A tall, perky brunette in a purple velour tracksuit smiled broadly at me when I opened my front door. “Hey! It’s nice to finally meet you!” Julie said. I smiled in return and ushered her in.
We’d been trying to make contact for several months after a mutual friend recommended her. Julie had spent numerous weekends helping another woman go through thirty years’ worth of belongings after a divorce. Finally, we’d found a date that worked for both of us.
“Where would you like to start?” I asked. “Should we go right to work in the basement, or would you like to see the whole house?”
“It would be helpful to see everything,” she replied enthusiastically.
“Alright, then I’ll save the best for last!” I said and led her up the stairs. She assured me that she held no judgment, but honestly, I wasn’t at all embarrassed to have a stranger examining rooms that even my closest family didn’t see. Exhaustion and overwhelm superseded my need for privacy, kind of like how being in labor erases natural modesty in the struggle to give birth.
Upstairs we toured my bedroom, my office, my son’s room, and the open kitchen, living, and dining spaces. All were full, messy, and cluttered. Before we went downstairs, she said, “I’m seeing themes here. You’ve got books in nearly every room, lots of piles of paper, and craft supplies throughout the house.” All of that was nothing compared to what waited in the basement. Friends said it looked like a craft store exploded there. Throw in a bookstore and thrift store, and they weren’t far off. I’d always been a crafter and a reader.
I didn’t know where to begin, but Julie did. She pulled the boxes pushed up against the walls into the middle of the room. Many of them were still halfway unpacked from my move three years earlier after my separation. This was partly because we were renting, and I didn’t want to get too settled until I located a permanent home for me and my boy, one we could call our own. But I was also too physically and emotionally exhausted after taking care of everything on my own to deal with the boxes. Adjusting to solo-parenting required all I had. Now, a few years into my new life and with my son away for the summer with his dad, I found time and motivation for the task.
Julie grouped the boxes together by what seemed like similar categories to her. At first, I thought the categories were a little off. Boxes of scrapbooking paper sat by bins of unused Montessori items. Piles of books were moved next to cartons of mini-albums.
I half-heartedly sorted through the boxes and set aside items that were easy to let go. I watched Julie energetically move boxes around. Her zeal overwhelmed me a little. What had I gotten into?
But I found that her energy ignited my own. As she rearranged my boxes, I was given a new way of looking at what they contained. When she moved items from where they’d sat for years into different spaces, I could better evaluate their usefulness and purpose. Even though she wasn’t using the KonMari method, I felt that same sense of “waking up” the items. I could see more clearly. It became easier to let go and easier to organize. By the end of the night, she’d filled her car with items I’d decided to relinquish to charity. “They need to get out of the house now, so you aren’t tempted to keep them!” she said.
I continued to sort that week until our next meeting. The progress I made, after years of facing my piles while frozen in my tracks, was enlivening. I somehow found enough breathing room to step outside of the all-consuming effort of solo-parenting and take care of neglected parts of my own life.
As I worked, I realized it wasn’t so much the way Julie rearranged the boxes as much as that she pulled them out of the dark corners and into the light. I’d changed so much in the three years since the boxes were unloaded into this basement. My priorities and responsibilities were different now. I’d sorted through dark corners and cluttered beliefs about myself and how I’d manage as a solo mom. Now it was time to start doing the same for the physical mess hiding in the basement.
Julie wasn’t the first stranger who had reached out to help me.
Before I left California three years earlier, my divorce counselor connected me with a kind estate sale organizer from her church. Typically, she helped downsize homes for seniors moving into assisted living or liquidate estates after a death. She offered her services to me at a greatly reduced rate. She knew she was ministering to me, even if she didn’t put it that way.
I was a little embarrassed that first time to have someone see my stuffed rooms and closets. From the street, my house was beautiful, but inside was a different story. Clutter had plagued me even before motherhood. Parenting a spirited little boy understandably left less time and energy to confront my mess. Now I needed real help as I counted the days and weeks before a cross-country move I was managing on my own during a season of great stress and change.
Jane was in her sixties, tall with curly grey hair, calm and kind, a transplant from the Maine coast to the West Coast. As we toured my mess, Jane told me, “It’s so normal for families to feel overwhelmed about the stuff in their parents’ home. And elderly people don’t want the neighbors to see the state of their houses. So I come in and get things organized and cleared up ahead of time. I’ve seen everything.”
Jane’s method was a little different than Julie’s. We didn’t have the open space of an unfinished basement to work in. Instead, we went room by room. Drawers and boxes were emptied onto folding tables she brought. Lots of tables. “It’s so much easier to sort items if you can see everything,” she said. It was true. I liked this method.
The significance of Jane’s help wasn’t lost on me. Mine wasn’t her typical end-of-life work, but this change in my life most certainly was a death nonetheless. Separating belongings into what to leave and what to take was yet another step in the grieving process. I was preparing to leave behind what I thought my life and my son’s life would be like. I was saying goodbye to our California dream house and moving 1,500 miles away to a rental in South Dakota. He wouldn’t have the big pool, swing set, large playhouse, and giant sandpit where we were going. We wouldn’t have our park-like yard of mature trees and flowering bushes. And, of course, he would grow up spending school years with only his mom and summers with only his dad.
When the moving van pulled up a few weeks later, the motto printed on its side caught my breath: “Helping the world keep promises.” Certain people in my life had not kept their promises. But these women, and countless others, had kept theirs while they helped me unbox my mess and labor toward my future. As mothers themselves, some of them also divorced, they knew that raising a child on my own was a giant undertaking. They stepped in to fill the gaps left by others. When they gave me love and support, I was better able to give it to my son. Their strength and confidence kindled my own. They helped me prepare well for a journey I hadn’t planned to take: a move back to my hometown with a new identity. Even though it wasn’t under the circumstances I’d hoped for; I looked forward to raising my son in a place where we had deep roots.
Underneath it all, Julie and Jane weren’t only helping me with the physical messes in my home. They were helping me pick my way through the mess of an upturned life. Things still get super, big-time messy, both in the house and in our souls. Life, work, and school crowds out time to keep on top of everything. Like all moms, I still need help. But the lessons they taught me empower me to keep my promises to my son and myself as we move forward together.
Kristina is a writer, editor, and creator in South Dakota. She is a solo parent to an amazing boy and two scruffy dogs. Kristina seeks to find God in the beautiful mess of life and share that through her writing. She would love to meet you on her blog. Her essays, articles, poetry, photography, and art have appeared in a wide range of print and digital publications, from literary journals to anthologies, national magazines, blogs, and more.