A Seasonal Heave-Ho to Clutter

I'VE often wondered if spring cleaning is a learned or intuitive behavior. Surrounded by green-tipped starts and swollen flower blossoms, I'm compelled to order my life, to rid myself and my home of the clutter that sits like so many dead leaves on last winter's vegetable beds. This season is the time when I climb up on a chair and clear the top of the refrigerator. I am stalled by what I find there.

The predictable items, the bread basket and the wooden candle box, slide off easily along the dustless path made during many months of transit to the counter below.

The surprises come when I remove the basket that sits at the back of the refrigerator top. It sticks a bit, like a rock that has settled deeply into soil, but then gives way, dislodging all the empty coffee sacks that I could recycle at the market - sacks I keep forgetting.

The basket is full of items that defy categorization.

I find a little book of quotes by women that I searched for during the better part of a winter afternoon. Under the book is a pink plastic bracelet that found its way to the refrigerator top one night when my daughter bet her brother she could lob it from the bathroom doorway. Getting it up there was easier than he suspected; it was getting it back down that proposed the challenge.

At the bottom of the basket is a roll of kite string that can be added to the string collection we started when we couldn't find the last roll we bought.

I take down the pile of wildlife magazines that my children argued over until I placed them on top of the refrigerator while they decided who had rightful ownership. They've since forgotten the fight, as well as the solution, if there was one. They spread out the magazines on the living room rug and recline against the sofa, reading about Africa and other warm, dry countries, while outside a spring storm gusts the trees and bends the just-blossomed flowers.

The last item out of the basket is a small recycled pickle jar that holds stray pieces of jigsaw puzzles found over the months. I use the jar consistently every year until about March when the pathway to the back basket becomes obscured by coffee sacks, tennis balls, and other items that dam up entry as effectively as a concrete wall.

Then, sometime in April, I begin to put stray pieces of puzzle into what my family calls "the miscellaneous drawer." The top of the refrigerator is as tight and clean as a hospital bed compared with this drawer that I reorganize only when it will no longer open - every five years or so.

When all the items are off the top of the refrigerator, I clean the enamel finish and begin the process that repeats itself every spring. I rescue the puzzle pieces from the dense confusion of the miscellaneous drawer and add them to the glass jar that is almost full, wondering while I do this if we still own the puzzles that are missing these pieces.

My children have finished the magazines and have shelved them with the books in the living room - not a perfect place, but good enough. I give my daughter her bracelet. She puts it into her bathroom drawer where it will be ready for future games.

The rest of the items have self-dusted in their dislodgings; I toss them back in the basket and slide it to the back of the refrigerator top.

My friend Gail never cleans the top of her refrigerator because, she says, she always thinks of doing it when she's just cleaned her floors, and she's afraid the floors might get dirty. I think she has the right idea in leaving items to gather so much dust that to take them down might disturb an entire indoor ecosystem. Still, every spring, when I have the chance for a new beginning, I go to the refrigerator. I told my daughter once that people often deserved a second chance. "You mean like a start over? " she asked.

"Not every time," I warned, with visions of please-Mom-can-I-start-overs surrounding me like a bad joke, "but when you really want to make or do something better, you ought to be able to try...."

Some history, though, is never erased, and while it is desirable to start out perfectly clean, the basket of relics is a reminder of the past that gives the present a proper perspective.

While some of the old pieces of my life don't fit anymore, some I like to dust off from time to time and place into the present, or put back in the basket to forget about until later when I start over.

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