Life lesson: clean while no one watches

Last week, I couldn’t take it anymore. It was time to clean, purge and reclaim space.

I am skilled at purging things from cupboards, closets and basements. It’s something I learned from my mom, who has never been afraid to set a dumpster below a second-story window and throw out armloads of junk.

Mom doesn’t even sort through the piles. No, she plays like it’s an extreme sport: How many pounds of junk can I throw out the window without letting go of something I need?

Mom will even throw out the morning paper and your cereal if you don’t read or eat it quick enough.

Her “Inbox” is always empty. Always.

Growing up with this, I developed a low tolerance for clutter. Those reality television shows about hoarders are not entertainment for me; they are a nightmare. Five years ago, my skills were put to the ultimate test when we moved from a 3,000 square-foot home in Florida to a 1,500 square-foot one in Maine.

I literally had to to throw out or give away half of our things. And it was liberating. Living with less felt right. Over time, however, the basement started to fill up again. The boys’ closets were stuffed. And one kitchen cabinet door wouldn’t close unless the saucepan handles inside were delicately lifted up at an angle and held there until the last second, when the door was latched shut.

I have scars on my wrist from this maneuver. Last week, I couldn’t take it anymore. It was time to clean, purge and reclaim space. Naturally, I begged my mom to come up from Virginia to help me with this.

Together, we are a formidable force. We can plow through piles like aggressively large lawnmowers that spit out grass clippings and chewed up leaves from the back. We don’t rest until there are no more trash bags in the basement and the last load has been hauled off to the dump, recycling or Goodwill.

But Mom couldn’t come to help me. I had to face it alone. Oh, sure, I have three sons and a husband to pitch in, but none of them—except maybe, Owen, 11—share my passion for emptying closets and drawers.

In fact, everyone, except Owen, runs away when I bring out the industrial-size trash bags. If Mom is the ultimate organizer and I’m her protege, my husband, Dustin, in particular, is her antithesis.

Dustin is a rescuer of things and junk.

Regular readers might remember a column several years ago when I tried to get rid of Dustin’s 4,000 (slight overstatement) coffee mugs at a garage sale. While neighbors and community members browsed our belongings strewn across the front lawn, Dustin followed close behind them and rescued all of his coffee mugs. “That’s not for sale,” he said.

One by one, he took everything that belonged to him and put it back inside our house. Only, he didn’t find places for these rescued objects. He just left them on the floor and the kitchen counter.

You see, Dustin doesn’t really want to use those things again. He just wants to have them. It is for this same reason that we own knives that supposedly can cut through tennis shoes. Said knives do not, however, cut through the average tomato, and yet Dustin won’t let me throw them out.

So, I did all my cleaning while Dustin was out of town. He would not see the boxes of coffee mugs and utensils leaving our door. He could not rescue anything. My helper was Owen.

Owen and I plowed through bins of old, broken toys and clothes that no one has worn. We purged the basement, the attic, the kitchen cabinets and everyone’s closet.

We sorted through winter gear, board games, DVDs and CDs. (Are you tired yet?) And at the end of the week, while the boys were at school, I took a load of filled boxes and bags to the Goodwill.

Any good cleaner knows it’s important to get rid of the donations before past owners notice. One time, when I was getting rid of a talking puppy from Lindell’s closet, it “barked” from the depths of a trash bag in the trunk of the car—and Lindell heard it.

“Is that my puppy? Is it in the car? Why would my talking puppy be in the car?”

This time, I rode to Goodwill in silence. There only was the occasional programmed voices coming from the boys’ old Star Wars Millenium Falcon. A storm trooper hat made shooting sounds.

A toy cash register dinged. I was getting rid of it all. But when I opened the car door at Goodwill, suddenly it occurred to me: my boys’ childhoods were in boxes and bags in the back of the van.

Dustin’s mugs laid at the bottom of a box. My heart broke a little. Tears came to my eyes. I felt pangs of sadness and guilt.

Then I took a deep breath, steadied my hands, and threw everything out.

Because, really, If I don’t save us from Hoarders, who will?