If I tried to explain what our basement was like, I would fail to find the words. Not because I’m not a deeply articulate individual, but because it was more than just a mess. More than just a source of stress. More than just a room so packed full of broken toys and old furniture and paperwork from problems or electronics long discarded.
No, this, this was a dark cloud that loomed large over us. This was not just a problem lurking beneath the surface of the ground floor; this was a problem lurking deep below the surface of our psyche.
Lucky are we to live in an old home that has a basement. Not only that, but one side is finished. When we moved in six years ago, we had big plans for that side of the underworld. Perhaps a dance studio, my oldest had suggested. Or a craft room, my youngest suggested. And at the time, Jim and I had the fleeting optimism of anyone making a life change. Sure! We can probably have this finished basement serve both of those purposes, children! And perhaps even a corner could be used for a home gym! I might even buy a sewing machine and put it in a nice quilting studio even though I barely passed home ec in high school because of my inability to thread a bobbin.
Yes, as we walked through the house before the movers came, we were so excited to have a basement so that we could let all the things we wanted to become have a dedicated space in which to become them.
And yet. A week later, as the movers fluttered around the house asking where certain items went, Jim and I continually pointed them down to the basement, quickly filling up our dreams with boxes of our possessions we weren’t even sure we needed or wanted anymore.
Over the years in this house we’ve painted every room, updated lighting, hung beautiful curtains and art, had playdates, parties, book clubs, and everyone over for Christmas. The basement door, however, remained indefinitely closed.
When my father-in-law died four years ago, Jim made it his priority to help his mother clean out what she no longer needed. The house, mind you, was the house my in-laws purchased as newlyweds and never left. Which meant every memory—and seemingly every purchase—was within the walls of the 1,000 square foot home.
In the years since his father passed, Jim has made endless trips to his childhood home in an attempt to sort and clean the clutter—to rid his mother of the burden, but perhaps on some level, to dig through the past of his father’s possessions in an effort to understand him more.
As Jim sorted through the garage of his parents’ house, he uncovered things his father had purchased over the years—purchases unknown to Jim or his mother and in many instances, intentionally hidden. One box he pulled down from a high shelf over the washer and dryer was full of leather fanny packs. Each pack was stuffed full of different items. One was packed with high-end silver pens still brand new in their boxes. Another was rolls of quarters in paper tubes. Another was boxes of paperclips. Each box Jim opened took him through a Russian Doll dive into a problem his father had that Jim was unaware of. He’d come home from these clean-out sessions exhausted and angry. How could his father spend money like this? None of what his father bought was expensive, but it was wasted when you thought about the cost of how many multiples of each item he bought but then never used.
My husband was grieving his father through his clutter—feeling such heartbreak for a man he so deeply loved, coupled with such anger at the same man for leaving him with such a burden.
“Was my dad a hoarder?” Jim asked me one night after a long day spent going through his parents' shed and finding four twin mattresses buried deep below mounds of other items.
“Possibly,” I offered, thinking that without a doubt, yes. His father was a hoarder. And privately doing my own research on what drives a person to buy and hold the way my father-in-law did. It made me wonder how little I knew about the man while he was living. How much he hid. How much he might have needed but never got.
How challenging that time was for my husband. While at the same time of grieving and gutting, he’d come home to his wife complaining about the smallest of clutter—kids shoes and graded assignments discarded on the hall table, when he was years into cleaning out his father’s mess and nowhere near close to finishing. How silly did I look when I got frustrated about how the kids seem to always leave their wet towels on the bathroom floor when he was in the middle of uncovering what was possibly a hidden mental illness in his father? How small must our kids’ clutter look compared to that of his father? Couldn't I gain a little perspective?
And yet how often, while he was deep in the garage pulling out stacks of plastic cafeteria trays and boxes of pool cue chalk, did he think of our own basement at home and wonder what his own kids would think about what he had chosen to save?
Eventually, three years in, Jim admitted he couldn’t take it anymore. Couldn’t go up and dig through any more of the fossils of his father’s history. Couldn’t stomach how much was left despite how much he’d already done. Couldn’t handle the heat of the garage or the muscle aches that would follow him the next day. And perhaps, more than anything, he hated how much of himself he saw among the mess.
He needed a break.
Despite his proclaimed break, I noticed he kept going down to our basement. I’d hear a shredder going at night. I’d see our trash can fill up. I’d notice boxes were being moved around down there. “I’m not going to end up like him,” Jim said one night when I walked down there to see him sitting on the basement floor surrounded by text books and term papers from his time in grad school.
But just like his mother’s garage, and shed, and back bedroom, the more Jim tried to clean our basement, the more the problem seemed to grow. Each box he opened unearthed ten more problems to deal with. And overtime, Jim hung his shoulders, came up the stairs, turned off the lights and closed the door on what he knew was an unresolved issue. In more ways than one.
Last month, I began preparing the house for Christmas. We host my parents, my sister, my niece, and—most notably—my sister’s dogs.
This year, one of my sister’s dogs had been undergoing a treatment that suppressed her immune system to the point her vet recommended she not be around any other dogs. This was upsetting my sister because she couldn’t board the dogs, and even if she could find a dog sitter over Christmas, she wanted to spend Christmas with her dogs.
While the family traded text messages and phone calls about how to address this problem, I suddenly was struck with an idea. What if I could fix up the basement and let my sister and the dogs sleep down there so the dogs were separated from our own?
God, I’m a genius.
There was literally no obstacle in the way of this brilliant plan.
Yet Jim’s face when I told him said otherwise.
“Meg,” Jim said, with defeat in his eyes. “Have you seen our basement, lately? There is no way we can do what you want to down there in two weeks.”
“Yes, there is,” I said with finality.
“How? How could you possibly think that in two weeks we could solve a problem we’ve been trying to solve for years?”
“Because,” I shrugged. “We’ve decided to.”
And what I meant by that, is that the people we wanted to become when we moved in—dancers, crafters, exercisers, quilters—were not people we decided to become. We decided, instead, to focus on other things. Other rooms. Other plans. Clutter, after all, is just deferred decision. And we had deferred the decision of the basement.
Apparently, deciding is the hardest part. What followed was nothing short of easy. I hired a woman for $10 an hour to help me for two days. I typed up a three-page document for her explaining how I wanted items sorted, where to put items I was keeping, even how the final layout of the basement would look. As she got to work I called a donation center to come haul out heavier items—furniture, large mirrors and paintings, an old (and concerningly heavy) TV from the 90s. As the burly men carried out items, I called a painter and asked if his crew was available the week before Christmas. He informed me that no sane person ever wanted their house painted the week before Christmas. So yes, he was free.
Within two weeks, the problem was solved. The clutter was gone. The basement had a new purpose. And my sister was able to not only be with her dogs at Christmas, but also keep them away from our dogs and free from any potential health risk.
Since then, the basement has become the most used room in our house. The kids watch TV down there. I use my treadmill and lift weights down there. And often, we find Jim in the middle of the room just twirling around like Julie Andrews on the hills in The Sound of Music.
His palms outstretched, a smile on his face.
A man free from the clutter in his home.
A man free from the clutter in his mind.
Understanding he may be prone to the patterns of his father that came before him, a man whose life was cluttered by a heartbreaking amount of deferred decisions, but that Jim is free to live his life however he decides.
Just so long as he does.