Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood


I'm decluttering. I paw through rooms and rooms of things. A humidifier. An old table saw. A loading pallet. An easel. The bicycle I rode 50 miles a day in 1982. My Nancy Ann storybook doll, circa 1943. Seventeen pairs of scissors. A plaster-cast mold of my face, aged 22. Love letters from my exes. Journals. Autumn leaves from Vermont. Rocks from Mt. Fuji. The length of Bill's hair from 1978. Annie's baby teeth in a pink plastic carrying case, pulled out when they refused to leave on their own, roots gnarled and twisted. A drawer filled with nothing but extension cords. My long dead mother-in-law's gun -- a German starter pistol dating back to the 1950s, complete with instruction sheet, cleaning swabs, and ammunition. Souvenir coins from the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Thirteen vases left here from Bill's wake. Four cheese pie makers. Three coffee makers. My grandpa's dentures. Why do I have my dead grandpa's dentures? Books, books, books, books, books. Bill's divorce papers from his first wife, and his journals, and his sketches. Picture frames. T-shirts from Ubud and Borabadur and the island of Komodo, where a dragon almost ate Bill in 1991 when he opened the outhouse door too fast. My t-shirt from the Hotel de Nesle in Paris, picturing René, the fat concierge, who every morning told me, "Give me money, Chéri." Old cell phones. Unset stones from India: Tiger's Eye, Black Star, Lapis, Moonstone. Twister and Balderdash, and Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit. A rocking horse. Painted fragments of the Berlin wall. Rusted barbed wire and broken ceramic circuitry from Birkinau. Old tablecloths and stained cloth napkins. Dust. Rodent droppings. Dog hair.

For each thing I ask myself, "Is it beautiful? Is it useful? Do I love it?"
Inspiration: I sit alone at night and watch the TV show Hoarders, and get jacked up. It's always the same format: profiles of sad people living in heaps of possessions they don't need, though they want them. They want them. A woman, forced to choose between her son and a broken toilet seat, chooses the toilet seat. The show is over, so I attack a drawer. Why do I need all these pens? Eight staplers? White board markers and dry erasers when I don't have a white board?

For years, my husband Bill and I gathered, our need to fill our home born from a sense of scarcity, years of being broke, of not having enough. I wanted a house bursting with welcome. I wanted to -- and could -- sleep eleven. Six beds and futons. Twenty-two pillows. And, too, we gathered because of the laziness, the daily craziness, of raising a family. No time to sort, easier to shove it away. The surfaces stayed manageable, but below the surfaces and behind the doors, every drawer, shelf, closet, and storage area, was stuffed with stuff.

Two years after becoming suddenly and unexpectedly widowed, one dog dead now too, my daughter 18 and about to leave home, I've closed the Ericka Inn, I've changed the rules. I want only beautiful things around me, only things I love, only my things. So I declutter the dead: Bill's things, his father's things, his mother's things. I declutter the living: my things, Annie's things. Each departing item frees me. Maybe this is a part of grieving, this reassessment, actively ridding and shedding. And sometimes I worry, superstitious: am I preparing myself to die? Well, if I do die, at least nobody will have to do this for me.

I want to travel lightly, I want light, I want less. So every item I keep -- my old paintings, journals, letters -- is a small defeat. "This is just the first pass," I tell myself. At least I'll have it contained, smaller, in drawers with no mice. It might matter to somebody later. Or, it might matter, later, to me, for though I am scraping away the crust of myself, I don't want to scrape so deep as to injure; in five years, in ten years, I might want some of this. I can't get carried away with this delicious, elating, denuding.

In the spice cabinet, I find four unopened jars of black peppercorns, plus red peppercorns, red pepper flakes, "lemon" pepper, ground white pepper, ground black pepper, and souvenir containers of hot and mild paprika from trips to Hungary in 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2010. Why do I buy pepper and never use it?

I fill bags and boxes with trash and donations, carload after carload to charity. I call Waste Management and arrange a bulky pickup. I freecycle. Backgammon boards. Snow chains. Hotel soaps. Lilikoi jam from Kaui. Tiny mustards from Air France. An unopened panettone, still in the box.

Every day I am a little lighter.

I'm getting there. "Is it beautiful? Is it useful? Do I love it?"

Ericka Lutz is an author, solo performer, and teacher. Her seven non-fiction books include On the Go with Baby and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stepparenting, and her fiction/creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous books, anthologies, and journals. Ericka teaches writing at U.C. Berkeley. She also provides private coaching on writing and writing process to writers and organizations. Her full-length solo show, “A Widow’s To-Do List,” is currently in development in San Francisco. For information on upcoming performances, visit Ericka’s website.

More from

Lovely, Ericka.
Ericka, Indeed, this is a lovely piece you have written. I completely commiserate. My days of craving more are long gone; I crave less and, yes, lightness. My sister died two years ago, at age 48, from colon cancer. Last weekend I (finally) emptied her closet. No one else could bear to do it yet--neither her husband and kids, nor my mother, no one but me. I realized that knowing all of her possessions, down to her toothbrush, were still in her home had been keeping me from visiting. I didn't want to visit a mausoleum, so I had to do something. As I worked my way through all her belongings, I found myself asking the same questions as you. I thoughtfully selected the items I wanted as keepsakes: her tap shoes, some fabulous outfits from the 70's and early 80's that I could wear myself or use as costumes for my theatre company, posters from her college drama productions. In the end, emptying her closet did not leave me feeling empty, but light(er) and more capable of continuing to try to focus on her life , rather than her death. Thanks! Nicole
Erika-- That's an amazing list in the first paragraph. In a period of mourning, I also experienced what I characterize as intense nesting, excavating the basement, loading the car with the accretion of things, heading to Urban Ore, breathing deep, allowing what remains to have the space to come into being. You've done a great job of describing the way this letting go comforts even though it seems almost counterintuitive that it should do so. Keep going. Best, Wendy
Erica, I love reading your postings - thanks for letting us know via facebook. This is a BIG task - I can't believe all the "things" you found - especially the grandpa dentures! This is truly a difficult task, but once started - already feelings of lightness begin to emerge. I support you wholly. Wish I were closer to assist with the disposal of unnecessary (not necessarily unwanted) stuff.
The challenge - to live in Today with the memory of yesterday, without the burden of it. Sounds like the definition of wisdom. You've described it beautifully. ps. dump the spices, keep an extra scissors.
Beautiful, Ericka! I too crave less. It's such a great high just to clean out my closets, rediscover what I actually have, and get rid of all the many many things I don't use. Cheaper than therapy!
What a beautiful essay. I have spent a lot of time throwing things out/giving them away for the last nearly six months (I have a long way to go). It's not just about the stuff that's for sure. I so appreciate your piece.
A lovely essay- the things can mean so much, and yet can also weigh us down. Sorting through them can be wonderful and painful at the same time. Can be so freeing to let go.
What a wonderful essay. I'll find some space to keep it in my head and in my heart.
Gorgeous. Lyrical. Helpful. I can't say how many times I've tried decluttering - one has left the nest, and the other will, come fall. I remain the repository, the memory keeper, the storage bin for generations of objects that once held meaning and now seem stifling. I begin to understand my own mother's need to delete delete delete when she hit her sixties. Though I am not there yet, I sense there would be enormous freedom in finding space again. Space enough to feel untethered.
A friend passed on your essay. I can so relate. After 30 years and my husband's far too early death, I decluttered our family home. It took several "passes" and many months to downsize into a small condo but it was well worth the considerable physical and emotional effort. I am now surrounded in my small space by my treasures, those pieces reminiscent of a trip or a special event - all things that hold special meaning or memories. Everything I've kept I use and enjoy. Less is definitely more.
Oh, yay! Here you are. I've been missing these. And lovely as usual.
Comments are now closed for this piece.