Cleaning Up Our Act

SolesIt’s time. Past time, actually. Emma is 26 and has been living in Brooklyn for the last 18 months. She’s graduated not just from college, but to full independent living, not counting the occasional Trader Joe’s gift cards I send her. I do this when I become too anxious that trying to make it on $12 an hour in the Big Apple may force Emma into dumpster diving. (Possibly it is not the threat of starvation that might drive her to this, as you will see.) Also, Emma’s still on our Verizon family plan. I am convinced that when the stages of human development are revised for the current era, getting your own phone account will replace marriage, mortgages, and having children as the signposts of adulthood.  Still, aside from these minor caveats, Emma’s grown up. Gone.

Her stuff isn’t gone, though. True, she did a major purge to mark her graduation from college. But I might have been a tad too optimistic when I chronicled the demise of Emma’s hoarding days. She really just scratched the surface. One thing unearthed during that earlier excavation was that I am a hoarder by proxy, and I didn’t demand that Emma dig deeper. I believe that closets and basements were invented for hanging onto things until we are ready to let go.

Apparently, I haven’t been ready. Although I’ve professed a desire for a guestroom for years, Emma’s partially denuded bedroom has retained its status as part shrine, part dumping ground. The one thing we did get rid of after she left is her loft bed, so now even nimble guests (or returning daughters) have no place to sleep.

My husband and I finally got a new mattress, which provided the impetus to move the old one into Emma’s room and turn fantasy into reality. It is not quite the guestroom of my dreams. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to a dumping ground with a bed in the middle of it, surrounded by junk. Emma’s junk.

I wish I were the kind of mother who could just start tossing, confident that the appropriation of kids’ former space no longer induces trauma once they are old enough to fall off your health insurance under Obamacare. But I can’t. I’m an enabler.

It would probably be better, I think as I riffle through high school term papers and ugly glass figurines, to adopt a version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Don’t tell Emma about that mysteriously disappeared fake hand we got for Halloween one year, and she won’t ask. Or care. Or even know! But perhaps I have never gotten over the box of stuffed animals my mother tossed. More pragmatically, I regret that the baseball Jackie Robinson autographed for my husband when he was a boy did not survive a major move by his unsentimental (and financially unsavvy) parents.

I don’t want to make such mistakes, or make Emma’s decisions for her.So I hit upon the brilliant idea of taking iPhone pictures of stuff, then sending them to her so she can decide. Plus, if I succeed in the time-honored trick of substituting photos of stuff for the stuff itself, we’ll already have the photos! Cyberspace is such a vast new wasteland to clutter up, our humble collection will barely make a dent.

Hopeful, I arrange scarves, trinkets, purses on the bed, and send off my first batch with the subject line “Keep or Give Away?” I am careful to avoid the word “discard,” which sounds so dismissive and final. Maybe “give away”  might stimulate some deeply buried philanthropic urge.

“Save!” Emma emails in response, the act of hoarding itself apparently a rescue operation. This is not working. But then, a different response to one of the four pictures arrives: I am allowed to get rid of—sorry, give away–two hats.

So I send another photo, this one containing a pair of shoes and a pair of cowboy boots with holes that the Marlboro Man could ride his horse through. I’ve appended a message: “HUGE holes! Be brave!”

Emma writes back, “I really like the strange compositions of these photos you have been taking! But unfortunately I will have to ask you to retain this pile (it took me so long to find cowboy boots—I will get them resoled).”

And I will need to get re-souled into a different kind of mother, if I ever hope to have a guestroom.


Where are you on the spectrum from minimalist to hoarder? How do you deal with your grown kids’ stuff? How did your parents deal with yours?

8 thoughts on “Cleaning Up Our Act

  1. Our son is independent financially, other than medical insurance. Last winter her got fed up with Sprint and chose to get his own cell phone plan, but we have a few items of his left in what was his room, although my plan is to give them all to him this weekend when we see him. Not sure his love-in girl friend will be happy with my plan. We’ll see….

    • Congratulations, Heidi! According to my newly devised standards. your son is officially grown up! I await the day, though I see that I am a big part of the problem! Thanks for writing.

  2. We actually walled in an area of our below house storage (rat proofing), creating a room to hold my two sons’ ‘stuff.’ What does this say about my willingness to psychologically let go? The one who has officially moved to his own apartment (28 yrs old) has left behind books, school supplies and papers – I haven’t gotten around to sorting & discarding, and its doubtful he ever will unless they land in a box on his doorstep. My older son (34!) has minimalist sensibilities, and has lived in Germany for 11yrs, but still has the makings of a new, American household (silverware, futon, table) waiting in our basement. He’s asked us (with a warning tone) to hang onto these things.

    • This makes me feel better, Nancy, A whole walled-off room! Makes me wonder if Egyptologists ever theorized if the pyramids were storage areas parents kept for their grown kids, not tombs and send-offs for the afterlife!

  3. This is a complex issue. My parents still keep mementoes of mine and say they are keeping them for me- I say please do not. We are now at age and stage that we are also receiving too much stuff from parents who are downsizing. That is awkward as I would like to purge but then if they come to visit and wonder where it is. I suppose I could keep the boxes most of it resides in and they’d be none the wiser.

    • You are so right, Sue. My brothers had the task of sorting through our parents house because I lived on the opposite coast and had young kids when our parents died. While musing one day about whether or not to keep some memento from my daughters, my brother said, “THROW IT OUT!” And I never did like my mother’s jewelry she kept wanting me to have! Complex, indeed.

  4. Our family purged our entire basement last weekend. As we sorted through the clock radios, endless digital stuff, things my daughter made (and could care less about), I would move items from the give away/garage sale pile, and soon move them to the ‘save’ pile. But we are bound and determined to purge ourselves of things we don’t use right now. And I have to say we’re doing pretty well. Particularly because we are giving our book shelves, old coffee maker, etc. to my college students, antique and valuable furniture to friends I value and we are finding homes that need our ‘packed away in boxes for the future’ stuff.

    It is still unsettling but this process is clarifying and seems to lift the burden of those places you need to clean and sort from your psyche. I recommend blasting music, setting aside several hours to reflect on those items and then getting them to homes where they are appreciated.

    • That’s inspiring, Nancy–and I see I’m onto something with the philanthropic angle. You are so right about cleaning and sorting your psyche–in fact, I wrote a whole professional paper about the psychological aspects of hoarding. Was your daughter a part of the weekend? Or has she moved on literally as well as figuratively?

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