While shopping for a home almost 15 years ago, long before houses were "staged" to sell, I negotiated my way through many a living room piled high with old magazines and wall-to-wall knickknacks.
I swore I would never live like that.
Our new town house is far from new anymore, and one look at the room downstairs would've told you so. I threw anything and everything into that room.
The list includes the sane: hundreds of books, music cassettes, 78 speed record albums.
And the insane: baby teeth, chopsticks, size 8 clothes and an acid memo from an ex-editor about shaping up or shipping out.
Had I become - horrors! - a packrat? I looked up the definition and it's not pretty. It's a busy-tailed rodent with well-developed cheeks and a penchant for hoarding food and miscellaneous items.
It was enough to make me want to clean up. That room could become a beautiful retreat - a place I could read, write and watch TV, all in view of the courtyard swimming pool.
My granddaughters would like it, too. We could move their toy box from our living room (which, to be honest, was starting to look a little too much like the room downstairs).
I knew this wasn't something I should attempt alone, so I called Heather Lambie, who had just started a new business, Finding White Space.
I beseeched her to help me secede from the rodent family. She not only agreed, but since I was one of her first clients, she also charged me only half-price - about $30 an hour.
First, she visited and surveyed the problem. She didn't blink. I took that as a good sign. Then she rolled up her sleeves and I went off to work. When I got home that night, I witnessed the power of organization.
Piles and piles of stuff were sorted and labeled. Heather was polite. Her signs read: "You may consider this for the trash bin."
She put all my scattered photographs in boxes with instructions to purchase organizers or albums. She hinted I should maybe toss the big green and white striped sofa. And she found someone who would actually buy my green tables and entertainment center.
She got all that done in just four hours.
The rest was up to me.
Boxes and boxes of clothes and shoes went to Goodwill and The Spring donation centers. Some of the knickknacks went to a neighborhood garage sale.
It hurt to purge. I had an unopened boxed set of Frank Sinatra videos. I gave it to the garage sale, but even seeing the look of joy on the man's face who bought it didn't completely ease the pain.
There were some things even a pro such as Heather couldn't pry from my grip: my chopstick collection and my daughter's frog collection.
There's no earthly reason I gather chopsticks - I don't even know how to use them. Britta started collecting tiny frogs because her grade-school classmates called her Froggy, a jab at her full lips.
Now, Britta has Angelina Jolie and I have the frogs, which I think represents some kind of divine justice.
With most of the clutter cleared out, we went to work fixing up the room. My husband knew a tile guy who tore out the filthy blue carpet and installed pale beige tile, which flows from the room to the patio outside. We got a deal - $1,000 - because another customer had ordered the tile, then canceled the job.
A new air conditioner, installed, cost about $1,800. The hole in the wall left from the old unit was nicely filled with glass block by the tile guy.
The mustard-colored walls were next. I wanted to paint them Valspar's Iceberg Blue to match the pool hues outdoors. Thank goodness we brought home a paint sample. We painted part of the wall and Iceberg Blue revealed its electrifying side. We went with Valspar's Air Kiss, instead. Soft and light.
So now I had a blue room with beige tile. I went around the condo and gathered up a wicker chair and ottoman from an upstairs bedroom, an end table from the living room, throw pillows from upstairs and a pink vase.
I really didn't want to spend a lot on new stuff, but I did splurge on an entertainment center ($377, discounted). I'm from the Midwest, and the bookcase units with glass doors remind me of my roots. There's room for a small TV set and lots of videotapes and DVDs - and books, of course.
Buying a sofa was a challenge. The one I wanted measured more than 9 feet long - too big for a 15-by-15-foot room. I finally found a 7-footer that made me equally happy for $678.
I was going for what I call birthday cake décor, chocolate with pink, blue and cream. Fun. My husband - who muttered, "Everyone has different taste," when he saw the entertainment center -- said he wanted birthday cake only on his birthday. He preferred pecan wicker furniture with splashy flowered pillows. When he didn't get that, he started pulling away from the project.
I hope he hasn't left it for good. He needs to install a ceiling fan.
Almost a year later, Heather, who recently changed the name of her company to Your Home Editor, came back for a final go-round.
My room still looked like a storage area. But Heather's business had taken off. This time, she charged me the full $65 an hour.
She has this thing about separating my 100-plus cookbooks from my other reading. Her original note read: "These are all your noncooking books. I'd love to see you get rid of one-half of them (or at least one-third)."
Well, that maybe will happen. But my books, which included collections of clippings from all the newspapers where I've worked, are precious. And someday, I'm sure I'll read that thick bio of Abraham Lincoln.
Heather put all the cookbooks in my pie cupboard. She fixed a broken shelf in my discounted new bookcase and arranged (by color!) the book jackets.
Upstairs, she found a few more decor items to "repurpose." This gives stuff a new job, she said, arranging some woodcarvings from our Jamaican honeymoon downstairs.
What was still lacking downstairs, she decided, were family photographs. I was surprised. Isn't that, dare I say it, clutter?
Nope, she said. Not when it's just a few and those few are arranged with care.
The room is done. It's like I have a new addition to the condo!
Sorry, kids, there's no place for your toy box.