One True Thing

Life's questions, big and small

One Mom's Trash is Her Son's Treasures

The big pre-college clean-up uncovered some surprising emotions.

For years, my son Drew and I had a deal: his bedroom was his own domain, subject only to his very loose definitions of orderly and clean. Frankly, I grew tired of the weekly battles, complete with impassioned cries: “Those papers aren’t trash, they’re important. The dirty clothes don’t bother me, why should you care? It’s my room.” So when Drew was in high school I finally learned to reign in my Swifter at his doorway. By his senior year, I stopped stealthily scooping up an armload of laundry from his floor. Instead, I just firmly shut the door.

Part of our agreement in that last year of high school was that we’d clean his room together before he left for college. Secretly, I planned on transitioning the space into my writing respite.

When the agreed upon cleaning day arrived, I cracked open the door hesitantly. All of Drew’s clothes were in a suitcase instead of strewn across the floor, so that was a good sign. “Where should we begin,” I asked.

“I’m going to a movie in an hour, so…” Drew’s voice trailed off into a shrug. Clearly, he wasn’t nearly as excited about our bonding over dust rags and trash bags as I was.

I scoured under the dresser for crumpled term papers and math homework, thinking how I’d get rid of this albatross I’d had in my room as a child and replace it with a writing desk. “Doesn’t it feel good to toss some of this junk?” I said, adding a stack of books to the donation box.

“Yeah, sure,” Drew mumbled. Out of the corner of my eye I spied him retrieving a panda bear missing an ear from under his bed. He shoved it quickly into his suitcase.

Pandy had served as Drew’s night-time protector, back when he was a toddler afraid of the coyotes that live in the woods across the street and sometimes howl at night. “They can’t break into our house, can they?” he whispered, gray eyes solemn and wide, as I tucked him into bed. Pandy was perched right next to his pillow.

“They’re more afraid of you than you are of them, Drewser,” I had reassured him. “Besides,” I added, wiggling my fingers close to his face until he cracked a smile. “Coyotes don’t have thumbs! They can’t open windows or doors, right?”

Looking at the eighteen-year-old young man staring from his dresser, to his closet, and mostly out the window, it hit me how much things have changed since he was terrified of rogue coyotes. Now, he was going off to college to study wildlife conservation. He was even talking about volunteering at a safe haven for wolves the following summer. Still, that little boy who fell asleep cocooned in Power Rangers sheets, clutching a stuffed panda, was very much alive in this room. And he didn’t have a clue what “junk” to toss.

Watching Drew, I began to see this room through his eyes. This same room where I had often caught a short nap while my mischievous toddler arranged Legos and Beanie Babies around me on the bed, giggling away. “Wake up Mommy, it’s Christmas morning!” he squealed with glee. “A sneaky elf brought you some toys!”

This is the same room where Drew had cried at age six when his big brother broke the news that he’d one day have to move out of the house. And then, at age sixteen, he’d slammed the door, yelling, “I hate this house. I can’t wait to leave!” Now, I imagined that he was trying to find somewhere in-between the two extremes. And so was I.

During the past year, as Drew applied to colleges, I’d been busily making plans of my own for the future. Instead of confronting the sadness of my youngest son moving away, I fantasized about overhauling this boy cave that smelled vaguely of worn socks and Axe deodorant. I had my writing desk picked out. And a comfy overstuffed chair and ottoman, perfect for late night reading, would fit nicely in the corner. Drew and I both needed to clean this room, I’d been telling myself, to toss what is no longer needed and clear space for our new lives.

Drew was now poking through a dresser drawer crammed with Beanie Babies that likely hadn’t seen sunlight since the days of “sneaky elf.” He reluctantly tossed an armload of the critters into the box marked for Goodwill, giving me a sidelong glance. I suddenly realized that these weren’t just dust-collecting mementos of my son’s childhood. They were anchors to the home where he had grown up and felt safe for all of these years.

“We may be able to sell those on eBay and make some money for Wolf Haven,” I said quietly, unloading the box. “And you can keep a few you really like.”

“What about a yard sale, that could be cool,” Drew offered, and then quickly added, “But not until next spring, okay?”

I nodded. He needed more time, and I could certainly write in the living room for another year.

Drew brightened. “How about if we sell my old books too?”

“Sure,” I said, adding a stack of thin paperbacks to the dresser top where Drew was arranging the crunchy animals. “That’s a great idea.” I couldn’t resist placing “Goodnight Moon” back on the shelf. Drew had known the words to this story by heart, long before he’d learned to read. Maybe, I thought, I needed to give myself more time too.

As Drew and I stood side-by-side, gazing at the bulletin board that covers half a wall, the ragged cork took on a colorful, shiny new appearance. It became a vibrant collage of crayon and glitter preschool drawings, postcards from family vacations to Yellowstone and Disney World, the driver's license test Drew had recently aced. I studied the array of ticket stubs: a recent Smashing Pumpkins concert, the Seattle Children's Theater, Shakespeare in the park that he had fallen asleep during.

"You think this is worth anything, Mom?" Drew asked, removing the brass tack from a plastic bag that protects a decade-old Pokeman card he once thought was rare.

"I think this is worth a lot." I firmly affixed the card back on the board, next to a postcard of the Eiffel Tower Drew had sent from Paris two summers ago. It was a school trip he went on with eight other kids. He was so scared to go to Europe, and came back changed. He learned to enjoy the Opera, sip red wine, and negotiate the subway system in a big city.

I turned quickly away from Drew, the breath catching in my chest as I wondered how my son would change in the coming months, and years, out on his own. And how might I change as well?

I retrieved Pandy from where he was nestled in an oversized Megadeth t-shirt in Drew’s suitcase and placed him gently at the foot of the twin bed. “Do you mind?” I asked. These weren’t just Drew’s anchors to his childhood home, they were my anchors to him. “He’ll still be here when you come home for Thanksgiving.”

 Jennifer Haupt writes about how people find thier voice and use it to change their lives, their communities, and some sometimes even the world. She contributes to a wide variety of publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Reader's Digest, Parents, and Spirituality & Health. She's written several nonfiction books and is working on her debut novel.

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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