Hoarding is a big problem. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, how much money you have in the bank, or not. Maybe saving stuff is like saving little slivers of ourselves. We know how this story of life is going to end. That we are marching, crawling, dancing, back-flipping toward the inevitable. Does squirreling the stuff away lull us into denial? Mute the truth? Massage our egos just enough to make it through one more day and still feel tethered to this earth by another delivery from Amazon?
My mother passed away last July. My father died twenty years earlier and his stuff has been sitting dormant in their house all this time. The place needs to be cleared out, cleaned up and sold. I don’t have brothers or sisters. My husband helps when he can but the job of looking at every little thing–of holding it in my hand, maybe pressing it against my heart and saying “thank you” or “good bye.” Of taking its picture then depositing it in the rented dumpster in the garage—a dumpster I will fill four times. This job is mine and mine alone. It feels like I’m riding a time machine as I plow through boxes, piles of papers, endless file cabinets and big black Hefty Bags stuffed with God-knows-what. Of memories hiding in the sooty, crusty corners that haven’t seen the light of day since 1976.
My parents had lives before they had me and now I’m coming face-to-face with the old report cards and term reports and art projects. I’m talking about theirs, not mine. In other words, my parents saved everything. And that’s just IN the house. There is an attic too. It takes two dump trucks from the most wonderful people at 1-800-Got-Junk? to clear that out. Just the attic. A friend stands sentry with me as the crew shoves bag after bag, box after box down the rickety wooden ladder into “today.” If I had the time and the energy I would have emptied and searched through each bag, each box. But I am exhausted and overwhelmed and soon it all looks alike and smells alike and I just want it to be gone.
One of the Junk guys tells me that his biggest job took thirty-two dump trucks. Thirty-two trucks to haul the mess of “whatever” away. Can you believe it? Our two loads are positively dainty compared to that…
After my father died my mother’s mental illness spiraled out of control. Not that it was ever really “in control” but with him around–well kind of living his own life in his office, his hallowed space downstairs next to the garage–she wouldn’t go too far off the rails. But after he passed away the piles of stuff grew like bamboo in a rainforest. She got meaner and petty and petulant.
The dishes lay filthy in the sink, clothes slung over chairs, then over boxes. She slept in a ratty daybed in front of the television in what was supposed to be the dining room, wearing a parka, the same parka from last night, from last week, from last month. My mother let me into the house long enough to drop groceries by the front door and would start screaming if I ventured beyond the relatively neat living room to the chaos-zone upstairs. She wouldn’t let anyone else in either. But she liked to talk on the phone and was such a good actress that she convinced her buddies that things were peachy keen at the old homestead.
“I don’t have hot water,” she confessed to me one day. “Let me call a plumber,” I implored. “NO!” She’s screaming now into the phone. This went on and on. I tried to enlist others to help, but she would tell them, in her assertive telephone voice “there’s no problem.” And they believed her and not me. She did not have hot water for a year.
In retrospect, I should have called Social Services, but termites did a better job. Yes, Western Exterminators rocked her world. My mother had to vacate the place for three days or else die with the bugs. The guys were already inside, climbing over stuff, prepping the house, the tent was unfurling over the windows, it was getting dark inside and I still had to push that woman out the front door. To a local retirement home where they treated her like “your royal highness” and got her to sign on the dotted line to move in.
My mom had her moments. She could be delightful. Smart. Laugh-out-loud funny. Then, out of the blue, turn all Joan Crawford. If you don’t believe me, read my blog Not Your Normal Trip to Trader Joes that I wrote last November. And now, here I am, cleaning up her mess, the landscape-of-her-psyche. Made visible.
And then there’s my father’s stuff. He was the organized one. The scientist. The one who saved bills and receipts and their mailing envelopes, going back to when Franklin Roosevelt was president. He received so many awards for his work as a writer and aerospace engineer. I take pictures of them. I take pictures of pictures. I’m doing my own hoarding, storing these electronic images somewhere in“the cloud.” Besides that, I have to look at every single scrap of paper in his office, on a mission to find social security numbers. I am keeping the shredding department at Office Depot very busy.
Once in a blue moon I have a dream that is so vivid it feels like all the characters are real. The place is real. The time is real. I had a dream like that the night after I scoured the bottom drawer of a tall file cabinet that was tucked into a dark, musty closet. That day I had gone back in time with him, reading the most excellent papers he wrote in high school. A young man before he became a husband or a father.
In my dream I am in a laundromat washing my clothes when I glance up and see my father a few machines over. He is middle-aged and healthy, long before emphysema reduces his world to the size of the bedroom where the massive oxygen tank is hissing like a metal silo of snakes. And keeping him alive.
But here he is, in my dream, doing his laundry. I can’t believe it. My daddy. I catch his eye. Daddy! Daddy! He looks at me. No, he looks THROUGH me. As if I am invisible. The sudden despair I feel is crushing. I can’t breathe and wake up gasping for air.
My husband and I talk about the dream over dinner. “What do you think it’s about?” he asks. I don’t believe for one minute that my father actually visited me, like a ghostly apparition. But I have learned that all the characters in my dreams reflect some aspect of myself. After all, I’m the one dreaming this stuff up. And there is something about washing. It’s about taking something and making it new again. A fresh start. The father in my dream is washing something and so am I.
The heart-wrenching part is that he doesn’t recognize me while, at the same time, I am so happy to see him I’m ready to dream-dance across the washing machines and hug him like there is no tomorrow. But this is my dream and those two seemingly disparate reactions belong to me. We are talking about letting go, aren’t we? He is letting go of me. And ultimately, I am letting go of him. Maybe in this dream my father and I are setting each other free.
Part Two Coming Soon…