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I headed downstairs this week for a quick clean-up, and stumbled upon the toys of Christmas past.

Lying on the floor of our basement playroom was the computer version of "Guitar Hero." Although it cost almost a hundred bucks, it couldn’t compare with the video version that "everyone else" got for Christmas last year.

I put it in the closet with all the lonely games that are not popular enough to hang out in our living room where we do most of our living.

If a toy isn’t being played with, it makes its way to the cool, dark, not-as-fun-as-the-upstairs basement. About once a year, I go through everything and send the loneliest toys to the base thrift store or Salvation Army.

Usually, I’m going through toys and cleaning up the basement in August, when the kids have enjoyed just enough summer vacation to be driving me crazy.

Besides being cool, the basement is also quiet … until one of them finds me down there.

Now, I’m beginning to rethink my whole clean-up schedule due to my recent visit to our own toy graveyard. It delivered a big pre-Christmas wakeup call.

There was a lot of junk down there, such as a million Hot Wheels cars, baskets of stuffed animals and enough guns and spy gear for James Bond. The dozens of decks of cards were all mixed up in a big pile in a corner of the room.

When I relocated that unpopular guitar, I didn’t even recognize any of the board games in the closet. Most of them were educational games well-intending relatives gave the boys as gifts.

The games will make great items to donate because I can guarantee all the pieces are there. Now, someone else’s grandmother can go out and buy a learning game for her grandson to hide in his closet!

We still have a few dozen videocassettes down there, too, although I’m not sure if we even have a VCR up and running in our home.

Even less popular than the games in our basement are the books relegated to the hard-to-reach shelves down there. It is the place I where I keep signed copies by favorite authors and other fancy books that aren’t really meant to be read.

All the good ones with the worn covers and torn pages are upstairs in the kids’ rooms where they belong. The really good ones are scattered around the living room floor.

Just as cleaning up the basement showed me which toys were a waste of holiday cash, it also revealed which favorites have stood the test of time.

All those Hot Wheels we have collected over the years continue to get their fair share of mileage. The same goes for Ronnie’s Legos, which used to be Tommy’s Legos after they were Jimmy’s Legos.

When I finally emerged from the basement with my vacuum cleaner in one hand and a bag of broken toys in the other, I resolved to learn something from the time I spent down there.

Could the toys of Christmas past teach me something about making wiser choices this year? The answer will be waiting for me when the dust gets so thick that I once again dare to clean up.

A mother of three boys, Pam Zich has been married to a Marine for 18 years and currently lives in Springfield, Va. You may e-mail her at homefront@stripes.osd.mil or visit her Web site at www.lifeonthehomefront.com

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