They say these are talismans and necessary. The signs of a healthy, happy child. There’s a strong sense of both nostalgia and reassurance in the comments. People are glad to see that kids still make playthings from sticks and stones, and that they still attend to the natural world around them. Some have pointed out that, aside from the plastic and the card, this might be any child’s collection from any century at all.
For others, the photo seems more personal. It reminds them of their own mothers emptying out pockets at the end of a walk. Or they recognise their own kids’ collective impulses. Or their own. So many people have shared stories about days when their now-grown kids were small. Again, nostalgia. Reassurance. Children grow. People don’t really change.
This photo has struck a chord. A nerve; a soft place behind the ribs. Maybe its repetition is soothing in these struggling times. We can find gentle patterns in this small clutch of simple things that are loved and brought to light.
Some people have posted predictions that my son will be an explorer, a naturalist, a botanist, an ecologist, an artist, an archaeologist, an archivist. All these sound like blessings. All these describe who he already is.
I left the collection on the table, so that in the morning I could ask him about it. He told me that the orange peel was a strong colour and the sticks were the same length because that was the good length to hold. They feel good in his hand that way and fit nicely in his pocket. Then he noticed there were buds on three of the sticks and asked for a glass of water to help them bloom. We set it on the windowsill carefully and he said he’d check again in the afternoon.
I haven’t decided what to do with the rest of his collection. It’s still on the table, muddled now from our sorting and looking, appropriately, like a nest of sorts. The folk on Twitter have suggested I could put it all in a memory jar or start a nature table. I might make a shadow box or keep it in a special drawer. But until I’m sure that he has finished with his findings, perhaps it’s best just to print the photo and hang it on the wall.
As for my mum, I haven’t heard yet what she thinks of the photo. I’m sure she’ll check Facebook sometime soon.
Katie Munnik's debut novel, The Heart Beats In Secret, will be published spring 2019 by The Borough Press