It was supposed to be a simple way to update my aging kitchen. Instead, it felt like a commentary on my messy life.
The project was straightforward: Decrepit cabinet fronts would be replaced with stylish wooden doors.
The preparation was not: I had to empty every cupboard and drawer in what has been, for 15 years, our family's gathering spot.
Behind every door I found random links to buried memories.
One cabinet was crammed with dusty school supplies from the days when our kitchen table doubled as homework desk. Into my "donate" pile went eight loose-leaf notebooks, two packs of colored paper, a shoe box full of crayons and a metal three-hole punch.
But I kept the notecards from a fifth-grade science project, conducted by a daughter who is now 23 and can't remember which candles burned faster, beeswax or paraffin. I couldn't part with the calendars that chronicled our lives between 2002 to 2008; the play dates, work schedules, soccer snack lists and field trip reminders.
I did trash a giant envelope stuffed with unopened mail from 2008, labeled "FINANCES/BILLS." And I tossed a stack of magazines going back to 2005; leftovers from an era when every school assignment seemed to require some sort of artsy collage, and nobody had an Instagram or knew what a selfie was.
It took me two days to empty the cabinets. I worked alone so as not to have to account to anyone for my hoarder tendencies.
My junk drawers resembled an archaeological dig. There were phone numbers so old they didn't need an area code, business cards with pager numbers, a car rental coupon that expired in 2002. I discovered seven disposable cameras and found enough stray keys — that don't unlock any doors I need — to fill a sandwich bag.
I dug through a jumble of Tupperware stuffed in a drawer and found that none of the tops and bottoms matched. I found a stash of more than a hundred small paper bags, from the days I used to pack three school lunches every day. I counted in my pantry more than 40 bottles of spices; many doubles and triples. I'm not even sure what cream of tartar is, so why did I need three jars?
The weeding-out process, even in private, was sometimes embarrassing. I'd never realized what a motley collection of dishes I'd relied on over the years: mismatched dinner plates, random wine glasses, bowls with chips and cracks, coffee cups with broken handles. What must my dinner guests over the years have thought about me?
I know I'm not the only one who has a hard time letting go. My middle daughter tried to comfort me by recounting an episode of the Kardashians' reality show, where the family's plan to hold a yard sale almost comes unhinged by mother and daughter's sentimental reluctance to part with old and useless things.
Somehow, being compared to the Kardashians didn't make me feel better.
It did remind me, though, that our attachment often isn't to things, but to the feelings they represent.
I keep those mismatched wine glasses because they belonged to neighbors I loved who retired to Nebraska. I won't get rid of those chipped bowls because they were wedding gifts 38 years ago.
But I will accept that life moves on, and I don't have to be tied to the needs of the family that we once were, when we moved into this house so long ago.
My new cabinets look great and no longer hide a multitude of messy, self-indulgent obsessions.
The junk drawers are tidy, with neat dividers. I felt proud this week when my sister, who's visiting from Ohio, needed batteries and I could tell her exactly where to find them. She was shocked by that.
I bought a caddy for the counter, so I'm no longer pawing through an old wicker basket for the right blend when I want to make a cup of tea. I sprang for fancy spinning spice racks that let me see at a glance what I have and what I might need. And I pitched those unmatched tops and bottoms and filled an entire drawer in my updated kitchen with storage bowls with locking lids.
I gave away most of my cracked dishes, and bought a set from Wal-Mart. They're attractive, functional and cheap; I won't have any reason to get attached and keep them past their prime. I'm using a new set of matching wine glasses now.
This kitchen project has turned out to be as much about self-examination as cabinet renovation. The process made me ask and answer a question I have dodged for too long:
It taught me that, no, I don't really need those tangible links — outdated and fraying now — to mark the milestones in my life or keep a memory alive.