I spent much of spring break at my mom’s house in Jacksonville, cleaning out two large storage closets, aka The Twin Pits of Decluttering Despair. They were the final frontiers in the massive undertaking that has been clearing out my childhood home. And while I am relieved to have pushed through to this point, I am also overwhelmed with sadness at the wasted potential I saw as I dug through stacks of paper and boxes.
(Behind that door: more stuff.)
My mother almost certainly suffers from a mild hoarding disorder. Unlike many hoarders, she does not shop, and does not Dumpster dive, and generally isn’t acquisitive. However, once items enter her house, they never leave. I started cleaning while she was in the hospital the first time, back in May of 2015. I discovered newspapers dating back to 2009 stacked on the kitchen table, a decade’s worth of telephone books, and every bank statement she’d ever received (including canceled checks). I discovered six closets packed full of clothes, in sizes ranging from 14 to 22, in decades ranging from 1980s to today. But she only ever wore the same three pairs of pants and five shirts – which were draped on chairs in her bedroom.
When my brother and I lived at home, my parents kept things reasonably neat. I left home in 2002. My father died in 2003, which was also the year my brother graduated college and moved out. Our house went from being comfortably full to achingly empty in the space of one year, and I have a suspicion that my mother’s hoarding ramped up as she tried to fill the void in her heart.
The process of sorting and purging and organizing has been, quite frankly, depressing. So much of the clutter is just redundant waste. My mom had dozens and dozens of towels, most of them monogrammed. But the towels, and the monograms, belonged to long-dead family members – my mother’s mother (died 2008) and my mother’s aunt (died 1986). My mother has just a few pictures of her aunt, but 15 of her towels. Why? Why did she feel it was her obligation to carry the dead woman’s textiles? Similarly, she had sheets for full and queen beds, despite not owning beds in either of those sizes. I used the sheets and towels as packing materials, and STILL sent an entire vanload to Goodwill.
Some of the things I’ve had to get rid of were amusing, like the meat slicer my parents received as a wedding gift. It was still in the box. They also had a case of eight track tapes. Neil Diamond. AW YISS.
I was sad about the items she never allowed herself to enjoy. I threw out pounds of food gifts she’d never opened – jams and cookies and chutneys and preserves. She raved about her friend’s homemade chocolate sauce, a jar of which she received for Christmas every year. There were twelve jars in her fridge. Only one of them was open.
I found landscape plans for the property which had been drawn up for the previous owners. A dresser drawer was filled with old film reels from someone’s world travels. When I asked mom about them, she told me she found them in the house when they moved in. So she kept them. Because of course.
At the back of the large closet, I found three cardboard moving boxes that I’m pretty sure hadn’t been opened since my parents moved into the house in 1983. One of them contained baby shower gifts from 1979, when I was born – beautiful embroidered collars, a sterling cup, hand-knitted blankets, a magic hanky. Each was still in a gift box, wrapped in tissue, with the cards attached. These made me inexplicably angry – not only did she NOT use them when I was a baby, she didn’t even tell me they existed so that I could use them for my own babies. They just took up space in her closet, and her life, for no purpose whatsoever. It’s maddening. I know this is part of a real psychological problem, but it’s hard not to be frustrated.
Most upsetting are things that she’ll never be able to tell me about – photographs of vacations she can’t remember, objects that were carefully packaged and preserved, but now she doesn’t know why or when. If we’re all stories in the end, hers is unraveling.
My biggest challenge was resisting the impulse to keep everything that might be meaningful, that might be useful. My mother kept things that other people found beautiful and useful. She kept things because people told her she should. She kept things because people told her they were valuable. In time, those things began to bury her, and now it is my responsibility to catalog them, understand them…. and decide for myself what to let go. In this endeavor, help me to not be my mother’s daughter.