Remember those rainy childhood days when you complained you had nothing to do and your mother suggested cleaning your closet? Well, during these quarantimes (as my son has dubbed them) I’ve found myself taking my mother up on her suggestion.

After living in this house over 30 years, I’ve got lots of closets to clean. Oh, my, what hours that project can fill! And while I sort through the clothes, papers and toys left by the passing years I find cleaning closets can be an analogy for dealing with the past in general. Neither one is easy, but both are necessary to our mental health.

One location in particular has proven rich in both challenge and metaphor. My son’s bedroom closet — large enough to be a walk-in wardrobe in a more organized household — presents layers of detritus to comb through.

In the back are the family records (and actual vinyl LP records) that we placed there when we first moved in. Then come outgrown baby clothes, bedding and toys. School memorabilia reside in the middle of the closet, along with outdated video games, sport shoes, high-school yearbooks and teen clothes.

Ironically, some of this mess represents previous attempts to organize my son’s room and his outgrown possessions. The most recent stratus of stuff found its place near the closet door (nearly blocking it) during a frenzied cleaning sweep through his room. This pile belongs under the heading “I’ll get to that later.”

How often do we promise ourselves we’ll “get to it later?” “It” can be bad habits, painful memories, or negative thinking. Whenever we run into these we promise ourselves, like Scarlett O’Hara, to “think about that tomorrow.” But opening the closet door reveals how many times we’ve put that tomorrow off. At some point we need to take a deep breath and confront the mess.

I find pacing myself helps. If I tried to clear out this packed closet in one go I’d probably end up in tears. But if I set aside an hour or two each few days the prospect is much less daunting. (Besides, my trash and recycling bins couldn’t handle the volume otherwise.) Breaking a big job into small pieces makes dealing with the flotsam and jetsam of my life more doable.

When you’re head-to-head with years of stuff, you have to make decisions. What do I discard and what do I hang onto? What memories do I want to retain, and what are disposable?

I can’t bear to throw out my son’s first shoes or the tiny suit he was baptized in. I’m saving a few of his early drawings and shaky kindergarten block-lettered papers. There simply isn’t room to keep all of it, so I’m storing a few representative pieces. The same goes for school projects, papers and awards. I’ll save the best and consign the rest to memory.

Maybe we could look at our personal histories with the same critical eye. We can’t always decide what to remember—painful memories can be hard to shake off—but we can focus on the ones that make us stronger. Forget the times you disagreed with your parents and, especially after they’re gone, remember the laughs you shared. To some extent, we have a choice about what we store in our hearts — or our closets. We can confront the past — the good and the bad — and determine what builds us up and what tears us down. Cherish the best and let go of the rest.

One memory I plan to cherish as long as possible is that of my former boss and friend, Judith Schreiber Knox. Judy was my supervisor for over 20 years. She was mentor, community education colleague, and co-conspirator. A dedicated public servant, she created child abuse prevention programs that our community still benefits from. We lost Judy to cancer earlier this month, but she made an impression on our community that is indelible. I hope I never forget the lessons she taught me. She will always have a prominent place in my wardrobe of memories.

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