Tag Archives: family

family togetherness

Yesterday I took S to her Monday morning swimming lesson which is usually D’s domain. But he’s in the U.S. on business and so we enjoyed a girls’ day together.

When we arrived I noticed an older gentleman playing with two small girls in the splash pool. When we got to the lesson, he was sitting next to me with the older child in S’s class. I quickly surmised he was the grandfather, his daughter was there watching the lesson, and soon the grandmother also appeared. The family seemed to so happily enjoy each other that my mind quickly decided, “Grandparents must be here on vacation visiting the family.” And then from the conversation and the sheer detail exchanged with offers of, “I’ll take Maggie if it’s easier for you while you take Tilly to the party,” I discovered this is just their normal routine. Grandma and Grandpa are highly involved in their children’s lives. Everything about the picture seemed so ideal – constant smiles, relaxed, easy, and put-together. Like a magazine.

I was disturbed. Why the assumption that this was an occasional or even rare family event? There is so much tension with my parents that I have consciously avoided allowing them in the same room together since my brother’s high school graduation (that was 25 years ago). Not only that, I keep my visits with my parents expressly short. While my mother and I get along well and I could have a close relationship if geography and other factors didn’t get in the way, I cannot be around her husband who threatened to kill me when I was 24. And my HP father is syrupy sweet during our short visits, but he cannot be bothered to spend more than a couple of hours with me even during our visits back to America. He will likely never visit us in Australia. He has too much stuff to attend to.

From reading the stories from other Children of Hoarders, I don’t think many could brag of normal or easy relationships with their folks. Parents cross intimacy lines and become highly intrusive, or they wall themselves in with their stuff clinging to it rather than to their loved ones.

I sat at the pool thinking if S will have me, I will so gladly be that involved in her adult life. I would love to be there for her and her family. But can we break the cycle?


caring about another’s stuff

As I work my way through material on hoarding, family members trying to convince the hoarder to change his or her ways is a recurrent theme. I’m starting to wonder if I should feel guilty for not saying something to my dad. My relationship to my parents has long been one of, “you’re grown ups, it’s your life, you will do what you want.” As long as it doesn’t affect my living situation, I’m not very concerned about it.

What scares me more, though, is my uncertainty of their own awareness. I don’t think they know they have a hoarding problem or to what extent it affects them. Frost and Steketee in Stuff have written that the hoarder will go to great lengths to hide their overrun homes from others, which demonstrates a certain level of awareness, but when they are challenged on discarding individual items, they are not able to see that they have a problem. (Ironically, it is exactly this confrontation with individual items that made me realize how susceptible I am to hoarding.)

The two researchers rightfully point out that their work is based on individuals who have volunteered for study. On some level, these people already know they have an issue that needs to be dealt with. On the other hand, public health and social workers encounter hoarders regularly – people who have been reported to them and who are unwilling to change what they do not see. They have a certain blindness to their clutter or squalor.

My dad and step-mom make small remarks about wanting to get rid of things so they can sell their home, or that they need to clean up the house before anyone can visit, or even saying once, “I think you know we aren’t very good about getting rid of things,” when I mentioned they could donate all of my things left in the house. But I’m not sure they realize that they have two bedrooms that are unusable, a garage that hasn’t seen a car inside it since the 1990s when my brother cleaned it out, at least four non-functioning grills around the outside of the home, I do not know how many storage units full of collectibles, and so on. They still have livable space. So far.

It terrifies me to think, however, what my father will become if my step-mother dies before him. My only solution up to this point has been to move far away. But that doesn’t help these adults who are old enough to take care of themselves and not too old yet not to.

social hoarding?

The last few weeks while I’ve been buried in writing places other than here, I’ve been mentally teasing out the difference between collecting and hoarding. At the root of it, collecting seems to be a social activity – one that both takes the collector out into the world and one that brings others in to appreciate the collection. But what of hoarding?

Hoarders are known for the isolation that accompanies their stuff. They cannot bring people into their homes and their own family members are generally pushed out. Home becomes inhabitable. Stuff rules. But many of these people also lead active social lives outside of their homes, and they often seem outwardly gregarious. Is it just the home-space that is overrun with things? And then, in some ways, both the crazy couponing people and the collectors are making their homes unhomely by allowing their collections to take over, as organized and catalogued as they may be. The gathering/gleaning aspect of hoarding forces the hoarder into the world and in some instances does create social connections.

Of course, I could read one of the twenty research articles I’ve downloaded on this very topic rather than letting the digital files gather dust as I write into the vacant blogosphere from which answers rarely come.

story hoarding

I had a rare online chat with my step-mother on Saturday which led into questions about genealogy and then my great-grandfather and his mysterious life. While my step-mom unapologetically said she wishes she were interested in her ancestry, but she’s not, she very much wants my father to share his stories about our past. She dialed me up and gave the phone to my dad.

My dad and I spoke for about 45 minutes and he recounted stories about my grandfather’s childhood, growing up mostly with a single mom. I typed as quickly as I could while he chattered in a sort of non-linear fashion, thinking of additional points and background stories as he went. As he was telling me the most poignant stories that had been handed down, he remembered that while my grandfather was dying in the hospital, he had taken a tape recorder and recorded their dialogue. I don’t know what they talked about specifically but my dad confessed, “You know… I never listened to that tape.”

I urged him to find it and have it converted to digital format, something that baffles him completely. Instead he got sidetracked again and said, “You know … we want to start cleaning out the house and selling some of this stuff. But it’s probably going to take a long time.”

My father has been plagued with respiratory problems for the past five or more years. I’m fairly convinced it’s from the mold and dust that has accumulated in their stuff. He doesn’t seem able or motivated to have his health problems resolved. Instead he tells me he probably isn’t going to live that much longer – to which I nearly almost always reply, “but what if you do? What if you live to be 100?”

Closer to the point, however, are the stories that my father has been hoarding. He has family genealogy books and albums stored in the house, but his brain is the most cluttered space, crammed full of specific dates, names, places, and other details. I was able to take the information he gave me over the phone, from stories he had not lived himself but had heard from his parents, aunts and uncles, and I could corroborate most of the details using familysearch.org.

He’s unable to write down or record his thoughts in a usable way. I told my step-mom to put him in the car on the way to church, ask him a question, and hit record on a digital recorder. The man is haunted by so many stories that he relives readily, eagerly even, but he’s unable to save them for us. Why hold on to something valuable, only to watch it deteriorate from disuse? Why conjure it up in your mind repeatedly, obsessively, but be unable to materialize the object, to put it in its rightful spot, to store it away or relinquish it totally?


long lineage

During our trip to visit my extended family over the past few days, many stories about the hoarders in our family were recounted. It almost made me feel proud that my tendencies are so restrained in comparison. As I posted yesterday, my grandmother is not at all ashamed of her tendency to keep things and to get things for free. She lived through the Great Depression and it was engrained in her, “waste not, want not.” (On a side note– in a difficult moment, she offered me more handmade dish towels that I had to decline.)

In addition to my grandmother, though, I heard stories about her sister Bea and her closets full of collectibles. She had a family free-for-all when she moved into a smaller condo. Everyone was invited to come through the farm-house and take whatever antiques they desired, especially enamel dishes, wooden ironing boards, and old utensils.

My aunt was looking for a moment of solitude over the weekend when she could sneak piles of my  uncle’s things out of the house. Their house, in my view, is quite clean and under control. She said her method is to put unused things in a box. Then if six months have passed and she hasn’t looked in the box, she gets rid of the box. Even she has created coping mechanisms to deal with the clutter.

not my clutter

I think, as I digest all of this, that keeping things is sort of a normal human compulsion. We all accumulate things whether we like to or not. The problem arises for some of us when the anxiety of letting go becomes too great. I tried to explain to D. the other night what a big deal this really is to me. I never realized I had any type of problem with “stuff” until I started writing about it. Now that I’ve had several little breakdowns when asked to throw things out, I know there is a compulsion to hoard at work within me. If I were left alone (and indeed, when I did live alone), I would live in piles of clutter that would get cleaned up only when company was expected. I feel virtuous now for what I’ve been able to shed, and anguished when told it isn’t enough. I know I can live well and fine without my things, but confronting their absence is a constant and difficult battle for me.