Saturday, August 28, 2010

Julia's Story

I am the adult child of hoarders.

My mother has greater issues with this than my father did. I would classify my father as a moderate packrat: if something broke and he couldn't fix it right away, it went into the garage or attic because he might find time to fix it one day. If something was useful, but not needed at the moment, it met the same fate. Not too many of these items were ever repaired or used, but they were at least stored out of the way. My father's family had a tough ride through the Great Depression, and I always attributed his fear of waste to growing up during those hard times: "eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" was one of his mother's favorite sayings. We were far from wealthy ourselves, so having "supplies" made a certain amount of sense.

In addition to the potentially useful and possibly fixable things, my father also kept jars full of screws and nails, string, partial cans of paint, and all sorts of useful miscellany, because it might have a purpose and save us a dollar or two someday.

That made a certain amount of sense, and often those things were quite useful to have around.

He was also worried about losing track of potentially important paperwork, so every receipt, utility bill and bank statement since he came home from World War Two were tidily bundled into neatly labeled boxes, large and small. As the information in the boxes became outdated, the boxes moved to the attic or garage, just in case of the highly unlikely event that someday he might be audited, or that someday the bank or a utility provider might need proof of a bill being paid fifteen years previously.

The big difference between my parents was that my Dad could actually find the scrap lumber and the jars of nails and screws, and he almost always put his hoarded objects out of sight. Perhaps we might need them one day, but they didn't need to be in the living room.

All in all, I'd say my Dad was responsible for only 15-20% of the "stuff" in our house.

My parents had a traditional 1950s American marriage. Dad did the "manly" things like home maintenance, yard work and car repair, and Mom did the "ladylike" tasks of managing the household, child care and the family social agenda. Mom was raised to be dependent on men to fix things, carry things, paint things, and so forth, and Dad was all too happy to change the fuses, fix the a leaky toilet valve, change light bulbs and mow the lawn. This would come back to haunt her after Dad died. Luckily, Dad taught me to do most of the practical "handyman" things around the house.

During their working years, they both worked hard at their jobs. They were good parents. My Dad was hardworking, practical-minded and goodnatured. My mother is a kind, generous and witty person, and she never left the house without being impeccably dressed. Nobody did. Our clothes were always clean and ironed. To look at us as a family, outside of our home, you would never guess that our house was a live-in storage unit.

I really don't remember our house being more than a little bit cluttered when I was a small child -- what most folks would consider "a little untidy." I remember that the kitchen and bathroom were always hospital-clean. As for the rest of the house, I remember that there would always be a hurried dash to dust the furniture, collect up newspapers, put away laundry, run the vacuum and mop the floors before company came over, but after a couple of flurried hours, the house always sparkled. Mom would get out the cocktail glasses and canape dishes, Dad would fire up the barbeque grill, and friends and family would stop by. We had company a couple of times a month back in the Sixties.

My mother is extremely sentimental. I remember that in those days, she had hatboxes, shoeboxes and Grandpa's old cigar boxes stacked in the closets and cabinets -- boxes full of her "mementos." The boxes were still in the closets then.

My mother has a sentimental attachment to almost everything. But back then, "mementos" mostly included things that made a certain amount of sense, like high school yearbooks, photos of family and friends, memorable concert programs, letters from her brothers at sea during World War Two, and postcards sent by friends and family on vacation.

My grandfather died, and, several years later, when Grandma became ill, we partially moved into her house to help care for her in those last months. After she died, my mother inherited the house, because her older brothers and sisters were all well-established in homes of their own. We moved from our rental duplex into Grandma's place.

I think that's when the hoarding began.

First, we added a normal houseful of "stuff" to what was left of Grandma's belongings after Mom's brothers and sisters laid claim to pieces of furniture and other household goods, which were equitably distributed in the weeks after the funeral. And after the various furniture, china and dishes were sorted out, Grandma's other "stuff" went into boxes so we could move into the house. Grandma, having also survived the Depression, had packratted a lot of potentially useful fabric, buttons, Mason jars and all sorts of oddments, to keep them from going to waste, but her house was always neat. Her "stuff" was in the closets, attic and cupboards.

Boxing up Grandma's things was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, and I clearly remember my Dad telling me in later years that, some months after we had moved in, and were still clambering around the boxes, he offered to help sort out Grandma's clothes and such for donation to charity. But my mother just burst into tears and said, "I just can't do that right now." And the tears resumed every time the subject was raised. So the boxes stayed.

My mother was extremely close to her mother. Out of her whole family, my mother was the only one who stayed home until the very day she got married. Mom and Grandma did almost everything together. Mom and one of her sisters were the only ones of her siblings giving regular care to my grandmother during her illness, and Mom certainly was the one who seemed the most devastated when Grandma passed away.

The "stuff" began to accumulate in earnest a few years after Grandma's death. Mom became increasingly unable to throw things away, and the reasons for keeping things made less and less sense:

"Mom, why don't you throw this old magazine away?"
"That was my mother's."
"But it's just an old magazine."
"There's a recipe in there I want."
"Why don't you cut it out and put it in the recipe box?"
"It's full."


"Why are you keeping junk mail from all these church groups asking for donations?"
"I can't throw that away. It has prayer leaflets in it. You can't throw prayers in the trash."

It became harder and harder to navigate around our house, but the kitchen and bathroom remained spotless. My Mom would regularly mop and vacuum the navigable spaces in our house, and scrub the toilet, sink and bathtub, all the while ignoring the heaps of randomized stuff piled everywhere else around her.

I stopped inviting friends inside and spent most of my summer either outdoors, prowling the neighborhood and riding along the levees on bicycles with my friends, or holed up in the library near our house. When the weather was bad, I stayed home in my room. While it was partially occupied by a large wardrobe and a large trunk packed full of my grandmother's things, the rest of it belonged to me, and I kept it tidy. I liked the clear, open surface of my desk, my uncluttered nightstand, and my tidy little bookcase. I liked that the floor of my closet was clear except for shoes, and that the items on the top shelf were in good order. Grandma's packed-full trunk sat at the foot of my bed, and I used the lid as a surface to accommodate my school knapsack and a few stuffed animals.

My room was neat, but I was afraid to invite friends in because it was necessary to go through the rest of the house in order to get to my room.

I always went to my friends' houses. They never came to mine. Nobody ever asked me why.

Back then, society didn't have a word for "hoarding." Messy people were just considered to be terrible housekeepers and were whispered about behind their backs. If it happened at your house, you just didn't talk about it. You spent your playtime outside, on your bike.

There were other kids who didn't invite people over. Nobody ever asked them why, either. Maybe some of their parents were also hoarders. Or maybe they were alcoholics. Nobody talked about it, and back then, nobody consciously realized that keeping the secret was part of growing up in an alcoholic's or a hoarder's household. You just didn't talk about it.

One good thing about being a kid was that you didn't have to talk about your parents' lives. You could stay outside indefinitely, riding your bike and playing with the neighborhood kids. There were no "play dates." That hadn't been invented yet. Kids chose their own friends, and after school we played board games on each other's front porches, hung out at the candy store reading comic books, or roamed the neighborhood or park looking for a pick-up ball game or other things to do. You went home when the streetlights came on.

High school was harder. Dating was difficult. I could usually spend a few hours shoveling out the living room to get just that room presentable enough to invite someone in, but Mom wouldn't let me throw anything away. I had to put the things in boxes, and put the boxes in other rooms.

I always hoped like hell my date didn't need to go to the bathroom, and dreaded the idea of them navigating their way through the rest of the house to do so.

Within a few days, everything I'd removed from the living room always migrated back in.

I moved into the dorm to go to college, spending a weekend at home about once a month. By the time I returned home after freshman year for my summer job, more than half of my room was occupied by boxes and shopping bags full of Mom's "stuff."

I remember only partially unpacking when I returned from college that summer, because I suddenly had half a closet and less than half of a room to call my own. During that summer, I left most of my clothes and belongings in a suitcase, a trunk and a few boxes, and just took out what I needed most: clothes to wear to work, toiletries, a few books, and casual clothes for hanging out with friends when I had spare time.

My room had seemed a little cluttered over periodic visits and Christmas break, and at that time I'd hoped that Mom was simply shuffling things around -- perhaps she was finally getting around to sorting out Grandma's things. But as I settled in that summer, I realized that was not what had happened. Instead, my mother had simply colonized the empty space I had left behind.

That was the last summer I spent at home. I got a student apartment near the university after my second year of college. From then on, when I visited my family, I rarely spent the night, unless someone was ill or it was near a holiday. Because I lived about two hours' driving distance away, I was available for emergencies and didn't have to spend the night unless it was truly necessary.

My father's health began to fail when I was in my twenties. And as Dad's health began to deteriorate, so did the state of home maintenance. It was embarrassing for Mom to invite repairmen in, so I did what maintenance and repair that I could manage myself. I'm fairly handy at most things, but major repairs that require an extra pair of hands (or a professional license) were postponed.

During those years, the hoarding became worse. I'l talk about that in my next post.


  1. Thank-you for writing. I live on St. Croix U.S. Virgin Islands and found your story very interesting. I can't wait until you write your next one.

  2. Thank you! I have been busy at work but I plan to catch up on blogging again soon.

  3. My Mom would buy things as a natural resource - just to make them into other things.