Handling the Clutter That’s Left Behind in an Empty-Nester’s Home

No matter where the kids go, the stuff always manages to stay.



Pick up any shelter magazine and chances are good that you’ll see a cover line with some variation of “Banish Clutter Once & For All!” Clutter has morphed into home décor enemy number one. Rid yourself of all that evil clutter, the media promises, and you’ll uncover your home’s hidden charms.Banishing clutter is an activity I can really get behind because, it turns out, I suffer from a rare, self-coined and -diagnosed version of Tchotchke Shock Syndrome: a fear of being surrounded by too many tchotchkes or decorative objects. I like to walk into a room and find there’s nothing—and I mean nothing—on the countertop but, say, a well-placed vase, with all the actual detritus of daily living hidden in closets, cabinets, and drawers.

It wasn’t always thus. As my hubby of many years will tell you, before we married, I was a certifiable slob. I’d leave for a weekend visit to him at graduate school in another city and there’d be piles of clothing scattered around my tiny studio with pant legs interrupted mid-try on, like so many garment sculptures. I can’t really tell you what cured my slob-dom, but, by the time we bought our own home, I was exhibiting symptoms of a full-blown case of Tchotchke Shock.

If I found a piece of paper or odd little something-or-other out on a countertop, I’d conduct a swift and thorough investigation: “What’s the story with this little plastic gizmo?” I’d ask. “Where does it belong?” No answer? No problem! Off into the garbage it would go. My family rummaged through the kitchen compactor on a regular basis for missing homework, un-cashed checks, and mailed-in-plain-envelope theater tickets. The dog ate it? In our house, “My mom threw it out” was the go-to excuse for that gone-AWOL permission slip to Medieval Times or report on Native American shelter styles.

So, you get the drift. I abhor clutter in all its various derivations—piles of junk, unwanted odds and ends, little plastic thing-a-ma-jigs with missing pieces, and messy "still lives" featuring dirty socks, old packs of takeout soy sauce, and the key to the house of the neighbor who moved 10 years ago. But when you have kids, more stuff just comes with the territory. It starts innocently enough with a few sweet hand-knit baby blankets, teddy bears, and blinged-out binkies—and, before you know it, you have folders and filing systems and boxes in the attic crammed full of sugar-cube igloos, wire-hanger solar-system mobiles, and reports on “My Pal, The Toucan.” Add in sports equipment—and, en garde, our son was a nationally ranked fencer, with all the attendant swords (yes, swords), in addition to the regular old base-, foot-, ping-pong, tennis, golf, Wiffle, and soccer balls—and you see where I am going with this.

Flash forward to the present day. We are the official denizens of a so-called empty nest that contains two bedrooms that serve as repositories for our kids’ temporarily unwanted but on-call-as-needed stuff—think storage units with beds and windows and an elliptical machine and dusty free weights. Our daughter lives in a Manhattan studio about the size of her bathroom at home, so she gets a pass. But all bets are off for our son, who left recently for a 27-month gig as a Peace Corp volunteer living in a remote mountain village in Central America. The time has come to enter his as-yet untouched lair.

I approach cautiously, armed with garbage bags, Lysol, surgical gloves, and a Costco-sized bottle of hand sanitizer. “If I don’t come back in 10 minutes,” I call out to my husband, “dial 9-1-1.” It’s not a pretty sight. Suffice it to say that my son has inherited my predilection for clothing sculptures in addition to his own special talent for creating still-lives-of-stuff, featuring iPod ear buds, fossilized pizza crusts, and countless beer bottle caps. I walk around carefully, lest I become impaled on a hidden épée sword, and estimate the required clean-up time with a practiced eye. Yup, 27 months should do it. And not one minute less.   

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