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Real Life Problems: Hoarding

There is no doubt that my mother was a hoarder. It was difficult for her to part with anything. As I reach the tender age of 70, I realize that I have inherited some of my mother’s bad habits.
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June 21, 2023
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Long after my father died and my sister and I moved out, my mother continued to hang on to our split-level three bedroom home in suburban Montréal. I often thought that she could have bought a little more time on earth had she sold the home and rented a single floor apartment. There were six steps leading from her bedroom to the kitchen and another 16 steps to get down to the basement where the washer and dryer were installed. My mother resisted change and though the home was in need of a major upgrade and all of her original neighbors had long moved away, she hung on to the house until she collapsed of a fatal heart attack in her own bedroom. Now the burden fell on my sister and me to clean up the house and make it presentable for the next buyer. 

I had visited the house many times and I was also the designated “janitor” who looked after the place when my mother started spending winters in Florida. I had a pretty good idea of what was contained within those walls, but the sheer volume of stuff was beyond belief. My mother was a designer in the fashion industry and I think that she had a sample of every dress, blouse and suit that she ever designed. In fact, the basement was full of wall-to-wall clothing racks it looked like the clearance floor of Macy’s. She still had some of my dad’s old clothes as well as leftovers from my sister. 

There were magazines; Time, Life, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping (now that’s ironic) and Popular Science (guilty on that one). Newspapers announced the assassination of President Kennedy, the Canadian Centennial, and the first ever Montréal Expo’s home opener. Family photos, some in albums and some not, turned up in every closet. The bathroom medicine cabinets were filled with long expired drugs, lotions, boxes of Band-Aids and other medicinal products of questionable effectiveness.

One flat-screen TV from the early 2000’s was still usable, but three others were not. I found some of my father’s old Sinatra and Harry Belafonte records, which I claimed as my own. The garage contained some old rusty shovels, a dented tool box and winter tires for a 1971 Oldsmobile Delta 88. 

But most of all, there were tchotchkes. Hundreds of figurines, souvenirs, vases, bookends, stuffed animals and Jewish memorabilia found their way into every room in the house. Even though my mother wasn’t especially observant she still kept dozens of menorahs, extra mezuzahs, challah covers, wine goblets, Pesach plates and candlesticks. She had a few framed pictures of eminent rabbis though I am not sure she knew any of their names or why they were famous. 

That, dear readers, was the good stuff. She also collected pickle jars, elastic bands, and plastic containers. There were piles of papers; bills, tax notices, promotional material from real estate brokers, and stacks of grocery store flyers probably from the beginning of time.

Her pantry, fridge and freezer were overflowing with foodstuffs. As we dug deeper into the back shelves of the pantry, we found boxes and cans of foods from now defunct brands and long out of business grocery stores. We had no idea what was in the freezer as every item was covered with at least 30 layers of aluminum foil and nothing was labelled. 

We donated as much stuff as we could to local charities. My wife and kids took a few mementos to remember Bubby Sally. Before we started the clean-up, we rented one of those massive metal containers that sit in the driveway. It wasn’t long before the container was overflowing. We had to have it hauled away and order a second one. Broken furniture, incomplete sets of dishes, glasses and stained coffee mugs, luggage sets from the 1950s, musty old pillows, broken radios, lamps of all shapes and sizes, moth-eaten blankets and worn office supplies were all tossed into the waiting dumpster. 

There is no doubt that my mother was a hoarder. It was difficult for her to part with anything. She could often be heard saying “I’m not throwing it out, it just needs to be fixed.” or “You’ll see, this will come back into fashion in another year or two …” or most famously “It has sentimental value, I just can’t part with it”. That could be said about anything from a crystal chandelier to a can of sardines. The crowded house wouldn’t stop her from buying more, mostly useless stuff that required frequent dusting and other maintenance.

It took us several weeks to finally clear the house. It was sold a few weeks after that. Sometimes, a letter addressed to my late mother would be delivered to the old house. The new owner would call me and I had the very surreal experience of once again sitting at my mother’s kitchen table, but this time in a very well maintained, tchotchke-free home.

That, dear readers, is only half of the story. As I reach the tender age of 70, I realize that I have inherited some of my mother’s bad habits. My wife and I have lived in the same home for over 28 years. We raised three wonderful kids who have all moved out and made lives of their own, while leaving their clothes, toys, electronics, old iPhones, iPods, iPads and other “i”-debris behind. My wife has saved every drawing, project, composition and essay from our kids. Menorahs made of wood and wing-nuts, Seder plates made of muffin cups, tie-dyed challah covers and cardboard shofars lay in sometimes labelled bins in various rooms.

Don’t think that I am not guilty in contributing to the overflowing mountain of scrap. I collect old radios, vinyl, and Elvis memorabilia. My garage is full of old car parts, shovels, rakes and an old fashioned manual lawn-mower.

Thousands of Legos in every size, shape and color, a tube of Tinker Toys, model cars and trains, and various Barbie dolls can be found in the so-called guest room, which has become the de-facto playroom for my three-year-old grandson. Once, my wife found a handmade wooden dollhouse in a garbage bin. She made me come and pick it up so we could add it to our collection of useless junk. Don’t think that I am not guilty in contributing to the overflowing mountain of scrap. I collect old radios, vinyl, and Elvis memorabilia. My garage is full of old car parts, shovels, rakes and an old fashioned manual lawn-mower. 

Sadly, my wife and I don’t always agree on what goes and what stays. Last summer I cleaned out the garage. I put all the items that I thought were dispensable in the driveway in advance of taking them to the recycling center. When my wife came home she made me put most of the stuff back — a couple of fishing rods from her late uncle, a pair of cross-country skis and boots from the 1970s, a metal bedframe and headboard, a baby carriage, some random street signs and the rusty manual lawn-mower all went back into the garage.

Sometimes we have battles about her shoe collection that crowds her closet, the vestibule, the garage entrance and under various tables and desks. This has not been a smart move on my part, as she is quick to counter about my radios, laptop computers and other electronic paraphernalia that I refuse to part with.

As we agree to disagree, the piles keep getting larger, the crawl space, cupboards and closets get fuller and finding anything becomes a scavenger hunt. Yes, dear friends, there are courses, web sites and how-to books about attacking junk and organizing your home, but in the case of a married couple, you both need to be in the same right mind-set before you can start. 

I have a feeling that my kids will be going through the same trauma as me and my sister when my wife and I finally pack it in. They may want to get a better deal by pre-renting the containers in advance, or someone might ask “Anyone got a match?”


Paul J. Starr is a recently retired systems analyst who has lived his entire life in Montréal, Canada. On Sunday mornings he is “living the dream,” hosting a two-hour Internet radio show featuring music from the 50s and 60s called “Judy’s Diner.”

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