There were seven of us in our five-bedroom house. Every closet overflowed with toys and clothes and shoes. Oh, the shoes. The kitchen cabinets were crammed with three incomplete and chipped sets of dishes, mismatched pots and pans, souvenir cups and mugs from trips long since forgotten. The garage stored old soccer balls, bikes with flat tires, thee old tents, and an assortment of tools and yard equipment. There were a lot of us, including three pets, and a tidal wave of stuff.
And then one day it all started to empty.
My nest began to empty.
First, our oldest moved out of state for work. Our next boomeranged off to college, back home, then the Army. The next fled with a severe case of Eighteen-itis to live with friends. The next, soared off to college in Chicago. And then my husband passed away after a long battle with heart disease. And finally, our youngest left this fall for college in St. Louis.
They took some of their stuff, sure. And after losing my husband, I eventually went through his things, kept what was meaningful and donated the rest. But I felt a crushing weight of all the stuff that remained that I no longer used or needed. So, room by room, with a Marie Kondo attitude, I started sorting and donating and packing things up. I organized a box of memorabilia for each child. And although I left the rooms of my college kids relatively untouched, I cleaned, organized, paired down, donated.
I began to purge our stuff and it felt great.
I opened the linen closet. Did I need nine beach towel, 16 old bath towels, three hand towels and one tattered washrag? No. I donated them all and bought two new sets of guest towels. The game closet was next. I tossed Hi Ho Cheerio, kept Crimes Against Humanity. Goodbye three versions of Monopoly and countless board games with missing pieces. As I filled garbage bags and boxes with things I no longer needed, it felt freeing and the dopamine soared.
The garage was the most rewarding. I listed things on Craigslist and Marketplace and slowly but surely the hoard shrunk. What’s in there now, you ask? A few tools and a car. Yes, my car is in the garage for the first time since we bought the house 18 years ago.
I moved on to my closet. I donated everything that didn’t fit, which was pretty much everything. My fat pants I had kept—just in case. My skinny pants I had kept—just in case. Who was I kidding? It all went.
Purging gave me a high. Each day I sought out a new closet or cabinet or drawer to organize and discard its contents. I moved on to the kitchen and thinned it all out to just the essentials, one set of dishes, one still mismatched set of flatware, fewer memorabilia mugs. Do I need six spatulas? I think not. And that crazy cache of plastic containers? I kept four that I found lids for and tossed the rest. Under the island was a tween’s treasure of ridiculous plastic appliances including a gummy bear maker, a slushie machine, and a cake pop kit. They’re gone.
It didn’t stop there. I pitched tchotchkes and knickknacks and bric-a-brac. I cleaned off tabletops and countertops. How many coasters do I really need? Two throw pillows seem plenty. My friends were jealous. They had hoarder husbands or nests still teeming with collectors-of-the-Happy-Meal-Toys.
They thumbs-upped my snapchats of empty closets and bags of items headed to Goodwill. But then one asked, “It’s a bit addicting, isn’t it?” And I looked at myself, a garbage bag in one hand, dog toys in the other. Perhaps I was taking this too far. I couldn’t look my poodle in the eye.
And so I stopped. I regrouped. I took another direction. With a small pile of home improvement money gathering dust in an untouched account, I decided that, that too, should be purged. I booked painters and handymen to remove dusty curtains and heavy wall décor and varying shades of browns, greens and golds. I wanted modern, sleek and minimalist.
I moved the car out of the garage and moved furniture in until sold. I didn’t need a sofa-back table. Or a now-empty sideboard in my dining room. Or the accent chair. If I never use the occasional table, what does that make it?
The heavy area rugs felt oppressive, so I rolled them up and hauled them out. And the workers rolled in and the paint rolled on. Gray walls, crisp white baseboards. Black doorknobs. I bought a new sofa. I sold my huge wood dining table with both leaves and eight chairs and bought a small glass table. I got rid of my dark sheets and brocade comforter and replaced it with crisp white linens, like a hotel.
Now I sit in my house that no longer echoes of what was (though it does actually echo now). It is no longer weighted down by the shadows of the past. Instead, it reflects a new me. An uncluttered, unhampered, unburdened—though just a little too empty, me.
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Kate Robertson lives in Texas and is mom to five mostly grown children. She finds herself caretaker of the empty nest, keeper of the stuff, tender of the poodle, parrot, and ferret, and adviser to the uninterested. A former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, she now edits college application essays and you can follow her blog, Alone in the Nest: Life After the Last One Leaves, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.