Bookshelf Souvenirs

Time passes so quickly, especially the older we get. I regularly watch my two-year-old daughter and five-year-old son grow into someone they weren’t just a few short months prior, or even a few short weeks prior. It happens frequently that my wife, Natalie, and I will ask our kids, “Did you grow last night?” not as some sly parental form of encouragement, but as a genuine response to seeing them go to bed one size and then wake up bigger, fuller, and less infantile. All parents will instantly recognize this as bittersweet: to feel the pride of watching one’s child grow is also to feel the loss of yesterday’s little one. I suppose it’s why we, as parents, do all we can to record those precious little years as they speed past us. 

One of the ways I’ve seen parents record the passage of time and the growth of their children is by taking height measurements on a bedroom doorframe. It was done to me, and it was done to most I know. It’s a pretty common American practice. In fact, it seems to be one of the quintessential ways that a house becomes a home: by literally etching our years of habitation into its walls. It bonds us with our home. It’s nostalgic and sweet. It’s years of childhood souvenirs stamped into a doorframe. 

For all its charming Americanism, though, the practice and tradition of doorframe souvenirs is in need of a modern renovation. I don’t mean recording the growth of our children from year-to-year needs to change; I mean where we record that growth needs a change. Doorframes are poor placement for these precious souvenirs. For one, doorframe doodles are unsightly. I didn’t spend all that time meticulously painting my house to scribble on the walls. I’m trying to teach my kids not to write on the walls, so what sort of hypocritical message am I sending when I ritualize the very act of writing on the wall? More importantly, though, what happens if and when a family moves? That’s my real concern. You can’t take those doorframe souvenirs with you— unless, of course, you do actually rip the doorframe out, as some have done, but that’s not good for resale value. 

The tradition of doorframe souvenirs seems innately tied to the America that Norman Rockwell’s “He’s Going to Be Taller Than Dad” depicts— and I love Norman Rockwell, but he’s more Americana than America anymore. Most people don’t live in a home their entire lives any longer, much less their childhood homes. In 2018, the National Association of Realtors found “…the median duration of homeownership in the US is 13 years,” and in 2022, CBS News reported that “Average American Moves 5 Times During Their Lifetime.” This migratory nature of Americans is no surprise to me. My own life has been a vagabond’s journey. I’ve resided in about 30 addresses and attended approximately 25 schools, so many I’ve honestly lost count. I’m working on at least six times the national average for moving. So when I encounter that rare breed who says things like, “My parents live in my childhood home” or “I’ve lived in the same house/ city my entire life,” I am truly baffled. These people probably still have parents who have their doorframe souvenirs, and that’s amazing, idyllic even. However, most people, like myself, are birds of a different feather; we migrate based on opportunity and atmospheric variations. Our doorframes change so much, the traditions concerning them must change, too. 

This is why I have never etched my children’s names in our doorframes. Natalie and I started our parental journey in an apartment in Reno, Nevada; then we bought our first home in Cold Springs, Nevada; then we moved into another apartment across the country in Lee’s Summit, Missouri; and now we’re in our second home in Blue Springs, Missouri. Opportunity and atmospheric variations, all within a short six-year span, meant I would’ve needed to rip out at least three different doorframes to preserve the height measurements of my kids had I been following the American tradition. I’m well versed in taking my life with me, so I did something different. No, I did not purchase one of those lame giant rulers from Etsy.  What am I going to do with that when my kids are grown? I can’t sell it at a yard sale, but I don’t want to hang it in my office, or the living room, or the bathroom. Maybe the garage? That ruler is a short-term solution for long-term souvenirs. In fact, that’s really the problem with most souvenirs, they’re attractive when you first acquire them, but after a few years, they’re the stuff of junk drawers, attic abandonments, and yard sales. 

Instead, I built a bookshelf. I value reading, education, literacy, and lifelong learning, and I wanted to do practical things to teach those values to my kids, so I build a six-foot-tall bookshelf to hold all the books my kids wanted. More than that, though, it would also operate as the replacement for those doorframe souvenirs— one we could easily take with us anywhere we moved. I simply purchased some six-foot pine boards from Home Depot, with the knowledge that walnut or oak is a far superior wood, but pine is less expensive, so I went with what the wallet told me. I measured, cut, screwed, and stained until it was to my liking. I added the sawed-off head of The Storyteller, a Southeast Asian woodcarving I purchased in Singapore, then accidentally broke in transport back to the States. Finally, I started the year-after-year tradition of carving the heights of my kids with a metal-tipped etching pen into one side of that bookshelf. 

That bookshelf is now an exhibit, showcasing some of the history of the Shinn Family. It tells of some of my travels overseas; it tells of the hundreds of stories we’ve read together in our bedtime routines; The Storyteller’s neck holds metals from tee-ball and the Reno River Race 5k; it preserves Lego creations and piggybank loot; its shows scuffs from Jameson’s quiet-play-time climbing sessions; and, of course, it records of the years of growth for both Presley and Jameson. It even has the measurements for Natalie and me from a few years ago carved into one side. That way, when we get old and start shrinking in stature, we can look back at the height, literally and figuratively, of our younger years. That handmade piece of furniture means more to me than just about any other piece I own. As long as I’m alive, it will never end up in an attic or a yard sale. That bookshelf is precious, just as the kids who have their years etched into it are. It’s also mobile. I can move it from room to room or from home to home. In that way, as I have the ability to move it, it will always have the ability to me move me— towards gratitude, remembrance, and memories of my own American tradition that is still akin to a Norman Rockwell painting. 

Time passes so quickly, especially the older our children get. That’s why I want to preserve as many moments, memories, and mementos as I can before too many of my children’s years speed past me. Doorframe souvenirs are for those that are certain they’ll never move. I never had that luxury, nor do I know that I even want it. Life is about movement, change, and rambling even. I embraced that long ago; in fact, I’m certain a part of who I am is a man who needs movement, change, and definitely some rambling. That bookshelf in my son’s bedroom is my simple solution to a life lived on the move. I’m sure I could have built any number of things to stamp childhood souvenirs into the wood. A bookshelf seemed an appropriate symbol for my household. Every place we’ve moved, or ever will move, it bonds us with our home. It’s nostalgic and sweet. It’s years of childhood souvenirs stamped, not on a doorframe, but on a shelf, and those bookshelf souvenirs are the closest things to home I’ve ever known. 

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