When our kids are little, our houses can feel like an ever-changing art exhibit about their current phase in life. Class pictures, photos with Santa, art projects, and toys mark their “young years.” The outward signs that telegraph “a child lives here” to all who enter.
Later the collection expands to include backpacks, homework, cell phones, video games and make up. College brochures, SAT prep books, and car keys add the final touches to the “teen years” exhibit.
Thanks to a shared hatred of clutter and a fear of ending up on an episode of “Hoarders” someday, my wife and I have been pretty strict about sorting, purging, donating, or selling things that we don’t use or need anymore. My late mother’s voice rings in my ears “things are just things” and out stuff goes. Dolls, toys, clothes and books she outgrew were donated every year like clockwork.
The little girls down the street inherited the Barbie dolls and their three-level dollhouse (with elevator!) that we had to put together twice before we got it right one Christmas Eve. Some basement shelves hold her binders, scripts and notes from college classes, and a few AP test study guides that are waiting to be sorted through and tossed.
So, other than one drawing on our refrigerator, there really are no signs of her childhood in the rest of the house, or really any signs that a child was raised in this house at all. Except her room.
My Daughter Cleaned Some, But Not All, of Her Room Before College
A few weeks ago, my daughter agreed to another purge of her closet before she packed up to head back to college. I sat on the floor sorting and hanging and folding and advising amidst the shorts, dresses and about 3,000 t-shirts that landed where they were flung with abandon.
And from my vantage point I saw the past and present collide in her room in a way that so perfectly seemed to sum up where she was right now. With one foot firmly planted in college, one foot stepping out toward the future, and her shadow at home, like Peter Pan’s waiting for its owner to reclaim it.
I saw mementos of her month’s study in England next to a doll she received for her first communion. Her sixth-grade yearbook on the floor next to the table that held her brightly decorated 2017 graduation cap. Her dresser was literally covered with toiletries of all shapes and sizes, that had travelled to school, to Europe, and to her dad’s house.
This beauty aisle flotsam and jetsam provided ground cover for a jumble of jewelry, and several pairs of old eyeglasses I insisted she keep as ‘emergency backup.’ Turning my attention back to the closet I could literally see her life progress—a first communion dress next to a prom dress next to a graduation gown while a dance bag with a tangle of old leotards and tights lay underneath it all. And old baby quilt was folded over a set of hanging drawers bursting with bras and tank tops.
Her bookshelves held the latest by Jodi Piccoult and Kristin Hannah, feminist texts for her college studies, the copy of Little Women I gave her in the hopes she’d fall in love the with March girls the way I had, the embarrassing remnants of her Twilight Phase, and some cherished children’s books. The walls were a collage of photos from her middle and high school years with huge conspicuous gaps where she had removed certain ones to hang on her dorm walls.
I’m not going to lie, for a while I had been ready to demand a good, long thorough cleanout of all the contents of her room. I was ready to ship the books off to a local daycare, to toss the pile of cards and notes, to spackle and repaint the walls.
“We need to do something about this room!” was my usual thought every time I entered. But when I took the time to really look at its’ contents, I was struck by the fact that this was the one room that contained the accumulated evidence of her life. It was the one place in the house where every object held a memory, as corny as that sounds. And those memories were hers to keep or dispose of – not mine.
And as I got ready to face our third college year, our third year with her room still and empty (save for her cat who loves to lay mournfully on her bed looking at me as if I purposefully sent his girl away), our third year of the quiet, adult calm I’d craved for so many years – I got a little sad.
Because someday the honor cords and yearbooks and the stuffed moose I brought her from a work trip (to assuage my guilt) will all be gone. The closet will have extra hangers in it, the room will be painted a neutral shade- its teenage pink long forgotten –and it will stay clean, and empty, and boringly still. Because someday she will be gone – really gone—as well.
I know. I know. Circle of Life. Fly the nest. Every cliché you can think of I already know. And I truly can’t wait to see what her bright future brings her after college. But in the meantime, I’ll suffer the chaos of her room a little longer. I’ll play with the cat, dust the yearbooks, and resolve to never give away that stuffed moose. Turns out he’s very comforting to cuddle when you’re lonely.
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