I clean out the house to make way for the future

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Some people do a massive spring clean. I hoe out the house in the fall.

Spring is too full of immediate chores – pruning the fruit trees, putting in the garden, getting a jump on the weeds, and winding up the school year – to consider turning out mattresses and going through closets.

But fall is the in-gathering, which necessitates culling to make space for all the stuff we're busy gathering in. Each year, I store a couple of hundred quarts of vegetables and fruits – the backbone of our meals – which need shelf and freezer space. But we reap more than we produce.

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Since my eldest child first entered nursery school 16 years ago, fall has also meant new pants and shirts and shoes to replace the old ones that no longer reach ankles and wrists or fit fast-growing feet.

September also initiates the harvest of notices, permission slips, and requests for volunteers for the school fair or the teacher-appreciation lunch. This blizzard of paper not only outlines my schedule, it also describes my membership in a community organized around child rearing.

This autumn influx of stuff has always triggered my latent urge to purge, an attempt to subdue the impending clutter by shoveling out the detritus of the past year. It's not only a way to control our physical surroundings, it's also a way to consign the past to the past and make room for the present and future to enter in.

The clearing has always been conservative rather than radical, since I've kept things as possibilities for the children's projects or future needs – scrap material for quilts, back issues of National Geographic, my mother's and grandmother's hats for dress-ups and then drama club.

And, while I've gone through cupboards and closets annually, I haven't touched the attic in years. The agglomeration there includes two old mattresses, unmatched crockery (possibly for a grown child's first apartment), obsolete navigational equipment, several sails, a portable crib, boxes of miscellaneous parts, bags of ornaments and wrapping paper, and three trunks of I'm not sure what. Until now, I haven't had the time or energy to tackle it.

But this year is different. This year, I've embarked on a total, long-term interior overhaul. In part, it's because I'm tired of having things for which (since I haven't searched for them for ages) we apparently have no use. But it is also prompted by the fact that we're about turn the page onto a new chapter in our lives: Empty Nest. The ultimate hoe-out. Last year, Matt went off to college. Next summer, if all goes as planned, Abby will leave as well.

When Matt moved out, I scoured his room in a way I hadn't done since he was old enough to put a "Keep Out" sign on the door. Two days after he left, I was on my hands and knees tweezing the arm of a plastic soldier out of the iron floor register (the result of a failed effort at about age 10 to drop Kamikaze Man through the grating onto the dinner guests below). I extricated tiny Legos wedged between the molding and floor, organized 10 years of Popular Mechanics, and hung up the watercolor he did of his grandfather playing trumpet for which my son won a prize in second grade.

I dusted and waxed and corralled stray candy wrappers that Matt, annoyed at an earlier unannounced hoe-out, once claimed were part of his decorating scheme. (Oh, please!) I found a place for everything and put everything in its place. But the effort was not simply reclamation.

As I dug down through years of accumulated stuff, I discovered that it was also an opportunity to examine pieces of our time together and to imagine how each of us might move into this next stage of our lives with confidence and grace. For him, that transition was embarkation. For me, it was letting go.

But this next one will be different. It will not only be another relinquishment, it will also be the winding down of a way of life. A much bigger change.

Now in her last year in high school, Abby is filling out college applications. While she anticipates sailing off into her own life, I am anticipating my retirement as a full-time parent.

I knew when I started this mom gig that despite its full-time hours and deep emotional commitment, it is designed to be a temp job. But for 20 years, it's occupied a huge space in my life. Even though I've also worked since my children were born and am passionate about that work, my days have been organized primarily around them and the school community that has helped to nurture them. They're clearing out, and I'm still not sure what to gather into the spaces in my life they're vacating.

So, I'm sorting. Eliminating debris helps to clarify the landscape both physical and mental. As I sort, I make 100 small decisions about what to keep and what to discard and why. And in that process, I hope to gradually assemble a vision of my future, an outline for this new chapter. I haven't got it together yet, but I'm not worried. Abby's here for a few more months. And I haven't even started on the attic.

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