It’s like a scene from a horror movie. I open the door of the washing machine and a small avalanche of bones cascades onto the floor.
I remember something my son told me the day before:
“Maman, we had chicken for lunch today at school, and I found some dinosaur bones on my plate!”
“You mean chicken bones?”
“No, dinosaur bones! They’re a treasure.”
I should have realized that this last statement meant he’d put them in his pockets to bring home. But it just didn’t seem possible. We have chicken for dinner pretty regularly and he never seems to see anything special about those bones. Plus, I hadn’t gotten the slightest whiff of chicken when I’d put his pants in the machine.
Still, I wasn’t totally surprised. Over the past few months, just about anything has become a “treasure” for my son. I’ve started to call him “the magpie.”
He picks up stray objects from his school every day: tags, scraps of paper, lost beads and buttons. Even old candy wrappers. One night, I emptied his pockets and found basically the equivalent of a small garbage can. I lost it a little at that, I have to admit. Now he knows that wrappers or anything that looks like it might have been eaten and/or thrown into the trash is off limits.
It’s strange to me that he’d pick up all of this detritus and think of it as treasure, but I also know it’s my husband’s and my fault. My son was born into a magpie’s nest.
My husband and I are the kind of people who naturally accumulate objects. We used to love going to the Drouot auction house — often to bid on something. My husband has a Napoleonic-era sword collection, a collection of vintage Tintin comic books. Various electronics and wires and batteries seem to follow him wherever he goes, like enchanted mice. His hobbies involve vast amounts of garments and paraphernalia: historical reenactment costumes and accessories; scuba diving suits and gear.
Sometimes, like my son, he walks along staring at the ground, and picks up interesting things. Luckily, those aren’t candy wrappers and buttons, but a stray centime, or even an artifact like the remnants of a tear gas canister from a street recently vacated by police and Gilets Jaunes. Once, he gifted me a broach he found on a sidewalk near the Gare d’Austerlitz. I felt strange accepting it, but he figured its owner had already caught their train.
My thing, on the other hand, is books. On a recent trip back to the States, my stepmother kindly asked if I’d go through some boxes of books I’d left at her and my father’s house over the years. I expected maybe three boxes. There were about twelve. That was a wake-up call, but it hasn’t stopped me. One of my favorite ways to spend a “girls’ night out” is to go with a fellow book-loving friend to the used bookstores on the Boulevard Saint Michel, then for coffee. I usually come home with at least three books.
Those are just some of what make up our magpies’ nest. There are also far too many pairs of shoes, pens, documents it seems that we absolutely must hold onto. There are even things that we didn’t pick up in our own beaks. My mother-in-law keeps insisting on dropping kitchen appliances into the nest. I don’t use most of them (I’m fine with chopping vegetables with a knife, not the chopper gadget she recently gifted us with, for example) but, to stay with the bird metaphor, she’s got a raptor’s eye and will notice if Iget rid of anything.
There are toys, there are unusual objects, there are tools, there are things we mean to fix or use or give away and just can’t manage to find the time to spend on them. We always seem to have too many boxes of cookies in the kitchen, which is especially strange because I would have thought I would have eaten them all.
Over the years, I’ve seen lots of different Parisian apartments — even an actual house here in the city. Some have been more cluttered than others, but nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to our house, even now that we have a garage for storage and have been actively working on selling or donating whatever it seems that we don’t need.
Being born into this environment could only have fueled whatever latent object-loving flames were in my little son’s soul.
Every night when he’s getting into the bath, I have to go through his pants pockets. Sometimes, I imagine I’m on Cops, especially when, after one ambiguous conversation that suggested something sharp or pointy might be in there, I actually had to ask him, “Is there anything in your pockets that might stick me?”
Luckily, it isn’t all chicken bones, garbage, and possible injuries. The other day, we were out walking with one of his friends and his mom. Suddenly, my son stopped and pointed at a plastic wire casing that was poking out of the ground. “Look, a tube for little trains!” he said.
The mom looked at me, a bit perplexed.
“He has a lot of imagination,” I explained, and then I found myself going on, “I think he’s sort of like an urban poet, seeing things about everyday junk that we don’t.”
That made the mother smile. And it made me realize that I wasn’t just trying to translate one of my son’s quirks. Although I’m too much of a hypochondriac and clean freak to ever, ever even consider picking up trash on the street, I suddenly realized that that some of my son’s magpie tendencies come from another thing we have in common: our imaginations are always in overdrive.
When I was young, I used to imagine hidden castles in forests, or that I was a witch. I still do these things sometimes, just as I picture time traveling through Paris as I walk down its streets, or pick at threads in my novel’s plot or imagine dialogues between its characters. My son, meanwhile, finds trains and fossils and who knows what else in the unlikeliest of places.
It’s moving and magical.
But also kind of gross sometimes. Still, as I grabbed a tissue and gingerly started to pick up the chicken bones, I found myself thinking of how extraordinary these fowl remains had been to him yesterday. I was a little sad to throw them away.