Separating clutter from sentiment is not so easy. From my newspaper column.
When the first warm breeze blows into our long, bitter winter, my boys are sure that this is the signal of the end. Within minutes, they’ve scrambled to the attic, pulled the lids off the storage tubs, and are soon wearing their long lost and forgotten t-shirts and shorts. It is only March, and Ohio weather can turn bitter cold in a span of just a few hours. Yet, the boys believe, with all their hearts that summer has settled into the earth for good.
The tangled mess of clothes they’ve left, running like a river down the hallways, with tributaries running to each of our bedrooms, is the starting point of my spring-cleaning; a more intense effort of my yearlong efforts to sort, purge and clean.
Warm March days are made for opening the windows, before the insects awake, to let the high winds carry out the dust. Before the cleaning comes the purging; to free our home from the stress of stuff. Scientists say that even if we aren’t looking at the clutter that fills a room, our brain must work harder to filter out the objects in the periphery, just so it can focus.
Clutter is a 3-D visual reminder of what is unfinished. Rarely used objects are symbols of procrastination, unfinished plans, and of who we are not. The rules are simple: trash it, donate it, or use it. There is also the one-year box trick; put items in a box, and if you haven’t opened the box in one year, give it away – without opening the box.
This stripped, popsicle-stained t-shirt, lying on the floor, that no longer fits any boy in this house, is a good place to start. Experts advise me to separate emotion from things; sentimentality is out. This is not the time to reflect on the days this shirt was worn to pick blueberries, or its sunset appearances at Picnic at the Pops, or the catnaps taken in the stroller while wearing this shirt. Not the time to remember the days when the presence of a Popsicle kept them blissful for at least 20 minutes, and transformed me into their heroine.
Each shirt is like a page in a scrapbook; evoking memories of places, miss-pronounced words, and smiles I have forgotten to remember. “How do you let these go?,” I want to ask the clutter experts. “Take a snapshot,” they will answer. A photo will never capture that little boy smell that doesn’t wash away, the softness of the fabric that once covered their skin.
The de-cluttering experts will tell me that hanging onto things that no longer have a purpose keeps me stagnant. So, I purge my own closet, ridding myself of belts and purses and out-of-style jeans. Vases I no longer love, (regardless of the sender) and even the cast that cradled my leg at the age of two. (The one item that I do regret purging.) I toss the junk mail religiously, along with the uneaten leftovers in the fridge. Our counters are clean and clear; at least for a few minutes each day.
As for the stained t-shirt, I’ll keep this; it’s not a shirt, it’s a memoir. I’ll pack it away along with the sweaters we won’t need for the next few months. Next fall, when I pull out this Christmas tree sweater, the one he insisted on wearing post-season through March, I can only imagine what memories it will evoke.