The annual ritual of Christmas decoration requires us to excavate the big, dark basement closet to the point where we can at least reach old rolls of wrapping paper and tree ornaments from yesteryear. It is a task that would make Indiana Jones flinch.
We sort the results of our archaeological digs into piles.
This pile will be a garage sale next June - stuff that isn't good enough to keep, but not embarrassing enough that we can't let the neighbors paw through them.
The next pile contains the old family crib with all its assorted baby-tooth-scars, and boxes of baby clothes with ISU Cyclone logos, to be dumped on the first relation who happens to get pregnant.
There's the Goodwill pile.
And finally, the trash heap - old Happy Meal toys, white socks that turned out pink the day dad decided to do the laundry. Everything with a University of Iowa Hawkeye on it.
After everything is sorted, there is just one lonely item left in the middle of the floor - a well-worn rocking horse about the size of a Dalmatian dog.
Salvation Army or garage sale? My wife just sighs. "Our babies aren't babies any more." She left it up to me to decide. Closet cleaning isn't in her contract.
I sit down and looked at the thing for a while. I remember that snowy Christmas that I went hunting for something special.
I find it hard to get excited about electronic wiz toys and charmless computer gizmos. Nor, in those years, was there a lot extra to be spent. So I prowled the funky five and dimes you find in the little roadside towns, and finally spotted it up on the top shelf. The box was faded, no telling how long it had been up there.
I remember that Christmas Eve after Kate's first birthday. I was up half the night trying to assemble that horse, to get the springs in the right places so it would bounce true in its little cradle - I must have called that damned horse every name in the book, and a few I made up on my own. But when the wrappings came off, it was all worth it.
That rocking horse looked as exciting as a wild Indian pony in a little girl's dream. She grabbed it by the neck, and we literally had to pry her away for meals and bedtime. It's chocolate brown surface gleamed, its little red saddle beckoned saucily - The name "Flexible Flyer" - as in those wonderful classic sleds - was stenciled boldly in cowboy red on the side.
It doesn't gleam so much anymore. The corduroy backsides of Kate, and later her little brother Chris, have rubbed most of the shine off. The paint is missing in a few places, and the horse looks a little less like a dream and a little more like an outdated toy off the dusty top shelf of a mom and pop store in a little backwater town.
The kids have long since outgrown such a toy, and its been years since this steed has taken his last ride across the vast prairie, in search of outlaws and adventure, and occasionally, Dad on carpet-burned knees.
There's no more use for a rocking horse, and we need every inch of space in our little house. I started to carry it out to the curb. I never made it.
I ran out of nerve somewhere between the washer-dryer and the hallway. Come with me, little horse. I'm not quite ready to say goodbye yet.
I'm not ready to forget the memories behind the faded paint, the toothing marks in the wooden handles, all of the bouncing memories of broken vases and upset bookshelves and all of the rest that goes with raising two happy, ornery children.
I dusted the horse off with care, and wrapped it up in paper. I found a place clear in the back of the closet and hid it there when no one was looking. There it will stay, until perhaps some Christmas Eve when a baby grandchild needs a special toy of the type that runs on dreams, not electronics and batteries.
Don't tell my wife. I'm just not practical enough for this closet-cleaning gig.
But I suspect there may be occasions as these little ones continue to grow up, grow away, and eventually go on their own way in the world, when I may want to come down here and visit.
I have a box of "I love you Dad" cards and teeth-missing school pictures squirreled away for such times. But a guy can't talk to a first kindergarten clay project or a tiny BVU jersey out of the memory box. A guy can relate to a horse.
I suspect that I may feel a little like that rocking horse one day - perhaps a little too old-fashioned and perhaps a little bit unneeded.
I wish they could be young forever, but even toy horses grow old. There's room enough for those memories. The horse is staying.
We used to think of it as part of the family, when in reality the family was part of it, all along.