Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I've blogged before about my mom's tendency to hold on to lots and lots of stuff (see True Materialism and Accumulation and Its Discontents).   Now that my dad is gone, I have a nagging worry that things will get worse.  Although he professed to save everything, even "string that's too short to save," he really didn't.  His world -- his print shop and carpentry shop -- were always neat and well organized, while the house -- my mother's domain -- well, not so much.   For example, I never knew him to hold on to piles of magazines just because there might be something worth rereading one day, like my mom does.  And unlike my mom, he didn't keep old clothes that he no longer wore (when they moved, she had oodles of dresses from her single days, despite being married for more than 50 years).   In fact he was a man of such few possessions that even my mom who is notoriously reluctant to get rid of things was able to dispose of all of his stuff within weeks of his death.

I got some insight into my mom's hoarding tendencies when I attended a lecture on the topic given by Randy Frost last week.  He talked about the connection to perfectionism -- hoarders are often afraid they will make the wrong choice when deciding what to get rid of, and so their default becomes saving everything.  And like my mother, many hoarders use a hobby or craft as an excuse to collect extra flotsam and jetsam (for my mother, it is her miniatures that require her to have vast amounts of fabric, buttons and other notions, old egg cartons, broken jewelry, bits and pieces of wood, etc.).

Let's be clear: in the nine-panel photo series of what a hoarder's home looks like, my mom's place is probably still in the top row in terms of clutter, which is to say, she is still considered normal.  I'll have to be honest though, that I could barely distinguish the difference between the photos in the last row.  It seems to me to be a real fine distinction between clutter that is an inch from the ceiling and clutter that touches the ceiling.  As one of the attendees noted, once all flat surfaces are cluttered, the room is basically not livable since there is no place to sit, prepare and eat a meal, or otherwise carry out the normal functions of daily living.

Dr. Frost talked about the ways that hoarders are different from so many of the rest of us, including their need to see their stuff; to organize things spatially, rather than, say topically; and the way that most of them ultimately value possessions more than people, despite their assertions to the contrary. These last two characteristics really struck home with me.  I recall that once I visited my mom at a time when brooches were all the rage.  She had a huge collection of them which she never wore and apparently intended to use with her "minis."  I set a couple aside -- and before I could ask her about them, she raged at my sister for taking them.  Apparently just a quick glance at her stuff told her they were missing (I never would have guessed she could have noticed, since she has thousands of tiny items).

Around the same time, when my niece was interested in dollhouses, she asked my mom if she could have one of my mom's minis for her own dollhouse.  Mom refused, in what became but one example of how she can't share her stuff, even with the people she loves.  (Who can imagine a grandmother who doesn't want to spoil her beautiful, golden-curled granddaughter?)

The only time I've ever seen my mom really mad at and disappointed in my older sister was during a yardsale my sister was holding.  J. was selling off a variety of household items, including, it turned out, some silver-plate trays and things that had once belonged to my grandmother.  They weren't remarkable items and J. had priced them quite reasonably to make them tempting to buyers.  I had hardly noticed them as I helped with the yardsale, despite the fact that I'm sure I had probably seen them many times before (I had cleaned my grandmother's apartment for years).  I was even in the room when my mom gave these things to my sister, after my grandmother passed away.  But I didn't recognize them -- they looked like the kind of ordinary silver trays that caterers often use.  My mother, of course, knew where they came from.  My mom had given the trays to my sister many years before because she didn't want them herself.  And yet she couldn't bear to have my sister part with them.

Update: A New York Times article called "It's Time to Say Goodbye to All That Stuff" based on the book The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier Uncluttered Life by Robin Zasio makes similar points about the emotion needs involved in acquiring and holding on to stuff.

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