Imagine a closet. A big one. The walk-in kind unlike any closet my parents ever had. A closet with more space than the bathroom I shared with my sister growing up.
Now imagine it’s a brand-new closet. It’s part of a brand-new house built in the late 90s. Picture you and your wife standing there in awe of all that beautiful, raw storage capacity.
“We’ll never use all this space.” she says.
I’m sure you can see it. New shelves just begging for boxes. What seems like a mile of clothes rods for hanging pants and sweaters and shirts. High rods. Low rods. Little narrow shelves for shoes. Lots of them on her side. Hooks for belts. Cubbies for whatever you can dream.
Cabinets with more shelves and drawers. These are the cheap ones from the big box store. Nothing fancy here. But they’re yours. Repositories for all your stuff that has been packed away in a friend’s dank basement for the last four years. Your two-bedroom-apartment-with-three-kids life is about to be set free.
“What were we thinking?” you say to your wife. “Who needs this much closet?”
When I was a kid, my closet was about 30 inches deep and maybe 5 feet long. A single two panel heart pine door. There was a porcelain light socket mounted to the ceiling inside with a dusty single light bulb. A pull chain that hung down just far enough to reach above the hanging clothes. Three plywood shelves tucked back to the right of the door.
My life ended up in that closet. I put the things I wanted to keep in there. Sure, the floor was cluttered. Baseball cleats, a pair of Sunday-going-to-church shoes, and my favorite Converse high-tops. A snorkel and fins that I won in a bingo game up in Hiawassee. A box crammed with toys of Christmas past.
If you wanted to know some of the details of my life, all you’d have to do is to dig through my closet. You’d learn that I owned enough little green rubber army men and tanks and troop carriers to set up for the entire European theater. I could spend hours and hours out in the dirt building roads and forts out of pine sticks; setting up machine gun nests and placing guys with bazookas along the front line; jeeps climbing out of dug-out trenches; then hours and hours sitting back with my BB gun blasting away at the war.
We were the generation that played army more than we played cowboys and Indians. I had an army helmet and a belt with a real canteen in an olive-green pouch from the Army Surplus store. Machine guns and bayonets from Mattel. We’d divide up in squads of Americans and Germans. We built bunkers behind wheelbarrows. Made grenades out of Magnolia pods or Walnuts. Mama made us stop using Walnuts after Blake got a black eye.
And all of this collected and preserved in this one little closet of my life.
Back to present day and that spacious walk-in closet. It is 22 years later than when we first stood admiring all those empty rods and shelves and drawers. There is barely room to walk in anymore, which kind of negates the purpose of a walk-in closet.
Every shelf is full. Every rod is straining under the load. The drawers are crammed full. The shoe racks are overloaded and spilling out across the floor. The corners are piled up. And there are boxes up on the top shelf that hold personal treasures that we haven’t seen in twenty years or more.
Today’s task is to clean out and make ready to have the carpet replaced. The bedroom is easy. Just a few pieces of furniture to move out. As I stand and look at the closet, I think seriously about whether I really care about new carpet in here. I’m kind of fond of the dirty 90’s look. No one but me is going to see it. I could just keep the door closed.
Digging through a closet like this is like digging through your life. You keep things. There’s no good reason or rationale or explanation for some of what you keep. You just can’t bring yourself to throw it away.
In the corner on the floor is an old briefcase of mine. Inside are all the papers from when we built this house. Receipts. Lumber orders. Brochures with the windows we picked out. Notes and drawings on changes we made. A door here instead of a window. A kitchen island instead of a sink against the wall. I can tell you where we bought the shingles. The name of the mason I hired to build our fireplace. How many electrical outlets we have in the house. Every detail is in that briefcase.
Up on the shelf there is a box with baby stuff in it from when Beth was a baby. A camera tripod. A ball glove with a softball in it from Church league days. A shoeshine box with little tins of Kiwi shoe polish and two brushes. A handmade wool poncho from Mexico that was a gift from friends in Linda Vista.
Way back in the corner is a nasty pair of tennis shoes I wore years ago while cutting the grass or doing chores out in the yard. I didn’t’ even know I still had them.
I found two rifle bullets. A couple of hand weights that I never use. Leather belts that are split and worn out. I’m sure I thought I could find some way to use them one day. An old knee brace. The spare keys to my ’71 Chevelle. A Timex wristwatch I wore when I was probably 19.
Everything in here is like a miniature snapshot of how I have spent my life. Bits and pieces of my years scattered and stored and forgotten. Though not all is forgotten. I had to tuck Beth’s wedding dress up and out of the way. Most of her jewelry stills sits on the shelf where she left it. Some of her life is still here, and I’m okay with that for now. Another day, right?
By the time I got done I had filled two 30-gallon trash cans with all the not-so-special things we had kept. I boxed and repacked some things. Most of what I kept had to be moved out to another room temporarily. The carpet was actually in good condition up against the walls under the racks. I vacuumed dust and found pennies. I made room on the high rods for shirts off the low rods.
I was amazed at how fast the carpet crew worked. They cut and ripped and swept and laid down the new. Two rooms and this closet went in about three hours.
When they were gone, I got the other two rooms in order first. I wanted to save the closet for last. I stood in the doorway. It had been over twenty years since I’d seen it so empty. So neat. So, you know, roomy.
I leaned against the door frame and smiled. “What am I going to do with all this space?”