Tiny talismans

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA These two little onesies are all I have left of all the clothes my children wore, up until today.

On the weekend we completed an enormous and much-overdue sort-and-clean of our front room. Previously, I'd gone through the children's old clothes, those that didn't fit them any more, and sorted out some to give to friends, others to donate to charity, and the stained and tattered ones to throw out. These made a gigantic pile in the front room and, since Emily will shortly arrive to spend the summer holidays with us, I needed to get them out of the way - along with all the other junk stored in that room - so that she could actually see floor space. Mr B took three car-fulls of clothes, blankets, toys and other homewares to charity that day.

Unfortunately, he accidentally also took the items we'd reserved to give to friends. Even more unfortunately, somehow he took the one little bag of tangible memories I'd kept aside for my babies.

Do you know the bag I mean? Most parents have one. Inside it, the soft, star-patterned muslin wraps that Ralph had slept in every day for the first 18 months of his life, that still smelled like him. Milestone outfits: the red, knitted poncho that was the first item we bought for Scout, ever, while I was still pregnant; the cream cardigan and matching bonnet with crimson ribbons, crocheted by my mother, that was Scout's "coming home from hospital" outfit. The pale yellow onesie with the drawing of an elephant that my friend gave Ralph: he always looked extra tiny and precious when he wore it. The blue gingham dress that perfectly matched Scout's eyes, which she wore from the age of three months to as recently as six months ago, translated into a top, because she (and we) loved it so much. The matching Piccolini "hot dog, pretzel, NY" t-shirt and onesie that were gifts to the children from my dear friend and surrogate sister Misha, in New York.

There were more. Not so many, but enough to fill a small bag. Clothes that dressed my memories, so vividly that just holding them or, better still, pressing them to my face and breathing them in, could transport me instantly back to my children's babyhoods. To those tiny, milk-soaked, sleep-deprived, heady days, when time was somehow suspended in a flood of exhaustion and "new things," and every step dragged, as heavy with overwhelm as with abundant love.

But as slow as those minutes were, cupping tiny life in my arms at 3am, sitting propped against my pillows and feeding a hungry infant for the umpteenth time in 24 hours, time was racing cruelly and relentlessly, even then. And now, well, every age is the best age. I can't decide whether I want to stop time, fast-forward time, or roll it backwards. But those clothes were my time-machine, the key to temporarily rolling time backwards, when I needed to.

And I needed to. I need to. They say smell is the most emotionally powerful of the senses. I miss the sight of those clothes. But the smell, oh, the smell. I will never again bury my nose into those muslin wraps.

I'm not ashamed to tell you I sobbed pathetically when I realised they had gone. I made Mr B race back to the charity to see if they were still there. "You do it," he said. "You know what you're looking for." But I couldn't. "Look at me," I wailed pathetically, pointing to my red and swollen eyes. We both knew that as soon as I got there, sorting through hundreds of boxes for the most precious mementos from both of my children's babyhoods, I'd probably fall apart.

Mr B loves me and so he went back to search, but the bag was gone. Its contents sorted, loaded into a semitrailer, and taken off somewhere. To a charity store, maybe? Or to be given to families in need, or to be used as rags. I don't know.

I cried so hard, Mr B grew frustrated. "You haven't lost your babies," he said, exasperated. "They're upstairs sleeping right now!"

And he was completely right, of course. Later when I recovered my equilibrium, it got me thinking about the value of "things" in our life. I felt a bit guilty. After all, if there was a fire in my house, I'd save my children, not the clothes they wore.

But there is a power, a potency, to the things we associate with those we hold dear. That's why, every summer when I was growing up, my mother packed a suitcase with a change of clothes and our photo albums, nothing else, and kept them near the door in case of bush fire. When my friends' apartment burnt down, they were left with nothing: only the clothes (pyjamas!) on their backs. But they didn't lament their computers, jewellery, art, clothes, refrigerators or anything else of practical or monetary value lost from their lives. It was for their wedding photos, and gifts from loved-ones, that my friend Annie cried. People as far back as the neolithic era have been found buried with small, personal items: talismans of emotional and spiritual significance so important that they choose to take with them into the afterlife.

It was by pure chance that the two onesies in this photograph survived our clean-out. I don't even know how. They must have fallen out of the bag when Mr B picked them up and, of all things, they happened to be the first clothes that each of my children wore, ever. Scout's onesie, the yellow one, swam on her. Her tiny arms were comically lost inside the sleeves, and her adorable little feet reached to about where the knees were meant to be. But I hadn't known how big or small she would be at birth, and this was the little suit I'd chosen to take with me into the delivery room, to dress her in it, moments after she was born. Ralph wore the bow-tie onesie, teamed with cute little white pants, and he looked so dapper and unearthly and darling in it. That one was a gift from my parents.

These two are the precious talismans I will carry with me, maybe not into death, but at least through my children's lives as they grow and flourish. The only fabric left to me that their tiny hands touched, that their baby-breath coloured. If I have to leave this house in a hurry, and after saving my family (of course), I will probably grab these as I run.