My children grew up quite a few years ago, and looking back, I realize that I didn’t exactly suffer from the so-called empty nest syndrome. For the most part, I had plenty of other uses for those vacated bedrooms. The first priority was to refurbish and furnish an inviting, comfortable guest room so that guests no longer had to suffer on the fold-out sofa or fold themselves into the extra bunk-bed in my son’s cluttered room.
Next on the list of uses for available space was a home for my sewing machine, drawers full of fabrics and patterns, a place where the ironing board could be left permanently ready for use, and the luxury of not having to clear my projects off the dining room table every afternoon in order to set out the supper dishes.
I made cautious use of the space, keeping them partial bedrooms, just in case, until it came to the downstairs game room, which had served as pool hall and ping-pong parlor, as well as TV lounge and teen hang-out for so many years. That, I converted to a spacious studio where I could work on art projects, build picture frames, teach a handful of private students, and store all my art books, piles of drawings and racks of canvases; at last I found myself with a reasonably functional art studio. No more hiding the easel behind the drapes and shoving the canvas under the bed!
But wait! What about all those ice skates, barbells, rock collections, rare beer cans, state fair mementos and high school souvenirs? There were some real treasures stashed in those rooms; things that didn’t deserve to be thrown on the junk heap. What about that full-size Mr. Peanut costume that won a prize one Halloween? It represented hours of painstaking labor and quite a few dollars worth of brown paper tape. There was that almost-new saddle that had been a dream Christmas gift to a boy who soon outgrew his horse and the saddle no longer fit. There was a collection of T-shirts from all over the Midwest, seldom worn and greatly cherished right along with a large box full of hood ornaments, rear-view mirrors, bumper guards and other gleaming chrome treasures.
And then there were my own treasures that had been more or less on loan to my children from time to time. The child’s roll-top desk that had once belonged to me, and the little dollhouse I’d repapered and refurnished so many times during my own childhood. There was a small box filled with pretty stones I’d gathered from the shores of Lake Superior in the 1940s. And four plaster handprints made by my own loving five-year-olds in kindergarten. Not to mention a tunafish can decorated with felt to resemble a collar and bow-tie that had resided for years on their dad’s dresser, holding keys, coins and odds and ends. An old wooden highchair that had boosted four generations of Gilbaughs up to the dinner table over the years had to be saved. A genuine antique, I was hoping to have a great-grandchild someday to give it added distinction.
Those supposedly empty rooms didn’t remain empty. As most parents discover, lost jobs, failed relationships and changed plans all contribute to the necessity of “staying with Mom and Dad until things get better.” Selling a house sooner than expected and waiting for a new one to be finished can fill all the beds, sofas, drawers and closets of the parents’ once-spacious house. Not to mention the garage, basement, and sometimes the attic. “It’s only for a little while,” is a deceptively optimistic phrase.
For years, the overflow followed a rigidly predictable route. First, to the back porch for temporary storage. Once it was deemed that the item need not be kept readily accessible, it was relegated to either the furnace room or the garage, depending on its size and ability to tolerate extreme heat or cold. From there, once it had lost its aura of perceived great value and anticipated future use, it could be sent to the old corn crib where it might be subjected to damp and dust and occasional gnawing by unidentified rodents. It might be countless years after the original owners had moved on that the abandoned item could be safely declared worthless and not worth the space it occupied. Then, and only then, could the process begin; its owner notified, warned of its possible disposal, advised of a probable time limit for retrieval, and asked for a notarized statement, in triplicate, absolving the caretaker of any responsibility for its preservation. Without such a document in hand, I have found it risky indeed to take it upon myself to burn, bury, disassemble, sell, give away or otherwise divest myself of any item not clearly my own property.
Besides, by now, the thing has turned into a valuable relic and symbol of our past. Antiques Roadshow, anybody?