When we purchased our first house years ago in a small suburb of a major midwestern city, it was more than a home, it was a storage facility. Over the course of thirteen years, we accumulated furniture, unused construction materials, camping gear, sporting equipment, and all manner of miscellany. Despite all of the various items obtained over the years, there always remained enough room for another shoebox.
It is important to instill a sense of tradition in each generation.
During a recent trip to Thailand with our son and daughter-in-law (DiL), we nostalgically told stories of his growing up in the Midwest. My wife would occasionally travel for work, leaving me and our son to fend for ourselves. Although we didn’t look forward to her leaving, we developed a routine for our feeding and care which allowed us to take full advantage of her departure, including cleaning, pizza, root beer, and movies-til-dawn—a tradition I’ve happily carried forward with our grandchildren.
Back in those early days—before my wife and I partially trained each other—if one were to take a photo of her office at work and compare it to our house, it would seem they were used by two different people. Even today, her office is pristine and everything is where it belongs—the small clock on her desk sits beside the photos of us and our grandchildren, her coat hangs neatly in the closet, and her inbox is emptied each evening. At the end of each day, she places everything back in their assigned spots: files in the cabinet, pens in the drawer, and a pad of paper neatly stacked on the corner of the desk. One could easily mistake her for a neat freak.
In contrast, home is a chaotic mix of shoes, clothing, and paperwork. After a long day at the office, there is little motivation to replace shoes in the rack, hang clothing in the closet, or pay and file bills. Her personal space expands to take over that space which is available. Two square feet of space on the nightstand is occupied by a magazine, two books, one mobile phone, a lamp, a Kindle, gum, and Chapstick. If there are six square feet of space by the front door, we’ll find one pair of my shoes and five pair of hers. The rocking chair in the living room is home to one sweater, two pair of socks, a towel, and the pants she donned this morning before deciding they made her thighs look big—which they decidedly are not. Space begs to be filled, and like sound slowly fills a crowded room, my wife slowly spreads out into the void until it is overwhelmed by white noise.
There is precedent for filling space.
Years ago, the wonderfully engaging comedian George Carlin described in hilarious detail how people need stuff and a place to put it. In Stuff, Carlin describes how your house is a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. He laughingly jokes, “Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.”
My wife has a fluid relationship with the void.
Eventually, after our son moved out and gave us two beautiful grand children, we sold our tiny little ranch house and moved into a bigger, four bedroom colonial even further from the city. It was usually just the two of us by then, but we needed the room. One room was ours and a second was reserved for guests. This second room also served as a changing room and additional place for my wife’s stuff: clothing, shoes, paperwork, scarves, and the occasional towel left over from the morning shower. A third room became the grandchildren’s bedroom and the fourth was my office; however, these both served double duty as overflow if the guest bedroom was too full to accommodate anymore clothing. She doesn’t own that much attire, but somehow continued to fill the available space.
A couple years before moving to India we decided to downsize. Goodbye 2,200 square foot colonial with full basement, hello 1,100 square foot, two-bedroom apartment. Furniture was limited to necessities and a few items, such as camping gear, were placed in a small storage unit—as Carlin noted, “a whole industry based on keeping an eye on your stuff.” We had the master bedroom, of course, with a nice chair for sitting and changing—it was covered in clothing so often I’m not sure it wasn’t made of denim, silk and terry cloth. The second bedroom remained the grandkid-slash-guest room with bunkbeds; a dear friend was fond of sleeping on the bunk beds when he visited. Between guests and grandkids, the room and bunk beds also served as a storage and staging area for my wife’s clothing. She adapted to less space by filling it with her stuff.
We eventually moved to India and a 4,500 square foot, three-story villa. We use the kitchen, living room, dining room, and three of the bedrooms—one is a full gym, the second the master, and the third a guest room. Within a month of settling in, the guest room again became my wife’s staging and changing area; her clothing, personal items, and pocket lint creatively spread out on the bed and dressers, where it remained until the weekend before our son and Daughter-in-Law (DiL) arrived. Our maid, Salma, once asked if she should change the sheets in the guest bedroom. “Might as well let it be until our son and his wife arrive…no good can come from attempting to remove all of my wife’s stuff,” I explained. Voids beg to be filled.
Shoeboxes make great file cabinets.
I have no doubt my wife will continue to find places for her stuff. In the beginning it drove me crazy; but I developed a coping mechanism. When she travelled, I would take the opportunity to clean the house. I would go around picking up everything I could find, vacuuming, dusting, wiping, and gathering. All of the paperwork, pens, pocket lint, trinkets, mail, notes, writing pads, and knick knacks which were collected throughout the house were placed in a shoebox. Each shoebox was labeled with a date and stored in the basement along side the skis and snowboards, above the paint rollers and brushes. It became my shoebox filing system.
When we sold that small ranch thirteen years later, we went into the basement to see a couple dozen shoeboxes neatly arranged by date. We went through each one, finding mostly old Post-It notes, pens, shells from a trip to Mexico, an old rope bracelet, and a variety of other useless stuff we’d forgotten over the years. We kept what we wanted, placing it neatly into a new shoebox, added the date, and moved it into the basement of our new house. We repeated the exercise with each subsequent move, consolidating many shoeboxes into one. Eventually, the one shoebox made it into storage for the move to India, where it sits like a time capsule waiting patiently to surprise us.
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