This Is What It’s Like To Grow Up With A Hoarder Mother


No matter what age your kids are, you’ve got the ultimate trump card. Yes, toddlers throw tantrums, teenagers stomp and pout and slam doors, but at the end of the day, you’re the adult. You set the rules. You may not be the ultimate arbiter of all that is good and right, but your kids don’t need to know that until they’re adults themselves. Until your kids are old enough to be out on their own, you are the model for all that is normal and proper and the way things are.

Because I understood the propriety of this parent-child dynamic, I spent my childhood assuming that my mother was simply in the right at all times. I never questioned whether it was normal that my mother received packages of sweaters and costume jewelry from eBay on a daily basis. I never contemplated whether it was standard operating procedure to build two walls’ worth of closets in the basement because the ones in the main part of the house were already crammed.

I never bothered to ask if it was in the Handbook of Motherhood for all the shelves in the home office to be packed with videotapes which overflowed into bookshelves along another wall of the basement. Whether it was in the Handbook’s appendix that the titles of the movies on those tapes would need to be documented onto index cards spanning multiple Rolodexes, lest a precious videotape be wasted on a movie that had already been recorded.

Before I turned 18 and went away to college, I thought my mother was a little odd only in the sense that everyone is unique. It may have crossed my mind that my mom was particularly unique, but until I turned 18, I thought that having all the closets so overflowing with clothes and shoes that some needed to take up residence on the tables, couches, and floors were simply a quirk. I knew all my friend’s mothers kept a few of their kids’ drawings, trophies, and baby items. Surely it was no big deal that my mother just couldn’t decide which ones to keep, so she kept all of them in stacks of boxes in the basement.

Most of my friends had been doing household chores for years to earn money or weekend liberty. I, however, was told NOT to do the dishes. I might break them or clog the sink drain or wreck the dishwasher, which was irreplacable for reasons unclear to me. I’d wind up secretively washing dishes anyway, usually with a surgical mask over my face. There would come a point when they were towering out of the sink and had developed fantastic mold colonies near the bottom of the pile.

I may also have been one of the few teens who was told NOT to do her own laundry, lest she break the also-teenaged washing machine that couldn’t be replaced because my mother had it since before I was born. Since I often found myself faced with the choice of surreptitiously doing the laundry or buying new clothes, however, I’d have to risk the washer’s priceless existence, just as soon as I cleared a path through my mother’s bags of unwashed laundry to reach it.

It wasn’t until my mother had to go to the hospital after failing to recover from jaw surgery during my first college break that I finally realized that not all was right in her world. In an attempt to make her next recovery easier, her friends as well as my father’s family came to the house to see what accommodations we could make. My father and I were accustomed to the bags, boxes, and overflowing closets. The newcomers weren’t. “We have got to clean this up,” my mother’s best friend declared as soon as she’d scraped her jaw off the floor.

I suspect most people would be pleased to discover that their homes had been magically tidied for no cost during their absence. But my mother was not most people. Upon seeing her newly dust-free surfaces and spaciously walkable floors, she exploded. She declared the “invaders” personae non grata, changed the locks on the doors, and demanded the return of whatever could be returned. She sobbed over the loss of individual items that none of us could have possibly noticed in the general fray, like a clay pumpkin her dead mother had made that had been stashed near the back of a crowded kitchen shelf filled with too many other knick-knacks to make itself noticed. I strongly suspect the only reason I escaped her wrath was because she had no one else to cling to. She’d spent too many years walling herself in with clothes, shoes, and costume jewelry.

Thanks to her self-imposed isolation, it took a week for anyone to find my mother’s body when she died three years later. It took me the better part of three months to clean her house. I had plenty of help, some of it professional, but as the sole heir to the estate, I had the final say on what remained and what got packed into a shipping box of its own. Though I kept only a small fraction of my mother’s belongings, they were enough to fill up most of a wall in my generous grandmother’s basement.

My mental inheritance, however, cannot be contained by any walls. I learned from years of tripping over packages and searching for that one raincoat among scads of them that it’s not necessary to organize. Everything in the house has value. This makes moving a challenge; in my own recent residential upheaval, I had to sternly tell myself, “I know you remembered this fondly once you picked it up, but you haven’t seen it since you moved in four years ago. Clearly you didn’t care enough to look.” Even with a newly instated rule of, “If it hasn’t beckoned to you in two years, you don’t need it,” I still agonized longer than I should have over shirts and shoes that I hadn’t particularly liked in the first place.

The lack of cleanliness I learned still haunts me. Dishes and laundry frequently go untouched for longer than I should really care to admit. Once I am forced to either shell out money for new items or get down to business, I’ll finally nag myself into doing the basic household chores. But surely, I always think, I can put it off just a little bit longer.

If a human life can be reduced to a lesson, the one I want to take from my mother’s is that all the inanimate objects in the world can’t take the place of going outside and living life. I try to take any opportunities to go do something, anything, with my friends. I’ll always take a day of hiking or skiing over one of shopping. In the name of trying new things, I’ll plug a specific food into Yelp and traipse off to the first result I get with an open mind and more open stomach. I doubt I’ll ever manage to achieve normal, but I hope I can at least stay on the right side of quirky.

(photo: Alon Brik/ Shutterstock)

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