With our oldest planning to head off to college in the fall, I’ve been in an especially nostalgic mood lately. I’ve been lingering a little longer when Facebook sends me photographic “memories” of past family trips and I’ve been trying to drink in the times when we’re all together, despite five busy schedules that are allowing for those times less and less.

In the midst of all that thinking back, I remembered one particular day years ago when I took one of our kids' oversized toy fire trucks to the curb to be hauled away with the trash. It was a pathetic, beaten up old thing. The steering wheel was broken. I mean, a piece of it was completely missing. And none of the battery-operated features — the lights, the siren — ever worked. Not since we bought it. But that old truck meant something to me, and leaving it out there on the curb brought tears to my eyes. 

Sentimental value 

I still remember the garage sale where we bought the truck for one dollar. We were on our way to my parents' house, about an hour and a half west of where we lived at the time in Chicago. It was a season of extreme emotional peaks and valleys. Our first child had just been born. My mom then passed away 30 days later. My father would soon follow. That truck strongly reminded me of that season. 

As challenging as that time was, it was filled with rich moments, such as giving my parents the gift of the only grandchild they would ever meet, visiting my dad as often as we could after my mom passed away, and hearing him say every time he saw his grandson, "He's terrific."

Our first little guy learned to walk pushing that truck. Our second child pushed it around as he was learning to walk as well. And even our third child got a little walking practice courtesy of that scuffed up old truck. 

It doesn't have to be perfect 

I'll never forget going to a birthday party when we just had two kids and the birthday boy had the exact same fire truck, with one exception: everything on his truck worked. Watching our kids play with that truck, making the lights flash and the siren scream, I remember thinking to myself, "Oh no, we're busted. Now our kids know what their truck is supposed to be capable of. They'll never like their truck again. They'll start asking for one that works."

The funny thing is, they never said a word. They went back to playing with their old fire truck like it was a great toy. Sure, they were delighted when they got to pick out a "new" toy at a garage sale, and they loved it whenever they got a perfect brand new toy. But they were happy with toys that were less than perfect as well. I think that's a great trait in a kid. 

What really makes you happy? 

Researchers who study happiness say people who value experiences tend to be happier than those who value things. But I don't think that's a lesson you can just slap on like cologne. You have to do some experimenting. You have to live a little life and find out on your own.

I used to be a stuff person. Big time. My identity was tightly wound up in what I owned. A financial crash and burn I went through in my 20s helped reorder my priorities, but it's been a journey, and it continues to be.

The thing is, it's easy to miss the changes that take place in our lives, the lessons we've learned, the ways we've grown. It all usually happens in such small steps over a long period of time.

Getting rid of that old truck made me stop and remember. Special moments with my parents. Our kids' first steps. And it helped me notice the distance I've traveled in the journey so far.