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DINING ROOM TABLE ISN'T SO MESSY AFTER ALL

Longer days mean that sunshine is beginning to filter through the dust-coated window in the dining room. So, with a burst of enthusiasm, I am tackling spring cleaning. I want open space. I want to rid the room, the house and my head of all the clutter that's accumulated over these dark winter months.

I start with the dining room table, the family repository for the week's junk. With a sigh of embarrassment, I wonder what others would think of this strange compilation of stuff from our active family of five. A cheese grater and dish towel were at one point whisked from a kitchen counter and dumped here. Likewise a phone book, a pair of ice skates, junk mail, school books, papers and notebooks all have been heaped onto the middle of the table.

I want the mess gone, cleared right down to my antique crocheted tablecloth, which hasn't been seen in its entirety since the holidays. I begin by surveying the situation. The ice skates stop me. They're mine, of course. My daughter, age 11, borrowed them to go skating with her friends, the first time without adults.

She squeezed into them because she, my baby, already has a foot that's a full size larger than mine. I picture her at the rink, sharing secrets with her friends and enjoying the freedom that comes without mom and dad. I tie the laces into a bow and set them gently on the stair steps where they'll wait patiently until I make the two flights up to the attic. My zeal has cooled, but just a bit.

I sort the mail. Flyers and sale ads go into the recycling bin. I stop at a newsletter from one of the colleges where my oldest son has been accepted for the fall. He has big choices to make over the next few weeks, with any decision he makes resulting in his leaving home. Headstrong and independent, he rarely shares the options he's weighing. He doesn't ask for help. I set his mail aside. Losing energy, I sit down and look at what's left.

An advanced biology textbook and notes have been left behind by another son, my middle child. I scan his notes, noticing his handwriting -- small, meticulous, precise. He's so very different from his gregarious older brother. He's worked hard this year and done well, and in another year he'll be heading off to college as well.

I try to visualize him away -- he who already spends most evenings with a tight circle of friends. He'll do fine on his own when the time comes. I collect his books and notes and shuffle them to another part of the table, losing steam.

Under the notebook is another pair of footwear, my daughter's well-worn pink leather ballet slippers. Her dance classes and school activities take her away from home six days a week, but she drops in occasionally to eat, sleep, change shoes and dump her stuff on the table. I do not pick up the slippers. They look just fine there, I think.

Suddenly, this once unbearably cluttered table seems more like a favorite quilt made with scraps of memories; a sampler of achievements and interests woven by each of my three children. It occurs to me that such a collection will no longer accumulate in 10 years, or five years, or even two.

I rise slowly and head for the kitchen to make some tea. Not ready to let go of the clutter after all, I save my spring cleaning for another day.

Lisa Hess lives in Amherst.