mother and daughter

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

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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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