The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Clean House August 12, 2012

Almost there. Hoo boy – I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Spent a good ten hours yesterday in my office, filing and tossing reams of paper. The recycling boxes fill up and the inbox goes down. Finally. After months and months of piling up. The going isn’t so easy at first; I find it hard to stay focused, hard to work for more than fifteen minutes in a row. The piles, the boxes, it all looks like way too much. I reward myself with snacks, with little trips outside to check for eggs or other domestic details that could use attention. I file for ten minutes, then I fill the bird feeder. I file some more, then I go upstairs and wash the dishes. Finally, my house – the upstairs, that is – is as put together as a model home. There are no more distractions. I need to get down to it now. Sigh.

In the end, it was the Turner Classics channel that got me through; a James Mason marathon, from ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ to ‘Lolita’ kept me entertained as I slogged through the monotonous project . It’s a mind-numbing, exhausting job to file a year’s worth of life on paper. Divorce, bankruptcy, health issues, governmental assistance, the life of a low-vision advocate – it’s all represented here in papers I must keep somewhere. Papers I must be able to locate easily. Somehow I’ve managed to navigate through the past four years without much of a permanent filing system; my life exists in two boxes: one marked ‘current, to-do’ and one marked ‘archive, done’. Not the most efficient system, but in the eye of the storm, in the midst of a full and busy life, it’s easy to let it go. So far I’ve made it work, but every time I sit down at my desk there’s a knot in my stomach. Am I sure where my auto insurance policy is? My income and expense sheet from last semester? My masters for teaching handouts? Kind of, but not really. I admit it, I’ve had a problem with paper for years. It was even a source of stress between me and my husband. I always contended that I needed time to set up a system, and that I felt life moved too fast for me to catch up. In some ways I still agree with that – there’s always been so much going on that it always took a back seat. But no more. Finally, I have the time and space to deal with it. I’m catching up. Getting my system in place. And man, it feels great.

A big part of my current paper-related challenge is the volume of Elihu’s artwork. I know many moms probably share this struggle; what to keep and what to toss. I once asked friends of mine who have four children how they decided what to keep and what to get rid of. They told me that they saved much of it, and at some point had each child go through it and save what was meaningful to them. I liked that, and have used that technique myself, but in of itself it’s not enough. My son is an artist. Prolific, yes, but honestly, he is good. I mean really good. So I can’t just toss his work. I have to go through it. Elihu’s got a thing, and in going through the past fours year’s of his artwork, I find myself fascinated with his evolution. In the end, I managed to negotiate my way through the huge catalog by dividing his art by not only years but by the quality or the ‘importance’ of the work. I found dozens of incomplete drawings in which I can see him working on ideas, a wing or body shape, perspective and such, and so I keep a few of these in a file to be tucked away, but I reserve only the very best and final drawings to be inserted into a large book. I put all the art into plastic sleeves and in turn put them into three ring binders. Two large binders end up representing his work so far – along with a letter from David Attenborough and one from Senator Farley commending him on his art – and they are now tucked neatly into his bookshelves in an exceedingly tidy and organized bedroom.

As for the garage – the ultimate vortex of crap – I have managed to heap all the trash outside and have cleaned and set aside useful items for their new owners to come and pick up. The breadmaker and lamps left today, more toys will go tonight, and tomorrow I’ll deliver a few things on my round of errands. The rest will go to the Salvation Army, and the garbage will be picked up by Frank, my favorite junkman. (Not without cost to me; it always takes a good $75 to rid myself of the final dregs. I just hope this is the last time I’ll need to call him in for help.!) I stand so very close to completion of this project that I find myself in a constant state of low-grade anxiety about it. I look at the piles waiting in the driveway and tell myself ‘just a few more days…’

My office isn’t quite finished, however. I have piled boxes of all sizes on a wall of bookshelves which I have covered in a sheer film of deep orange curtains. Just sheer enough so that I don’t forget the task ahead of me, but just pretty enough to allow myself some peace when I sit down at my desk. CDs from old bands of mine, master DATs, probably now degraded beyond usefulness, unsorted photographs, schoolwork of Elihu’s kindergarten and first grade years, tax docs from my married years, paperwork from the Cafe I used to run back in Dekalb, pens, pencils, office supplies and every manner of long-forgotten but hard-to-let-go-of mementos from years of travel… all this and more await my attention. Yesterday tackling the wall seemed insurmountable, today it seems vaguely possible. I stare at it, taking it all in, and I wonder, how do other people deal with all of their life’s crap? Years ago I had a woman help me organize my files. She and her husband were able to keep their possessions to a mere couple of file drawers. They moved frequently, and were able to pick up and pack up in short order. How? I grilled her – where were the postcards from old friends, the letters, the key chains and tchotchkes? Apparently they had none. I still didn’t really come to understand how they came to live a life so free of physical stuff. Apparently she approached life in a far different way than I. So often I’ve encouraged friends to get rid of stuff by reminding them that the stuff is not the love they shared with a person, nor is it the person, nor does the loss of the stuff remove the memory or the experience from their lives. I tell myself the same things. In fact, I have to coach myself hard and heavy when it comes to letting things go. Throwing things away. Jesus warned us not to ‘store up treasures of the earth’… Good advice. I’ve already learned how much heartbreak comes of mice and moths.

So I power on. I steady myself for the final wall, for the last few weeks of vacation and a child-free life and the ability to get it all done without interruption. The final weeks of my intensive house cleaning and a very nice end to a wonderful summer. What a fine thing it will be to start the new school year with a clean slate – and a very clean house.

 

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