Hoarding, Shifting Perspectives or “New Use For a Light Bulb Box”

images (11)This stock photo is one that reminds me of my childhood home.

I remember when my pigtailed daughter was five, still in elementary school; the only time in her 18 years that she ever allowed long hair on her head… We would walk to the corner to wait for the bus and play ‘passing-the-time’ games like walking along the curb and trying not to fall off, crouching in the roadside grass and trying to coax a stray cat over to us with cat kibble we’d brought from our house, or cracking the big ice sheet that formed in the winter; with our boots. Sometimes I just talked with her. “So how are you liking Kindergarten?”

One day she answered me in the most amusing way, “Hey Mom, did you know we have an aide at school with only one arm?”

“Wow, now that’s something you don’t see every day!” I said.

She paused, twisting her little lips, thinking and replied, “But yes it is! I see her every day!”

I had a really good laugh. Now that’s an example of perspective, isn’t it? Here’s another one. I never really thought about what an out-of-towner would think about the area I live in, until we took a young lady from an entirely different background into our home for a week.

She was a completely unspoiled, giving, humble, genuine, funny intelligent friend of my daughter’s. And her father was a surgeon. My daughter’s father, when he was alive, had worked with his hands too but he used those hands to nail shingles on houses with timeworn hammers and nail guns. This young lady’s Dad used his impeccably clean tools to go inside skulls (the roofs of the body) and to operate on brains…

On one occasion during her visit, we were riding through a nearby city. She saw a big metal box in a convenient store parking lot. The words CLOTHES AND SHOES ONLY were blazoned blackly in block letters across it’s plain white front. She was quite confused, not understanding what it was until it was explained to her that it was a donation bin. She’d never seen one. It occurred to me that I had never glimpsed her life of cooks and maids and she was not privy to mine either. I think the experience was good for all of us. We all got along without a hitch.

Perspective. We’ve all got one. It’s a matter of stance, a point of view; it is dependent on one’s frame of reference. It’s easy to be grossed out, for example, by the mere idea of compulsive hoarders. Call it ‘pathological collecting’ or being a ‘packrat,’ it’s the same. One envisions dead stiff decayed cat carcasses festering under all manner of rubble (clothes, wrappers, pizza boxes, and the like) inside the home. The toilets are dirty, the dishes are so encrusted with food and buzzing with insects that who would want to eat off them if they did get clean?

I lived with my parents, an only child, in a home so packed full of piles there were paths that led from here to there. I never saw the corners where the walls met the floor. The piles consisted of empty cartons, yarn, clothes, empty light-bulb boxes (“you never know when they’ll come in handy!” my mother said)…bicycle pumps, you name it! We didn’t really own cleansers, to speak of. BUT the dishes were always clean. So were the clothes. The garbage did not pile up; it was taken outside. We always smelled nice and looked our best. We brushed our teeth; we cared. But, because my mother couldn’t bear it, we didn’t throw much away. There was no away.

This didn’t bother me too much, although I admitted to some shame which then morphed into guilt for being ashamed of my home. After all, there was so much love in it. When I’d watch the Brady Bunch though, and saw how “others lived,” with their shining kitchen floors, neat bedrooms and wall decorations, I did compare my situation to it. Our kitchen linoleum had no real color save for being goldish grayish brownish and torn black in places. Things were stacked higher than me in my room. I was afraid of the shadows that the piles cast on the path and the upper walls. I sometimes climbed these piles; daring to cause thingslides and objectlanches.

My mother came from a family of 12 kids. She was the youngest and at 16 was thrilled to marry my father and leave home. On the upside, I did not become a hoarder. Nor am I a neat freak. My mother had emotion attached to every THING. She was good at being a doting mother, held down a job and was creative…but didn’t manage money well or make decisions easily. In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, it was reported that hoarders have lower activity in the cingulate gyrus—a structure that runs through the middle of the brain, front to back—particularly in areas known to be involved in decision making and focusing attention.

People who loved my mother accepted her just as she was. She had a laugh like the old dinner bell on farms that alerted you to suppertime. Her laugh beckoned you. I know now that there’s a psychological component to her hoarding. It’s a new perspective.

images (12)

Guess what? She was usually right in the end. When I was 16 and my hamster died, that stashed-away light-bulb box made a fine little coffin!

She is gone; free from worldly possessions, and what has ended up as her most memorable legacy now is not the heaps of debris my father and I hauled to dumpster, Good Will and gave to family… I can forget her beloved mess and what it was like to never see the surface of any table, end table or countertop. I remember her beautiful spirit. And her spirit I can talk to every day. I can completely forget the shame. It’s all a matter of perspective.

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