DULUTH — Last year, in the depths of our COVID isolation, a sticker appeared on my dining room table.

Not a small, misplaced teacher’s star or even a rogue banana sticker that someone forgot to collect after their meal, but a 2-inch, brightly colored Marvel sticker. Specifically, it was a sticker of Spider-Man’s archenemy, The Green Goblin. The sticker was stuck fast, carefully placed in the corner of the table, face up so that whoever used the end chair would have a clear view.

Ladies and gentlemen, the youngest person living in my household is 20 years old.

Here’s the thing: I truly thought — like truly, truly believed — that as children grew older, they stopped destroying everything in their paths. I thought the things they wore down and destroyed would be different things for each stage. When they were toddlers, for example, they would color on walls and spill food on their clothes. Elementary-age children would break everything as they struggled to understand how the world worked around them. Teenagers would mostly crash my cars and wear out my washing machine, but would occasionally break my brain.

Then, when they reached young adulthood, the damage they inflicted on their surroundings would magically cease to exist, and even if they still lived under my roof, I would once again be allowed to own nice things. That was the presumed deal as I understood it. It was an order of events that sounded neat and tidy.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

That’s not exactly how it went. When my kids were toddlers, they colored on many walls, but they also broke through locked doors and disassembled a VHS player, which felt more teenage-years level breakage. In the elementary years, they broke and destroyed the things one would expect, such as toys, clothes and the occasional plate, but they also colored on walls on occasion. Well past the age I’d have thought they would know better.

As teenagers and young adults, they have, indeed, crashed my cars. Several times. They have also done things I expected a decade ago, but certainly not now. Such as affixing a sticker to my dining room table.

An adult child's prank created unexpected nostalgia. (Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune)
An adult child's prank created unexpected nostalgia. (Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune)

In all fairness, it's the exact same dining room table they’ve been destroying since they were toddlers, with an abundance of stains and scratches to prove it. There is even a spot where the top layer of paint was once removed in the exact shape of the heart-shaped sticker that was placed there. It’s at least 15 years old and difficult to make out, but still there, its outline a faint memory of childhood. So perhaps the young adult child who placed the sticker in 2020 was feeling nostalgic. I mean, it’s unlikely, but a mother can dream, right?

I sent out a group text with a photo captioned “What the heck, dudes?” but rather than anyone fessing up, a teasing exchange ensued where they all alluded to being the one who did it. A few days went by, then a week. I was rarely home, one of the few teachers in the city who taught in person throughout the fall and winter of 2020, my young adult children all in some sort of essential worker job as well. The sticker remained, brightly jumping out from the faded off-white table top, reminding me whenever I saw it that I should track down the culprit, but never at a time when any of said culprits were in the vicinity.

By the end of the week, I’d developed a weird, nostalgic relationship with the sticker. Its presence no longer made me irritated. I’d gone from wondering what in the living daylights was wrong with my children to pining for simpler times. The sticker reminded me of the days of their youth, when mother and children did everything together. When I felt I had all the happiness and answers, the price being an unkempt house with random stickers showing up in unexpected places. I felt centered as a stay-home parent, truly myself and content.

I decided to leave the sticker. We were in a pandemic, after all. No one was visiting my house for dinner. Months later, long after I’d ceased to really notice it, one of the kids casually mentioned he was surprised that I never removed his sticker. A culprit named at last. I thought about asking him to remove it, but instead spent the next 10 minutes reminiscing with him about ill-placed stickers of the past. A few days later, it was gone. He’d somehow removed it without ruining the paint.

I was, I’ll admit, slightly disappointed. It would have been a new battle scar for my ever-suffering dining room table … and a new spot of nostalgia for me.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at kmurphywrites@gmail.com.