In a pre-holiday purge this week, I dumped out my junk drawer. It’s the little one in the kitchen by the stove where I put things that don’t belong anywhere in particular. I only open this drawer to put things in it for later. For later. What is this mighty later? From the story the contents of this drawer told me, the later lives despite these parts and pieces of our past. And this past shrapnel just collects like lint until every single bit of what has been tumbled out of our lives becomes a throw-away…except what matters most. So why even keep a drawer like this in the first place?
I stared at that pile of random stuff and I was frozen. My son is going to college this year, and my nest is imminently empty. It felt like every single one of those items needed to go back in that drawer by the stove, or my life would somehow be…as un-storied as it will be un-peopled. If I put all of those pieces of our past into their appropriate places and got rid of the items that had no use at all, (like the god-knows-how-old lone Advil Liquid Gel), I would render the drawer empty. What would go in there now as I move into this later? This unknown next chapter of my life.
There would be no need for a broken crayon, a butterfly sticker, a purple guitar pick. Okay, maybe a purple guitar pick. Maybe a euro, because you never know when you might hop on a plane for Italy, right? Isn’t empty nest all about travel? Spreading your wings and giving to yourself again after twenty-one years of putting your children first? I looked into the empty drawer: Maybe as I move into this later, there’ll still be heart shaped rocks in that drawer, because there’ll always be heart shaped rocks if I have anything to do with it. Maybe a set of readers missing a lens. But not a pink birthday candle, and definitely not Nerf gun pellets—one orange, one camo. And probably not a pair of dice. I stood there feeling so foolish, thinking, Will my little lost misfit items be reduced to batteries and emery boards and nail clippers and loose change?
So what did I do? I put it all in a colander and left it on the kitchen desk. Along with the empty drawer. There’s a hole in the wall by the stove where it goes, but I’m not ready to fill it. I need the weekend. So I dared myself: my daughter comes home for the holiday in one week. I’d give myself until then to empty the drawer. It was like those misfit items were part of my life-sustenance. I mean, who can’t live without a Sharpie nearby? You never know when you might need a handful of dry wall screws. Or a few drops of peppermint oil. Or an old battery.
How could I be so attached to such minutia? How could a pile of random stuff make me want to bawl my eyes out? Have I learned nothing about the art of letting go?
But…what if nothing goes into that little drawer anymore at all? What if my life in this later…doesn’t have misfits? What if everything starts to match up? Who will I be if I don’t have a phone call from school asking me to dig up a permission slip somewhere and race it into town, or a last-minute schedule change on a mandatory parents’ meeting, or a baseball game that overlaps with a business call so that I’m racing out the door to at least catch the last innings, or texts like: “Can I have the football team over for a team dinner?” Or “I need new cleats. For tomorrow’s game.” Or “The headlight is out on the truck.” Or “We’re doing a special Veteran’s Day concert today. You don’t have to come. It’s not a big thing…”
If my moments and projects and trains of thought go uninterrupted by my hands-on motherly duties and pleasures, if I methodically complete each one and then it’s on to the next, what will go in that little drawer? Loose change?
They say that the one thing you can count on is change. But loose? In dimes? In euros?
I have a kitchen desk where paperclips and pens and the stapler and stamps live, a home office where my files and work supplies live. I have a bedroom desk where my special personal items live. My living room and closet are flanked by bookshelves. There’s a home for just about everything. This little misfit drawer is a placeholder for what is moving in my life: the could-be’s and what if’s and might need’s and never know’s. It’s a drawer of possibility for a life that is full of them. Not a life that is all in its “right” place.
I stood there wondering, Do I want that sort of order? Am I so afraid of it? Have I loved the organized chaos of raising children too much?
Last night the huge moon woke me up in its shadows, and I lay there, in menopausal night sweats, whipping the covers off and on, cold hot cold hot, fretting.
In the hot flashes: “When he leaves, where will my motherhood go?”
And in the cold: “You were just as scared when your daughter went to college. But you were okay. You really were.” She was happy and that eclipsed how much I missed her in the daily responsibility of curating her life. She’s good at curating her own now.
But lying there in that white-blind moonlight, I knew that a large part of that contentment had to do with knowing I had four more years with my son at home, to help him through his teens. And here I am: I have to start the purge. Not just in that drawer, but all over this house. It’s time to begin letting go of the proof of our story in stuff that has no place here anymore. Make room for new stuff. New story.
Something tells me that I’ll learn to purge the small things first, and when August comes and I leave my son in his dorm room…and I cry my way back over the Rockies, I’ll come into my house and I’ll have the courage to put something in that little drawer that is holy “junk.” Like one heart shaped rock. Or a whole drawer of them. Maybe I’ll put the almost-heart-shaped rocks in there. The ones that look more like L’s. And when I miss my children, I’ll go to the drawer, and pick one out and hold on to it for a while and know that I’m not an almost-mother to that boy and girl. I will always be a mother to that boy and girl. It’s just going to be different now. With both of them gone. And no childhood to keep.
I hope that this holiday, as my children and I sit around the fire, gazing up at the tree and sharing gifts, that there will be something, something, that ends up in that little drawer. I won’t force it—I never have. But if I find myself opening it, in one of those in-between moments, I hope that I’ll catch myself and smile and know that life keeps going. It doesn’t empty out. Even if it’s in loose change.
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Laura Munson is a New York Times and international best-selling author, and founder of the acclaimed Haven Writing Retreats.