Minimizing clutter means messy business for mom

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Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Henry David Thoreau probably penned these words while banging his head against the nearest hard surface. I would, anyway — if I could find one not covered in junk.

“Where does this go?” I ask mechanically, holding a crumpled shred of gray paper before my son’s eyes. We’ve been sorting his stuff for what feels like forever, but I still can’t tell if we’ve made progress.

Ethan shrugs. “Trash, I guess.”

“And this?” A nearly identical scrap dangles from my languid grasp.

“Oh!” His face transforms from bored to beatific in an instant. “I wondered where that had gone!” Clasping the prodigal paper to his chest, he dissolves into an ecstasy of delight. I shrug, then turn back to my task. His distraction frees me to sort through his treasures in silence.

Treasures. The word makes me cringe. Right now, my two boys’ countless keepsakes fill my room, not theirs. We moved the pile there last week, while my father turned their cramped quarters into a model of efficiency overnight. And now the remodeled room is ready for refilling — after we’ve tamed the trash pile its depths once concealed.

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Sarah Kelnhofer

Newly labeled bins sit on their new shelf.

I groan as I gaze at the carnage covering our front room’s floor. Pocketknives, birthday candles, a roll of yellow string and a bag volcanic rock rest among other rubble, fallen war heroes in a battle long past. We’ve donated four full kitchen bags to the landfill and another three to Goodwill — and still, more casualties await.

Moments later, Ethan edges back onto the scene, his precious scrap stowed somewhere safe from my clutches. He eyeballs the headless paper-mache snake I now hold and gives me a warning glance. Slowly, I redirect the trajectory of my arm and drop the snake in the “keep” pile ... for now.

Together, we open up a fresh bin, and before I know it, the job’s nearly done. Quickly scribbled labels adorn each of the boxes we reshelf later on. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step. I heave a sigh of contentment. Neatness ... at last.

Beside me, Ethan exhales as well, but somehow, it sounds more like a sob.

“There’s just so much room!” A soft moan escapes him. I glance down to find him sitting cross-legged on the floor, eyeballing the empty upper reaches of his domain in distress. “Why did we throw all that stuff away?”

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Sarah Kelnhofer

Ethan Kelnhofer enjoys his fresh space to create.

“Now, Ethan,” I begin. With great effort I explain the meaning of stewardship, outlining the folly of stashing scrap paper forever. He still appears unconvinced, so I resort to a parent’s last straw: proximity.

“Look, buddy,” I say, getting really up close and personal. “Let’s chat.”

The wrinkles in his forehead deepen even before I get going, but my nerves are shot; my need for chocolate intensifies by the second.

“You’re creating stress you don’t need,” I begin.

Ethan blinks. He’s heard this statement before.

“Stress isn’t good for your health! Try to be happy about the good things, and not worry about what you can’t change. OK?”

He responds with an imperceptible nod, but his blue eyes still flick up to the empty space, looking sad. The Good Mother (deep within) reminds me that I should sit and tell him he’ll be fine, but the Other Mother (the one operating my legs) sends me straight out his scuffed bedroom door.

I decompress by picking bits of lint and sticky pennies from the allergen host formerly known as my carpet.

Why did we throw all that away? Now, I’m not sure. Maybe I’m the one manufacturing stress, after all. I thought order would bring peace to the home, not panic.

I pause, balancing a frayed toothpick on the tip of my finger. I suppose of this sorting has helped me see one thing more clearly: Most of what my boys collect connects them to some treasured memory. Each scrap of paper represents a special moment in their minds — and who really wants to toss those?

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Sarah Kelnhofer

Jared Kelnhofer poses with a representative portion of his knife collection.

I reach for another unidentifiable item, thinking hard. Maybe we’re all just collecting our own versions of peace. And who can blame us? I manage a wry smile as I turn the object I’m holding to the light. It’s a green, shapeless snake head — the match to the body we found earlier. Maybe this one’s worth keeping.

“Have you seen my rubber band gun?” Ethan breezes in, and I jump. He’s carrying a fistful of combat-grade blue bands, and is back to his usual carefree self. Without waiting for a reply, he bounds out the front door to ask his big brother, his chin-length orange hair bouncing with each eager step.

I shake my head. He’ll probably make another memory out there, and return with a rubber band he’ll want to store for a decade.

I’d better label another bin, just so we both can be ready.

Sarah Coleman Kelnhofer writes from College Place, where she hopes to find and enjoy simple things — like chocolate — in the midst of a life filled with complexities. Contributions to this cause may be milk, dark, or white — and should arrive in childproof packaging. At the back door. Very quietly.

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