SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
By Anne Kreamer
In turning an empty adult child's bedroom into an office, a mother blends generations of family history
The day I moved into my new home office, my horoscope (hey, I take guidance wherever I can find it) declared that I had embarked on “a momentous process of entering the next phase of my future … one that would involve some farewells and some significant changes.” Wow, deep, I thought. And yet, weirdly accurate.
My new office was the old bedroom of my younger daughter, Lucy, now 23. I was working in a room that had been her private and carefully composed inner sanctum. This was a space vibrating with Lucy’s personal resonances: her infant cooings, her 6-year-old late-night forbidden encyclopedia readings, our nightly go-to-bed “You Are My Sunshine” songfests and all of the heartbreaks and secrets unknown to me yet shared with her friends. Until she left for college and later moved with her sister, Kate, into an apartment a few miles from our home, her entire life had unfolded within these four walls.
My husband and I had preserved first Kate’s room then Lucy’s throughout their college years, reveling in their holiday whirlwind returns while chafing under the chaos of their stuff upending our serene-while-they-were-at-school household order. I never gave much thought to this liminal place -- kids not living at home but kids also not living with permanence anywhere else. It just was how things were.
Even with those college years of practice separations, though, I wasn’t prepared for the big, adult move out. I continued to keep their rooms as they were, although they’d become stagnant reliquaries for the stuff the girls were unwilling to deal with: clothes, old school papers, fading photographs, childish jewelry, souvenirs, years-old magazines and comics.
The occasional what-if-they-lose-their-job-or-break-up-with-their-boyfriend-and-need-to-come-home bolus of anxiety allowed me to indulge in the sense that I was keeping their rooms intact for the girls, rather than because I was engaging in magical thinking, choosing to believe the illusion (beds at the ready, stuffed animals waiting) that my kids weren’t really adults.
(MORE: The Art of Shedding Possessions)
Admitting the Kids Aren’t Moving Back Home
But one day, during my morning meditation, a transgressive thought bubbled up. And again and again I found myself imagining a Virginia Woolf-ish room of my own. I began to fixate on the fact that as an adult, indeed for 40 years, I’d never had any space that I could call my very own.
My kids had their rooms, and when my husband reinvented himself as a novelist he claimed as his office a room with a door he could shut. Yet when I’d transitioned from being a corporate worker to a freelance journalist, I’d been forced by the physical limitations of our Brooklyn house to use a makeshift Murphy desk sandwiched into the narrow pass-through between a sitting room and the living room.
It was wide-open to anyone who might pass through, and by default I was expected to answer every phone call or doorbell. I was up and down all day long and wore earplugs in a losing battle to concentrate. When Woolf wrote, “For women, I thought, looking at the empty shelves, these difficulties were infinitely more formidable. In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a soundproof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the 19th century.” For decades, I realized, I’d been living like a 19th-century daughter: roomless.
After months of imagining my ideal office space (and how I could turn the other bedroom into a proper, grown-up guest room) and months of worry that the kids would feel like I was erasing their lives and history from our home, I took action. I told the family what I was planning.
My husband, unsurprisingly, couldn't have cared less, but I was right to have been concerned about the kids’ response. Intellectually, they understood that what I was proposing was reasonable; emotionally, it seemed they weren’t ready to let go either. We came to an agreement. I would leave the rooms the original colors the girls had chosen.
I would furthermore repurpose most of their furniture, keep some of their more precious objects in place, curate the important items for posterity -- and they didn’t have to help with any of it. Passive aggressive as the non-helping bit might feel, I got it. This change was not their choice, it was mine. I should do the heavy lifting. And on the bright side, their non-involvement showed they trusted me to do the right thing. With resolve I plowed ahead.
Old Kid Bedrooms Become New Grownup Rooms
Over the course of several weeks, I tackled the project, each day managing to go through bookcases, drawers and stacks of stuff -- pruning the detritus from the kids’ lives, placing curated items into storage bins for the basement and other things into piles to relocate to their new place.
I relived so much of our lives together by myself. I felt a deep melancholy as I allowed myself to experience trips we’d taken, read letters they’d written or received, and mourn passions (anime, painting) abandoned. It was similar to what I’d shared with my sister when we’d closed up my parent’s house, but we had each other. This time only I walked down these wistful paths -- saying goodbye to my babies and that life.
And then I was done.
I write this, finally, from a room of my own. As my horoscope predicted, the move involved some deep farewells and changes, but in the end, nothing was lost and an infinitude was gained. Every day I’m surrounded by the presence and love of my kids -- all the treasures they’ve given me over the years that never before had a proper place.
I’m bathed in family and history and meaning: A painting of an Egyptian sloop my father gave me in college is displayed over my desk, my mother-in-law’s painting of wildflowers in a mountain pass that Lucy had in her room now hangs above sheep in a manger from the home of my maternal grandparents. Sunlight streams in, glinting off my mother’s cobalt and emerald perfume bottles beside Lucy’s cheerful stuffed animals. The first chair my husband and I bought beckons me to a corner to read. Beloved ghosts of the past support me as I stand at my hyper-modern electric standing desk.
The poet Anne Sexton called the place she worked “the room of her life.” So is this mine. This is a room I’m pretty sure Virginia Woolf would love. She wrote, when you “earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not.”
Yes, this room is filled with invigorating life. Now to impart it.
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