Let Inga Tell You: Parents, please don’t hoard it over your kids

Hoarding illustration

Have I ever mentioned that on my mother’s side of the family, I am the only one in my generation, including my siblings, who is not a hoarder?

My cousins and the sibs wouldn’t quite qualify for one of those cable TV shows. Well, maybe one of them. OK, two. They are more selective hoarders, particularly of books. And, of course, National Geographic.

What is it about National Geographic magazines that make people hang onto them forever? I know people who have moved 12 times and, while the dining room set or even the kids didn’t always make the cut, the National Geographics invariably end up on the truck.

It’s probably just as well that I live in a small built-by-the-lowest-bidder-after-The-War 1947 cottage with teeny closets and no garage, attic or basement. If we buy something, we have to give something else away.

Lack of space, however, has not deterred my various relatives. I learned only recently that one of my cousins actually lived in a four-bedroom, two-bath home that I always assumed from visits was a two-bedroom, one-bath home. The other two bedrooms and bath were just full of stuff.

Ultimately, they maxed out on space and bought a new house solely on the basis that it has two basements. Even so, my cousin admitted that they are footing an $8,000-a-year bill for outside storage.

My cousin added that the trustee for their estate accepted that responsibility only “with the stipulation that she had no responsibility for the immense quantity of ‘collectibles’ clogging up our home.” Smart move.

In the interest of transparency, I will confess that my sons consider my formerly 67 — now 36 — albums of family photos to be hoarding. I think of photos as “artistic curation.”

The kids had long been threatening to cremate me after my untimely death with the photo albums that I had amassed over the years. It would be a twofer — get rid of Mom and the albums all at once.

But at least my “hoard” was confined to one (very large) bookcase.

My dear friend Eleanor actually maintains that she found a cure for her husband’s hoarding. “I put my husband’s stuff that he wouldn’t get rid of in storage, then stopped paying the bill after three months.” This is brilliant in its simplicity.

On two occasions in my life, I have been tasked with cleaning out the home of a hoarder relative. Most of the organizations that pick up donations will take only 25 boxes at a time. That house took me eight months.

When I ended up cleaning out my aunt’s home in Hard-To-Get-There Ohio, distance and time constraints required a 35-foot trash bin, which we filled up the first day. My aunt (never married, no kids) literally had magazines dating to the late 1800s. And yes, National Geographics. The house had been in our family since 1860. It’s amazing how much stuff you can acquire in 145 years.

Some weeks ago, the The New York Times had an article about “death cleaning,” i.e., going through your possessions long before your demise so your relatives are not burdened with the truly onerous task of separating the wheat from the trash. One of the subsequent letters to the editor really caught my eye. The writer, after noting that she wasn’t planning to spend a single moment of her precious time culling her abundance of possessions, including 15 years of New Yorker magazines, rationalized it like this:

“Isn’t it enough that my children will receive whatever is left? Gosh, there’s some pretty good stuff in that mess. And isn’t it possible that inching their way through it will prove to be an interesting and rewarding treasure hunt? And won’t this exercise tell them things about me that could not be learned any other way, adding mortar to their memory, and perhaps even their regard for me?”

Note to her kids: Move now and leave no forwarding address!

Let me assure you, Letter Writer, their regard for you will be in the dump (along with most of your stuff) by the time they’re done “inching” through your lifetime collection of detritus.

“Interesting” and “rewarding” are not two adjectives I’d ever use in cleaning out the home of a hoarder. It’s true that my aunt’s house in Ohio produced some wonderful treasures, like stereopticons, gorgeous oil lamps and some ornate ewers — mixed, alas, with multiple cases of 40-year-old Jell-O, cartons of ratty underwear preserved in 1952 newspaper (she was a child of the Depression) and a huge freezer that was a veritable biohazard.

I remember showing my hoarder cousin a freezer container labeled “raspberries, 1968” (it was 2004). She said, “Maybe they’re still good?”

So, please. Do not do this to your poor children! For every “treasure” they might find after your demise, there will be 200 moments of fervent praying, “Please don’t let this be hereditary.”

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at ◆