Charlotte drawing Dec 2021.jpg

Illustration by Charlotte Dijkgraaf

"We are not hamsters,” a colleague once told me. I was picking him up at his apartment before a meeting. His wife sat on the couch. Kids played around her, a baby on her breast. The floor was littered with toys, children’s books, messy clothes. He took the stack of papers I handed to him, and without looking at them, tossed them in the garbage.

A lot has happened since then. I became a mom, too, sitting on the couch, little kids around me, and toys everywhere. It was my husband who was shuffling stacks of papers that were balanced on top of baby pictures and drawings. I remember those days as sweet and tiring, emotional and draining at the same time. I often fell asleep with my kids, halfway through reading them a story. “Mom, mom, what happens next?” they chanted, tugging on my arm.

But all that was long ago. My kids are grown now — and gone. One by one, they said goodbye and disappeared into their own future. Leaving me with the memories. And stacks of drawings.

But since I am now moving to a smaller place, I have to clean out the house. So these days, I sit on the floor, surrounded by piles of schoolish report cards and notebooks jammed with outlines from their classes in American history, math, and chemistry.

And their drawings.

Then I did something that I never really did before. I actually looked at them. Back then, I was always distracted by something. A crying kid, a hungry one, an approaching bicycle. The drawings ended up in my bag between sandwiches and water bottles, and, at the end of the day, were buried in a stack.

But now, sitting on the floor, I peer into the past. My older son routinely stapled four or five leaves of a sketchbook together and drew hordes of dinosaurs, all running, each one chasing another. The pages are crumbling, the corners are dog-eared, but I can still smell the hot breath of the running animals. He called me today to show me the streets of London by holding up his phone. He did the same thing the other day, when he was in Barcelona.

My younger son’s drawings are precise. Geometrical figures, buildings. He captures perspective, vanishing points, depth, height, and likeness. They all are still in the original sketchbook with his name neatly written in the right upper corner. I can ask him for expert advice on anything. We all do. He is the most organized, the most detail oriented, of us all.

Then my daughter. She could not pass a piece of paper without drawing on it. I find Post-it Notes, postcards, school papers — all full of her doodling. She was not into animals, beside our own cats and dogs, but into people. In many of them, I encounter the same girl. A tall person with long arms, reaching all over the paper. Even over to the back, to eventually return to her heart. Now a woman, my daughter still reaches out to her friends, to her brothers, to us. Even though we live on different continents, she holds us all together.

I cherish all these drawings in my hands, silent witnesses to my past, as I once held my children close. I again become that young mother on the couch.

Of course, the house cleaning goes nowhere. I have become a hamster.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. She can be contacted at

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