My mother saved a lot of toys from her childhood. They were tenderly kept in boxes, sometimes in boxes within boxes. As kids, we played with many of the old things: I remember a Shirley Temple doll with real, flossy hair and pearl teeth.
I loved the school set. It was an old-fashioned one-room-schoolroom-in-a-box. There were slates, slate pencils, doll-size lined notebooks, a brass bell, the teacher's spectacles. A small blackboard, handwriting exercises.
The last time I played with this set, I was thirteen. Breaking out all over, asking big questions, slightly mad at the toys because they didn't satisfy me as they once had. They reminded me that I was being pushed out of childhood. I abandoned the set for my mother to put away, which was not part of the deal, and probably she scolded me for this.
A few years ago now, my mother donated some old toys to the Germantown Historical Society. She grew up there, so it made sense. I went with her to see an exhibit: Toys of Old Germantown, in a historic house at the center of what in Colonial times had been the town square, now absorbed and diminished into Philadelphia. It was strange to see some things that had belonged to me and my brother out for public view--a bubble-blowing monkey, for one, battery operated, which had ceased to work when I was about ten.
On the other side of a barrier was the school set. I stared at it. There was writing on the blackboard. The handwriting looked familiar. It took a moment, until I turned to look at something else. I had left that writing when I abandoned the school set at thirteen, never to touch it again. There they were, my four questions; which meant that my mother chose not to erase them when she wrapped the whole set up to give to the museum.
Who is God?
Is he good or bad?
Does he hear us when we pray?
Does he answer us if he hears?
I remembered. Raised in a devout Quaker home where questions were not encouraged, I had felt subversive, slightly law-breaking, when I wrote them down. My mother, with her eye for the quirky detail, must have felt pleased by them in some way. She not only left them years ago when she cleaned up after me, she brought them to the museum. I said how strange it was to see these casual chalk marks on display, public and arranged.
The museum curator, who had casually shown us around, commented: "What you wrote is part of our collection. No one's allowed to erase it now."
Later, in the car, I asked my mother why she didn’t erase what I’d written. I knew how she’d respond. “Oh, I don’t know. I suppose they were interesting.” I didn’t pursue it. Never ask my mother to reveal her feelings. For a sense of those, you have to look at her carefully preserved things.