As I cleaned my house this week, thoughts of paring down were running through my head. My family has been cursed so to speak, with the lengthy process of ‘digging out’ my late mother-in-law’s house. She was a pack rat. I seriously believe she was afflicted with the ‘hoarding disease,’ a psychological ailment which makes people feel as though they can’t throw anything away. In addition to a reluctance to pitch things out, they also feel the need to ‘rescue’ things from the doom of a garbage can or the clearance rack.
As we began the cleaning out process, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Her apartment had literally one path to walk through–and it was a narrow one. Larry’s mom was a very large woman and honestly, I don’t know how she managed to navagate through the tiny maze she made for herself. As far as I can tell, she could no longer use her bathtub for the amount of stuff she had piled up in front of it. I can’t even imagine what she was thinking when she allowed the items she was collecting to invade her living space.
I’m telling you all of this because my husband and I both felt the need to sort through everything in the house before we got rid of it all. We were searching mainly for important things like letters and clues as to who my husband’s father was, and for financial documents, missing stock certificates, etc. By sorting through a box or two of her personal momentos, we collected enough clues to lead us to find Larry’s father. His name is Ed. We now know him and have a relationship with him. In addition to my father-in-law, but waning in comparison, we found some other treasures. Probably 95% of the items we handled were things she just bought multi-multiples of over the years. Consequently, we brought car loads (yes, you read right. Car loads) of boxes and bags home to sort in the comfort of our home. We ended up keeping some of it, and most of what was salvagable is piled high in my dining room waiting to be put up on eBay. I can’t see my dining room table. The mess is seriously starting to make me nervous. My 1 car garage port is 1/3 filled with her boxes of papers. Even in death, her sickness is now afflicting our home.
Here is an approximate idea of what we sorted through. (Humor me and read this. I want to give you an appreciation for how bad it really was.) All numbers are approximate.
150 bags of second-hand jewelry still in the thrift store sacks. We found them lying in random places all over her apartment where she probably dropped them after returning home from shopping for them. These bags weren’t small. Each contained probably 5 lbs or more of jewelry.
350 boxes of perfectly folded fabric in various blends and fabric content.
300 boxes of newly purchased, now vintage clothing sorted by size, season and type. All these items still had the tags on them. (oh Madonne!)
100 bags of books
About 3000 (yes, that was 3K) garments on hangers, most still with the tags still on them.
About 65 Rubbermaid tubs of clothing, most still with tags.
Every freakin’ piece of used clothing she ever bought from the beginning of time.
Boxes upon boxes of papers (okay, I’ll give you a number… probably around 150)–junk mail from the last 20 years, probably every utility bill she ever received, her companies records, files and financials and misc. papers. Absolutely daunting.
200 bags of miscellaneous crap. Oh. My. God. Including bags, drawers and boxes of recyclable items. You can imagine–Carboard tubes, plastic dishwashing bottles, boxes of bottle caps, dry rotted rubber bands and worse!
All this in a four room apartment plus attic.
It’s only now that I’ve given you a rundown of the horror I’ve had to sort through over the last 3 years, that you can begin to sympathize with me. This ordeal has left the beautiful home I live in a bit of a wreck. I’m sure my childrens’ friends wonder why the hell we have so much stuff. I try to assure them most of it’s not mine and it’s only temporary, but they just smile and look at me funny.
Oh, how I hate it. I have begun pitching things. I am now bringing weekly carloads to my local Goodwill, and I’m convinced our donations alone have kept the store’s inventory stocked for the last 2 months. I want my house back. I am declaring war on ‘stuff’. I vow not to do to my children what has been done to me. My new motto is, “If you can’t see it, you don’t need it.” and how about this one, for all you folks out there who spend precious time searching for items you know you have but cannot find, “If you can’t find it, you don’t really have it?”
I’m convinced the only way to have a truly clean house is to pare down. Have only what you need. Surround yourself with a few things you love. I often ask myself this question, “If there was a fire and I could only save one material thing, not including personal family momentos, financial documents or photographs, what would it be? After doing a mental inventory of the items I own, I can honestly say, “I haven’t a clue!” Nothing means that much to me. So, question number 2. “Why, Emily, do you have all this stuff, if it’s basically meaningless to you?” Can I really put value on any of the things I own? Do I really need 25 stacks of fabric? Do I need every knitting book on the Amazon.com book list? Do I need and will I actually wear all the clothing I’m purchasing, no matter how great a bargain they were? The answer is no. And it doesn’t make me feel luxurious to wallow in my possessions, either. Owning a bunch of crap does nothing for me. I just want to simplify, streamline, have a fling fest, whatever. I need to eliminate from my life the things I no longer need. I’m in no way even at the point of where my husband’s mom was. And truthfully, I’m not a packrat at all. I have no problem tossing things out or donating items–None whatsoever. (Half my battle is trying to convince my husband to go along with me and get pitch happy. He is, after all, his mother’s son. The pack rat gene is in him and from what Ed tells me, he too, is also a chronic collector.)
No, I’m not turning into a Bhuddist monk, giving away everything except the shirt on mine and my kids’ backs. I’ve just come to my senses. If I own a lot less, life will become simpler. My homekeeping will become managable and take less time. I will no longer have to shuffle items from place to place to make things appear tidy. All I need to do is shovel them out once and the shuffling will cease. I want to surround myself with a few things that I love, like a painting or two that make my heart sing, my white ironstone pitcher collection tucked neatly in the curio, and a chotchky or two that make me smile. I should stop buying things on clearance at Target just because the stuff is cheap and attractive to look at. If you don’t need it, it’s not a good deal no matter how cheap it is. Most importantly, when the door bell rings unexpectedly, I won’t cringe to let someone in because the house is a disaster.
I read a Country Home article a year or so ago about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s new farmhouse somewhere in the South. For someone who has money, her home didn’t scream ‘filthy rich.’ Her decorating style was simple–white walls, creamy white slipcovered furniture, minimal decorative accents and one lone painting on the wall. Apparently the painting was given to her as a gift and reminded her of some place special–It was all she needed. The furniture she had looked like it was of great quality. She leads a simple life. Her home was clean and had the look of being a very serene place to live. That’s what I want.
In some aspects, my mother in law was miserable during her last years. She lamented many times to me about how she needed to clean her house. She told me I have no idea how much stuff she has. And indeed I didn’t, since she never allowed any of us up into her apartment. We were clueless as to the degree of her hoarding. I know she would have died more peacefully if she didn’t have to worry about what we would think. I know her mess added tremendous stress to her life. It must have been very unsettling to her.
I will learn from her mistakes and will teach my children, too. Don’t you agree…material things can actually add to one’s unhappiness, and they really don’t bring us that much happiness? Do you want to liberate yourself from your own mess? Imagine how much more money we would all have if we collected less, purchased only what we needed and didn’t allow ourselves to succumb to advertising ploys that try to get us to spend, spend spend. I’m going to utilize my public library and take books out on loan. Then, after I’ve finished, I will return the book and keep the literary mess out of my house. I will now only own a book that I absolutely must have because I will refer to it many times over. Sorry Amazon.com.
So, my last question is…”Will you be a shoveller or a shuffler? I hope to see you all at the Goodwill!