PERHAPS I SHOULD have done it six years ago, when he first left for college. Though I punctuated the summer weekends with nagging over how he ought to be systematically and thoroughly organizing, sorting, and discarding the middle- and high-school lifetime of memorabilia and clothing accumulated in his bedroom, it all, of course, happened in the last six hours before he moved out of town. Unmatched socks and yet-to-be-washed underwear went pell-mell into duffel bags and suitcases, along with pounds of hockey equipment, half the supplies in the family medicine chest, and all of the microwave popcorn in the kitchen.
Did he have enough T-shirts? Would he need Polar Fleece? Were those cleats right for football? Who knew? No asking him—time to hit the road.
So I kept his room intact, drawers as merrily disorganized as he had always stuffed them, and I waited for phone calls asking for a favorite flannel shirt or an extra pair of sweat pants. A few calls came, though not enough to logically justify keeping his room looking as though he was about to walk back into it and ask, “What’s for dinner?” But logic, of course, had nothing to do with it.
He did return home after spring semester, but he worked long days at summer jobs and spent long nights with his friends. The only thing he used in that room was the bed, and had it mysteriously disappeared, he would likely have plopped down on a sleeping bag without a complaint. Still, I used his occasional and largely nocturnal presence as an excuse to leave his room untouched: prom picture tucked into the mirror frame, old football programs pinned to the bulletin board, high school English textbooks lined up on the bookshelf. When he left for his senior year of college, some part of me recognized that he would probably not be coming home again, at least on any permanent basis. Now and then, I made a half-hearted attempt at clearing out a drawer of protractors and No. 2 pencils, or arranging by color the shirts still hanging in his closet. No real progress, but I was working up to something.
As expected, he didn’t come home after graduating college. Instead of bringing him back to his old room, we moved him directly to his first job in Sioux City, Iowa. His place was small, so he had to leave a lot of his things at home. Fine with me. He moved to his second job, in Great Falls, Montana. His place is a little bigger; he has room for all his shirts. I shipped them out, and last time I returned from a long trip, I unpacked and left my suitcase sitting in his room, an admission that I might as well use the space for storage. Sometimes.
Then his younger brother ran out of socks, and raided his big brother’s long-abandoned closet for a pair. A shift in the tectonic plates of the family. A few days later, I opened the door to the room, looked around for a few minutes, and then walked around the bed to unplug his stereo. Not quite an earthquake, but a shudder, certainly. A bookcase was moved to another room. A dinosaur poster was donated to a younger cousin. Two favorite and thoroughly deflated bed pillows were replaced by ones that actually possessed stuffing. The rating on the Richter scale climbed. And then I caved. Sitting on the edge of his bed, I called him. “I’m changing your room around,” I said.
“Stop crying, Mom,” he said, almost laughing. “I don’t live there anymore.”
In fits and starts, in bits and pieces as big as I could manage without collapsing for hours into a chair sniffling over a box of Kleenex with his baby photo album, I’ve boxed him up and stored him away. The chaff, anyway; the things that matter only to him, or the things that seem useless but I still can’t bear to toss. But the wheat, we harvested, and sowed it here and there throughout the house: the hockey trophy in my office, the textbooks on the library shelf, the school mugs in the kitchen. Okay, so the prom photo is still tucked into the mirror. Don’t rush me.
This appeared in Minnesota Monthy magazine in October 2002.