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So long, sandbox: Passing on childhood toys is a milestone for mom

It's time for a mom to pass along her daughter's sandbox, but the happy memories stay even when the box moves on.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

There's a poignant saying you've probably seen on social media: One day, your parents put you down and never picked you up again. It's a heart-breaker, because we never do know when those last moments are upon us. We always think that we're not done with that toy, that pastime, that friend. We always think there'll be more time.

I don't know the last day my daughter Kelly played in her sandbox. She's 8 now, and the box is small, so she's since moved on to bigger-girl activities, swimming and roller derby and playing Minecraft. One day, to tweak that touching saying, she put down her shovels and buckets and never picked them up again.

But I know the first day. It was on May 19, 2011, because I excitedly emailed a photo labeled "first sandbox" to her grandparents. Kelly was three and a half and she's not even looking at the camera, too busy industriously digging with her pristine yellow shovels, packing sand into her brand-new turret-shaped buckets. Building a castle, making a town, starting a world. There was a whole new adventure spreading out in front of her, and she was all about getting after it.

Kelly in her sandbox on the day we bought it, May 19,2011.
Kelly's sandbox.Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

As the days turned into months and then years, she and I and her friends shaped sand into little sea-creature molds, built castles, ran sand through a sifter. I donated all my extra measuring cups and muffin tins to the cause, and we set up sand bakeries and villages and ran toy cars over mountains whose topography shifted and sank with each movement. We reloaded the sand as it tried to escape out onto our lawn, and replaced it completely that one memorable time she thought it would be fun to drench the whole thing with a hose. The Easter Bunny tucked candy-filled plastic eggs inside the sandbox (for older kids, who were smart enough to peek inside) and snuggled up against its outside corners (for little ones, who needed the Bunny to be more obvious).

IMAGE: Sandbox memories
Sandbox memories will never fade away.Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

For years after it was clear Kelly was done with the sandbox, I kept it there, despite the fact that it was rotting the grass underneath and filling up with a disturbing petri dish of muddy liquid whenever it rained. The little cars and buckets cracked and faded and somehow wiggled their way out onto the lawn, like tiny rats crawling out of a sinking ship. Maybe that saying was still ringing through my head. Maybe I didn't want to know that her last day playing in the sandbox had come.

I mentioned the sandbox to Kelly a few times, and at first she was as unwilling as her mom to give it up. "It gives me happy memories," she'd say, running her hand over the plastic top. But one day, she said yes, that it would be better to give the sandbox a new home, with someone who would love it as she had.

IMAGE: Sandbox
Sometimes the sand got a little wet and muddy ... but Kelly never minded.Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

A week ago, I decided it was time. My husband and I emptied out the sandbox and washed it clean, a feat that was so simple I was immediately ashamed it had taken us so long to do.

I thought about offering it to our local Facebook giveaway group, where neighborhood residents post items they're done with. I thought about the charity a friend works at, or arranging a Goodwill dropoff.

IMAGE: Empty sandbox
The empty sandbox awaits its new home.Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

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But in the end, the sandbox will be staying close to home. This summer, a family from Australia moved into the house across the street from us. Their little girl is just a tiny bit younger than Kelly was when she was first dazzled by the sandbox. When her father brought her over to see it, she climbed right up on our backyard swing and stared at it, asking in that charming Aussie accent if the "sand pit" could really be hers.

How could we say no? Sandbox, sand pit, childhood only has one language. Of course it's hers, and we hope that the memories she makes will one day be as treasured as ours. We may not know the last day Kelly played in the sandbox, but maybe that doesn't matter as much as that sweet saying led me to believe. It's not the last day that matters, it's not even the first day, it's all the days in-between.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is the co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," and "The Totally Sweet '90s."