When is it the right time to clean out an adult child’s long-unused room, go through years of accumulated possessions and decide what stays and what goes? Do you let your son or daughter make that decision or take matters into your own hands?
I’ve talked to friends who are still waiting for their long-departed 30-year-olds to deal with their stuff left at home. They are afraid that they will make the wrong decision if they do it themselves, incurring their child’s lasting resentment and years on a psychiatrist’s couch. Maybe they secretly hope this accumulated detritus will exert a magnetic field pulling their young adult closer. And I think on some level, parents worry that tossing their child’s moth-eaten stuffed animal, broken action figures, headless Barbies, awkward prom photos or yellowed high school compositions will send a message that it is no longer their child’s home.
I thought about this yesterday when I went through our son Ryan’s stuff. Ryan, now 25 and working in Europe indefinitely, gave us the OK to repurpose his room, which he had not inhabited steadily since 2006. With a few exceptions – his strongbox, three books and his most beloved teddy bear — he left it up to me to decide what stayed and what got tossed or donated.
“I think that anything I really wanted I would have taken with me,” said Ryan from his apartment in the UK, over a FaceTime connection that kept cutting out.
I told him I would pack everything that stayed into a box; offer any unwanted clothes to his brothers and deal with the rest.
That meant I was judge and jury for every artifact from his babyhood through his young adulthood crammed into his closet, drawers, nightstand and two rolling carts in his 11-by-13-foot room. Ryan has always been a relentless weeder, regularly giving away clothes that no longer interested him and tossing toiletries that outlived their usefulness. From his mid-teens he had a thriving eBay account, regularly buying electronics and other items that intrigued him then selling them when he tired of them. This made cleaning out his room even harder, because most of what remained was not trash, but a carefully curated collection of relics, all of them precious to some degree.
A few decisions were easy. I threw away expired vitamins and half-used toiletry bottles, decorated shot glass souvenirs from places he visited long ago. Notebooks from his college business courses got tossed, but not before I gazed at the dizzyingly complex mathematical equations, written in my son’s distinctive hand, and felt proud and amazed that he understood them. Letters from friends that he no longer talked about, photos from the summer camp where he spent six weeks, his old textbooks…all went into the discard or donate piles.
Some things that were saved: the three books he requested, including one that we had given him as a Christmas gift, a photo book with pictures from our former home in Pennsylvania, a tiny porcelain baby shoe engraved with his name, birth date and weight. A book entitled “20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair.” A Spanish/English dictionary that will be saved for Ryan’s younger brother, now in Spanish I. Paperwork for Ryan’s successful attempt to gain Irish citizenship, which paved the way for him to work anywhere in Europe and the tremendous opportunities of his current job. The binoculars left to him by his grandfather. A presentation booklet written by our long-ago babysitter in Pennsylvania, listing the dozens of special times she shared with Ryan and his sister Rachel. A strong box without a key, its contents a mystery.
But other decisions were not so easy. Deedee, the small white teddy bear that was his favorite, was easily a keeper, but what about the lesser stuffed animals? These ursa minors included a purple velveteen bear given to him by my long-ago work colleague; “Poochy,” a tiny bear with an adorable face and a purple sweater; and others that once crowded onto his single bed. Only Poochy made the cut, and I felt regret as I threw the others into the maw of the dark green trash bag, growing heavier by the minute with discarded memories.
I found a big cardboard poster created for Ryan’s high school graduation in the back of his closet. It was filled with photos that I thought I had misplaced long ago, but now realized they were here all along: the photo of him as a one-year-old wearing a seersucker onesie decorated with trains, Ryan dressed as a cheerleader at age 8 for Halloween, a closeup of Ryan as an infant with Rachel, Ryan on the fishing dock in Martha’s Vineyard. The photos – along with the eager acceptance letters from colleges, glowing with praise for Ryan — can be easily stacked and saved, but what about the heartfelt graduation messages scrawled on the cardboard? Likewise, what about the graduation cards that spoke of pride in our son’s accomplishments and confidence in his future? What of the notes from long-ago friends, thanking Ryan for his faith in them and for helping them through a difficult time?
I kept some things and tossed the others, grateful that the trash bag hid them from view, resisting the urge to peek in one more time and stoke my regret. What mattered now was the man Ryan had become, not the things he left behind. The purple velveteen bear, the letters from friends grateful for his friendship, the souvenirs from camp and from places he visited, are all part of who he is now. His future is a strong box without a key, filled with mysteries but secure.