Every once in a while, I channel surf into one of the hoarder shows. My first response is always to wonder how people can ever let this happen. Then I remember that not only have I seen this in person, but also the hoarder gene is alive and well in me.
As I visited various relatives over the years, it became clear to me that the tendency to accumulate what could politely be referred to as an excessive number of possessions — particularly books and National Geographics — clearly runs in the family. Books I understand, but what is it about National Geographics that make people hang on to them forever?
I know people even outside my family who have moved 12 times and while the dining room set or even the kids don’t always make the cut, the National Geographics invariably end up on the truck. I know sets of National Geographics that have seen more of the U.S. than most campaign buses.
Although it has some serious competition, the most egregious example of mass accumulation in my own genetic network is the ancestral home in Hard-To-Get-There, Ohio, which has been continuously in the family since 1865. Let me just say that you can acquire a lot of stuff in 140 years.
The last surviving occupant, my favorite aunt, died five years ago. My aunt encompassed the Hoarder Big 3: child of the Depression, ardent conservationist, and OCD packrat (maybe that’s four). It was a hoarder perfect storm.
The place was an absolute treasure trove of wonderful old stuff – Ladies Home Journals from the 1880s, gorgeous oil lamps, ornate ewers — intermixed, alas, with multiple cases of 40-year-old Jell-O, cartons of ratty underwear preserved in 1962 newspaper, and a huge freezer that was a veritable biohazard. Then there were the 10,000-plus books, three deep in the bookcases. Every letter I ever received from my aunt was written on the back of a piece of recycled junk mail.
I have to confess that when I went to visit her, the first thing I did was to check the latch on the upstairs bedroom window to make sure I could get out onto the roof and jump in case of fire. Because with the piles of old newspapers (which she intended to use for mulch for her gardens) and magazines (you can guess which kind) stacked up in every hallway, I figured I’d have approximately seven seconds to hurl myself out the window. I simply refused to have my Cause of Death be listed as “National Geographics.”
Little did I know what a firetrap the place really was. After my aunt died, we ordered up several 35-foot dumpsters and started dumping all the flattened cardboard boxes that had been on the back veranda in ever-increasing piles for as long as anyone could remember. I suddenly saw the color drain out of my husband’s face. Underneath it all was coal: 800 pounds of coal. The old coal burning stove, unused for decades, was still in the living room. I suddenly realized that the seven seconds of escape time I always thought I’d had was actually two.
My tiny garage-less cottage could fit in the living rooms of a lot of La Jolla homes so I try to keep it as uncluttered as possible. Recently, I did a major clean out and packed up 12 big bags of stuff for Goodwill. Loading them into the car, I suddenly broke out in a cold sweat. Maybe something valuable had gotten in there by mistake.
I unpacked it all and rechecked it. And then a third time. “You don’t need any of this stuff,” I repeated over and over all the way over to Goodwill.
As the attendant helped me unload, my hands shook with a paralyzing anxiety. “You OK?” he asked.
After I drove off, I had an overwhelming urge to loop back, throw myself on their unloading dock dumpster and scream, “Give me back my stuff!” I didn’t, but all the way home I thought I’d throw up.
A few nights later, I channel surfed into a hoarder show. I was just about to shake my head in wonder at how they let the place get so bad when I had to admit: I know. I really know.