Diary of a Pack Rat

Posted: May 27th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Hoarding, Housewife Superhero, Husbandry, Misc Neuroses, Mom | 1 Comment »

Whenever I throw something away I have to announce it to Mark. I’ll just scream out to him wherever he is from my position near the garbage can. “I’m throwing out these holey socks I’ve had since 7th grade!” Or, “I’m throwing out these flip flops with the paper-thin soles!”

I throw things out so infrequently I require positive reinforcement when I do so. It’s not like Mark is someone who has facility with tossing things himself. If anything, he understands how hard it is to part with crap, so he empathizes and cheers me on.

I’d say it’s a genetic trait since my mom was utterly incapable of parting with things. But it didn’t get passed down to all of us. My oldest sister Marie is living proof of the backlash of being the child of a hoarder. She throws things out with clinical ease, utter emotional detachment. In fact, at one point she told me she heard that things don’t last in the freezer for more than two weeks, so whatever she was keeping in there wasn’t around for long either. I don’t think that, aside from the humans, she’s got anything in her house that’s more than a few years old.

As the youngest, I represent the opposite side of the spectrum–though Ellen and Judy do their fair share of packratting. In fact, Judy has a storage unit with the contents of an entire apartment that she hasn’t lived in for years, so that counts for something.

At least everything that I hoard–with some exceptions–has some redeeming value. When my mother was selling the house we grew up in, which she’d lived in for over 40 years, my sisters and I slogged through three floors full of stuff. There were doll-sized afghans knitted by church bazaar ladies. Patterns for outdated outfits for pre-teens. Twin bed frames long unassembled, woven palm frond fans, mismatched shirt boxes from Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, circa God knows when (definitely pre-80s). And endless amounts of books and magazines. The woman had every Woman’s Day, Gourmet, and National Geographic ever printed (though not in any sort of order that might make them collectible), not to mention a pristine vintage set of The World Book Encyclopedia. (The Wold Book was the Internet back when I was in grade school.)

Much of this crap filled the eves of the attic, but much of it was in the living space. It wasn’t like she was a crazy-lady in a cat-filled house, but anywhere where there might be a couple magazines in a “tossers” house, there would be a treasure trove in which one could perform a sociological study of fashion and food trends through the decades in my mother’s house.

And her old magazines weren’t enough. You know when you go to a yard sale and someone is selling a carton of Bon Appetit magazines from 1974-1976, and you think to yourself, “Ha. Good luck selling those, buddy. Who the hell would buy those?”

Well, if the sale was east of the Mississippi, my mother would, that’s who. My cousin Nancy who is for all intents and purposes a sister, and certainly my mother’s fifth daughter, used to find ways to lug armloads of magazines out of my mother’s house after a visit, so she could recycle them. We would laugh until we cried talking about Nancy’s attempts to sneak out with a bag of yellowing National Enquirers (the dirty papers, as my grandmother called them), which my Aunt Mary would distribute to my mother after she and her sister, Mimi, had read them. Sometimes Nancy would almost get caught and oooh you didn’t want to cross my mother when you were trying to get rid of something she thought she needed. That was never an easy conversation, and always ended with you setting down the bag and Just. Walking. Away.

When we were getting ready to move her to her smaller house we’d argue with my mom over the smallest items. Up in the attic in a shoe box full of other random crap like pin cushions and crochet hooks I’d found a handle to a coffee mug–truly a white handle to a random mug, not even a china cup–and I remember my mother blew her stack when I tossed it in the garbage. “I’m holding onto that,” she scolded me. “That mug is somewhere and I’m going to glue it back on.” It would have been funny it was so absurd, if it weren’t for the fact that you’d been shoveling through stuff all day and wanted to just sit down and cry with exhaustion and frustration.

After my sisters and I had five of these arguments each with her, all over various worthless items, my mother grew incredibly defensive and upset over the whole enterprise. She was trying to hold onto all these pieces of her life, and we were thoughtlessly plowing through it all and willing to just throw it all away. I can see how the panic of something she really cherished getting discarded could be unnerving, but my sisters and I held staunchly to our side of the situation. We were blinded with drive to get more than 40 years of accumulation moved, organized, and/or somehow staged in a way that made it look appealing to a potential buyer.

Eventually we somehow managed to corral the save-able stuff, toss some of the crap on the sly, sell the better stuff we all agreed we didn’t want but someone else might, and get her into the sweet smaller house that she loved, without ever coming to blows or needing family mediation. Net net we must have somehow grown from the experience.

Part of the thing with my mother no doubt had to do with her having grown up in the Depression. She never used tea bags twice, but man did she scrape every last drop of batter from a mixing bowl. And in the way that you buy whatever laundry detergent you had growing up because that’s just what people use, I definitely picked up some of my mother’s Depression-inspired habits without realizing they were anything other than the way things are done.

When Shelley and I were first roommates I went into the fridge one night after dinner and saw that Shelley, whose mother was a bit older than my mom, had wrapped up the small heel of a tomato in Saran Wrap. I laughed when I saw it, thinking that even I would never have saved that, but Shelley would probably not hold onto flannel nightgowns for as long as I do, so it all evens out. Besides, how can you make fun of someone who is suffering from a version of an illness that you have?

At any rate, tonight I threw out a perfectly good shirt of Kate’s. Well, it used to be perfectly good, but it must have been in the laundry pile downstairs with some food on it because it got blue speckles of mold on it–even after going through the wash. The shirt was actually pretty new, but I knew it wasn’t ever going to come clean. So, after rejecting the thought of saving it as a rag, I just tossed it in the garbage can.

Maybe some day when Kate is helping us clean out the house so we can move to a smaller place, she’ll thank me for having let go of some things along the way.

1 Comment »

One Comment on “Diary of a Pack Rat”

  1. 1 Lori said at 9:29 am on May 28th, 2007:

    I am currently struggling through my own pack-rattery. I am in the nesting mode, but want a tidy nest, so I am being ever so slightly more ruthless than normal…which in the grand scheme of things might not be as ruthless as I need to be, or could be. The only thing that helps keep me tossing is the specter of my Aunt Edna and her (she beats your mom on this one) 70 years of stuff accumulated in the same house. shudder.

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