The Big Spring Clean continues full steam ahead. On Day 15, I am past the halfway point and I feel absolutely liberated. (For those of you just tuning in – I am getting rid of 27 things a day for 27 days. So that’s over 400 items gifted or discarded since March 20th!).
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of The Big Spring Clean is the fact that today I finished cleaning out my guest room/office-to-be. It’s been a sore spot for me for over two years, cluttered with boxes and assorted stuff. It’s the bedroom right next to mine and it used to be my daughter’s room. Two and a half years ago, as she was becoming a young lady, I convinced her to take the bedroom across the way from me instead, a bigger one with a walk-in closet. Then, when she was away with her father for their annual summer vacation, I surprised her with the move. I had all our upstairs hardwood floors refinished, every bedroom professionally painted, and I got new bedding and chandeliers. Voila! Brand new, super-comfy bedrooms for us all.
Except, in my haste, everything I didn’t quite know what to do with got piled in her old room. I only had two weeks to re-do the whole upstairs so the room grew into a tangle. It looked overwhelming. I shut the door. Every time I thought of tackling it, a quick glimpse left me feeling like I couldn’t possibly cope with it. As weeks turned to months, I piled on a sense of self-loathing over the dread. How could I be so lazy? When guests came to stay, I gave them my room, slept on the couch and hated myself for not having the guest room ready.
Then, when I began the Big Spring Clean two weeks ago, I told myself, “Just 27 things.” Not all of it, but 27. I didn’t go in there every day (there were plenty of other areas with 27 things to spare), but every few days I focused my attention on that room. Today, 27 things left me tantalizingly close to clearing out the room completely, so I decided to go for it.
I was getting the last things out of her old closet when the tears came. It wasn’t even that I’d seen anything particularly sentimental: just a few old socks that had been too worn to make the transition from old room to new. I’m not sure what the trigger was, exactly. But I realized as I felt a deep grief that I remembered exactly when I’d last seen that closet empty that way. I’d been eight and a half months pregnant and newly moved in to the house, when the young woman who needs the walk-in closet had been a baby in my belly.
It was early 2000. My nesting instinct was strong and I was absolutely obsessed with getting her room ready before she was born in late January. So, my massive stomach and I went to Home Depot just after New Year’s and picked out a beautiful butter yellow paint (yellow because I didn’t know the baby’s gender before she was born) and then slowly, pregnantly, painted it, all wobble and clumsiness, the windows wide open in mid-winter just be sure we weren’t breathing in fumes.
We’d just moved into the house on Christmas Eve. The holidays were a busy season at my husband’s business, so I spent the last days of my pregnancy mostly alone. The baby’s room was the first one in the house I claimed as my own, for me and for her. Probably no room held so many hopes and fears, so many fledgling plans, so much innocence and apprehension. Even massively pregnant, it still seemed impossible that I could pull off being someone’s mom. Painting her room was a way of proving my worthiness, of making ready, of showing her how much she meant to me. I painted every wish for her, every terror at my inexperience, every ounce of love into that room. When I was done, I sat in the middle of the room in my splashed preggo overalls and looked at the job. It wasn’t perfect (I’m terrible at that spot where the ceiling meets the wall) but it was an act of absolute devotion. I couldn’t wait to meet her.
Today, the memory of that feeling washed over me intensely when I took the last thing out of the closet. It was layered with something else now, the fifteen years of story that have transpired since. I now know the answer to so many of the questions I had the day I painted it. I know that, yes, I can be a mother, and, no, she wouldn’t need her room the day she was born and, no, clean butter-yellow walls don’t stay clean for long once baby learns to walk. I know now that, in fact, the room stayed butter-yellow only until she had something to say about it, turning first into her preschool hot pink and, later, to her school-age hideous eggplant purple (the color it still is today). I know the story of the fifteen years we’ve traversed, the giggles and the heartbreaks, the tantrums and the long talks and the countless nights of stories and of just-one-more-glass-of-water-before-I-fall-asleep.
But I think it was the things that I know now but I didn’t know then that brought the tears today. The fact that I couldn’t possibly have known how much she’d feel like sand slipping through my fingers. How I can feel the same about so many things these fifteen years later and yet still be indelibly changed by the crucible of motherhood. How the things that were hardest about mothering – the constant clothes washing, the crayon on the walls, the tasks that seemed never-ending – would be the things that would most burrow in my heart and make me remember. I saw two old Easter stickers stuck in a remote corner of her closet as I finished cleaning it out, shiny and pastel. With clothes and baskets in the way, I’d never seen them before. God knows when she put them there, back when stickers were a thing to her. Ten years ago those stickers would have driven me crazy. Today, they were a cherished message in a bottle that had been cast into the water a long, long time ago by a little girl who is no longer in my life in the way she was the day she put those stickers up.
I sat in the same spot where I’d regarded my butter-yellow handiwork fifteen years before and cried, deep, soulful sobs, weirdly hugging a stool that had inexplicably found its way to the center of her room (where it had never lived before). I must have known, somewhere deep, that emptying out this room would be hard, and so I avoided it all this time. Finally finished, I felt a profound emotion that was nameless. Not sadness, really, but certainly not joy. Noticing, I guess, and seeing the inexorability of change. I let it wash over me. When it felt it might be subsiding, it came in another wave. I hugged the stool and cried. I let it happen until it didn’t want to happen anymore.
It started by feeling terrible but morphed into just feeling. I observed it some more, wondering if it wasn’t just me labeling emotion as negative when all it was was emotion. I checked in. I’m not sad to no longer have babies. I’m glad to be the woman I am today and not the insecure and scared, pregnant twentysomething. I’m happy with how things have turned out. I love my daughter much more profoundly and in a more nuanced way than I possibly could have when our relationship just consisted of her kicking my ribs. I feel something strong about the history of that room, but I know my daughter will always be mine, our bond stronger than ever even as her inevitable flight out of the nest draws near. I was feeling love, powerful, massive, changing, mournful, all the things that love can be, and its many implications: connection, vulnerability and, always, the portent of loss. It blasted the core of me, but it didn’t diminish me. I realized I wasn’t blocked because I was too lazy to clean out the room, but because I was afraid. I’d avoided the experience, but when it came, I was happily surprised to learn I was ready for it.
I finished cleaning out the last of the room. I have plans for it, a solid desk, a pretty vase on top of it, a view of my garden as I write, a sofa bed for guests. But first I have to paint it. And maybe my daughter will help. After all, we’ve painted it together before.