I opened the door as far as I could. Things had shifted—making space in the interior chaos of the room, but making it harder to find entry. I stepped carefully over the threshold, looking around what had at one time or another been each of my brothers’ bedrooms, and now held a crossection of all the clutter that had accumulated since.
For three weeks my dad and I had been tackling the long overdue project of clearing away the mess of my late mother’s hoarding, learning to talk to each other in a more meaningful way as we went through it. We had broached topics that were painful, but they were also obvious and in their own way obstructive. As powerful as it is, suffering is not Who We Are, it’s something we experience; it takes up space within us, obscuring the truth with a false sense of relevance and finality. The important elements of our being are there from the start, framing our stories in all their variations. Catharsis was necessary, but it was not the end, it was not knowing one another.
This room—one half of our first major project: sorting and consolidating two rooms so that one held storage and the other could become exercise space—was an archaeological dig. We took a deep breath and excavated my mother’s addiction in layers, brushing off the dust and analyzing their significance.
Most of her recent life was in the form of fabric, as well as mass amounts of batting and yarn. In small doses, I could see the appeal of these things. While there was far too much of it (in the end, all the fabric gathered from throughout the house filled half the room from floor to ceiling), this represented purpose for her, something she could transform from meaningless to useful. With the fabric and batting she had been making quilts, single handedly (literally—she had use of only one hand after a stroke in her mid 30s), which she donated to charity and gave as gifts. The yarn was a bigger mystery—had she found a way to crochet? was it just a hope that she might someday? In a way it all represented hope: that she would live long enough to use it all, and that those years would be spent improving the world to the best of her ability. I boxed them with reverence, stacked her dreams and labeled them to be passed back into the world; a reincarnation of sorts.
Below the fabric we found the earlier miscellany, the random things she had acquired before finding purpose. There were boxes of novelty cookware, old hair curlers, and costume jewelry; things she never would’ve used or worn. I think she must’ve just bought them because they were such a good price. There were bags of old Christmas cards and wedding announcements, leaflets from church services; things she couldn’t throw away without feeling disrespectful. There were things she already had, like old ‘70s camping dishes and emergency survival kits, that she had compulsively bought in quadruplicate, perhaps to reiterate the value she placed on them or to hedge her bets against disasters.
But under those layers we found precious things, small objects that unlocked memories I had no idea were still a part of me. A tiny flannel robe that had been a hand-me-down for every child in the family, its texture so familiar; the “quiet book” made of felt that I had sat with in church, learning to tie shoelaces and work buttons; drawings we had made with our clumsy little fingers; stuffed toys that were already threadbare in the ‘80s… These she had saved because she loved her children.
(click here for the conclusion)