The great partition certainly seemed well thought-out. It looked as though the exchange of territories could be achieved bloodlessly, and possibly even with good humor.

Long negotiations had produced a multilateral agreement that surely would keep all parties happy. It was a triumph of diplomacy!

The eldest daughter had agreed to relinquish her prime bit of real estate to a younger sibling, since she herself was soon off to college. She would relocate to the guest room. The second child, who had spent six years one floor away from the rest of the tribe, would get to move into the first child's room. The third child would remain where she was, as would the fifth, and the fourth would move her things up to the aerie being vacated by the second.

Simple, no?

Of course, as with all complicated territorial disputes, there were subcategories that had to be negotiated separately. Each shows some potential for disruption, in the way of these things.

There's the Desk Issue, for instance: The second child reluctantly took his ancient, gouged and be-stickered desk with him, whilst the first child bequeathed her glamorous roll-top to the fourth, on condition that the landowners swiftly provided her with some sort of elegant writing surface in her new room. This condition has thus far not been met, and tensions are rising. The Bed Question arose when it was discovered that the first child's bed had been grievously compromised by broken metal slats that had, over the years, been secretly stabbing the mattress to death. Out it had to go, leaving a space on the floor on which child number two rather grumpily must sleep until a new bed can be arranged. These things take time! Meanwhile, the Shower Curtain Concern has caused friction between covetous tenants and their cheeseparing landlady, who asserts that there is no scary mold blotch too big that it can't be fixed by a nice bath in bleach.

Yet the real problem has been the cascading, suffocating tide of stuff that each child has had to disinter as part of making the great move.

Who knew they had so many objects? The children have filled bags with trash and loaded bags with toys and clothes to give away; they've traded piles of books with each other (and put dozens into shelves), and still the corridors are full of detritus deemed too sentimentally important to fling, yet too inconsequential to keep or display. There's a phalanx of ceramic piggy banks, each one lacking the plug that would hold coins in place but all dating back to everyone's cherished toddlerhood. There's a pile of swimming, diving and soccer trophies, most from long-forgotten seasons. There's a papier-mache leg of lamb, for heaven's sake, originating in an English class that read the famous Roald Dahl short story.

Oh, it's a messy business. The landowner has taken to roaming from room to room, hopelessly chanting William Morris' famous dictum: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." It is wonderful to say but difficult to act upon. I mean, which is a papier-mache leg of lamb, anyway: useful or beautiful?

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at