This is the story of clutter, of loneliness and little things and mountains growing between people. This is the story of fear and guilt, and the powerful experience of peeling it away. I’ll warn you now: this story will take more than one column to tell, and in the beginning there is darkness.
After my mom died, there was the matter of her stuff. In her later years she began compulsively hoarding (which we euphemistically thought of as collecting) more things than she had room to store or time to use—mostly junk from yard sales, but also ridiculous amounts of nonperishable food and relics from the estates of those she lost. My dad felt sick about it and tried to get her to stop, but it seemed to make her happy, and she really couldn’t help herself. Gradually the garage and cupboards and closets filled, large items took refuge on the back porch, spare bedrooms became storage rooms, mantles and tabletops were crowded, the floors became a maze between boxes and piled bags of fabric, and the home I grew up in was buried.
Along the way family events began to happen elsewhere, and with that our sense of unity and tradition began to dissolve. We started to congregate in pockets of siblings, our parents often bowing out, perhaps feeling that they didn’t belong in our young world, and we let them. Part of that dissolution was due to having spouses’ families to visit, but there was a measure of avoidance—it was hard to see the world of our childhood crushed under an avalanche of things we had no connection with. The symbolism of it was insidious: the junk that had come between us with time.
My mom grew up in extreme poverty in post-war England; in the leanest times of her childhood a meal might mean sharing a single egg among a family of five. She viewed possessions as more precious than most people would, and she derived a sense of security from knowing they were there “just in case.” More than that—with the growing isolation of her empty nest, her compulsion to fill the space increased. If her upbringing was the seed of her psychosis, this was the soil and sunlight: she was lonely, and attached herself to things where people had once been. It was a vicious cycle.
When she passed away her stuff remained, like an anchor tying her ghost to the corner of our eye. Her sewing sat on the table half finished, her nook plugged into the wall by her chair, her paperwork in piles that made sense only to her. At any moment, in this setting that your memories found so perfectly suited, you could almost see her going through her simple daily routine. My dad, heartbroken, couldn’t bring himself to disrespect the things she had loved so dearly by removing them, couldn’t bring himself to break that link to her. The house started to collect dust and cobwebs. We invited him to our houses for dinners and holidays, avoiding the pain of being in that place, and fighting the guilt of knowing he had no refuge from it.
My brothers and I talked about the state of the house many times, analyzing the story of the things and our mother and the walls that held us back. We squirmed with nagging regret and responsibility, but settled on the idea that it would be overstepping to go in and steamroll Dad’s grief with what we thought was best. We continued as we had been. Until the day my dad finally brought it up—the need to do something about all of it, and what was holding him back. With the opportunity laid in front of me, I had to face my real fear: it wasn’t just a matter of dealing with the full scope of my mother’s loneliness, it was dealing with the fact that I had also been failing my dad.
(read Part Two here)