Helen Chappell - Feburary 2007
A Parable for Collectors
This time of year, I try to cull out my earthly possessions. Right now, there’s a nice pile of things by the front door that are either going to the thrift shop or the dump. I’ve become pretty ruthless about what I keep and what I toss out. For one thing, the older I get, the less I want to be weighed down with the dreadful burden of stuff and more stuff.
For another, if I get shot by an irate reader this week, I don’t want my nieces to be stuck, as I once was, trying to dispose of a nightmare collection of decades of hoarded stuff.
Seventeen rooms, two outbuildings and barn crammed to the ceilings with stuff, to be precise. So much stuff it took eight people an entire summer to clear it all out. So much stuff that at the end of our long national nightmare, we hired a dumpster and started tossing stuff out the window, pell mell, into it without regard for what it was.
This was a monument to the single minded dedication and obsessive-compulsive disorder of one woman. Her memorial was three decades of collected stuff. Stuff of every size, color, description and species. She never threw anything away, and in fact, if you threw something away, she would go and retrieve it, plus more.
Looking back, I guess we’re just lucky she collected stuff, not cats. The stuff, whether it was twenty boxes of paper clips or a twenty-year old, ten-cent box of McCormack Mint Leaves might have collected dust and been the construction material of mouse condos, but at least it didn’t smell like kitty litter.
If you’re lucky when you’re growing up, there’s always a friend with a huge family, so many kids that one or two more aren’t noticed.
Especially during adolescence, when things are a little tense at home and you need to disappear for a while, but you need to be somewhere where your parents know you’re safe. A place where all the kids just naturally gravitate and hang out, doing whatever teenagers do. A place with a million sibs, so the parental units don’t really mind the extra kids or another place at dinner.
The Browns were the family, and their enormous, rundown brick farmhouse deep in the country was the place to hang out. With their four kids and ten acres, there always seemed to be room for one or two or even three more. With seventeen rooms, including two attics and a huge basement, you could spend a week in that place and never see another living soul. We could be upstairs in one of the kids’ rooms, playing the Rolling Stones at full blast, and Mr. and Mrs. Brown, downstairs watching Lawrence Welk, barely felt the bass thuds through the oak beams that supported the floors.
Besides, the place was supposed to be haunted, and that accounted for at least some of the noise. Supposedly the farmer who’d owned the place before them had hanged himself in the orchard. Our friend Too High Tom once swore he saw the ghost flitter through the kitchen door. But there was a good reason we called him Too High Tom, and that was back in the ‘70s, when you were expected to inhale.
Mr. Brown worked for a large company in Delaware as a chemical engineer, and when he was home, generally had a few snorts and passed out on the couch until bedtime. His only exercise seemed to be riding around on their Gravely mower, cutting their vast acreage. Every once in a while he’d yell at us kids, but mostly, he tended to ignore us, which suited us just fine. Sometimes, if he and Mrs. Brown were in a really good mood, they’d dance to “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” for us. They were pretty good at it, too.
Mrs. Brown, like most women of her generation, was a stay-at-home mom. I don’t think she cleaned much, because theirs was one of the most cheerfully dirty and cluttered houses I’d ever seen until that time. She wasn’t a great cook either. She was the only person I’ve ever known who could ruin a baked ham, and how can you do that? But they had a loud, cheerful dining room, and I can remember a lot of laughter at that table. And there was always room for one more, especially if you could snort milk out of your nose when someone made an outrageous pun. They all loved puns.
I think what Mrs. Brown did best was shop and hoard. She was a true child of the Depression, and from what I could gather, she’d gone without a lot after her father left her and her mother and ran off with another woman and left all his money to Billy Graham. She and her mother must have gone without a lot, because she was always shopping for more stuff.
For instance, she must have kept about 100 rolls of toilet paper on hand at all times. Not to mention all the toothpaste, deodorant, soap and shampoo in the known world. They had a closet jammed with this stuff, and she was always adding more to it.
But her shopping compulsion didn’t end there, oh, no. She shopped heavily and often at discount stores and thrift shops, bringing home bags and bags and bags of cheap stuff, most of which no one would have any earthly use for. She had one drawer that was filled with those folding plastic rain bonnets, for instance. Thousands of them.
At one point, the two younger girls, Judy and Carol, cleaned out their overloaded closets and took all the clothes they would never wear to a local thrift shop. A week later, Mrs. Brown went to that same thrift shop and bought back all the clothes they’d donated, plus some. I guess we should have known there was a problem, but we were young and dumb and leading our own lives.
One by one, the kids went to college and moved out. We came home for the holidays and for visits, and never noticed how much stuff was creeping into every spare space. Even when I read My Brother’s Keeper, an old bestseller about New York’s Collyer Brothers, hoarders so obsessive that one brother was killed by an avalanche of old newspapers in their jam-packed house, I didn’t put two and two together.
In the fullness of time, Mrs. Brown died. Mr. Brown lived on, the house untouched and certainly not cleaned out. We were grown and on our own when he finally succumbed, and the job of clearing out the house fell to son Bob and his wife, Bunny, our friend Too High Tom and sometimes, me. The rest of the kids just couldn’t cope with it. And who can blame them?
It was even worse than I had thought.
As the kids grew up and moved away, slowly, their empty rooms began to fill with Mrs. Brown’s compulsive purchases, cramming the empty nest with useless goods. Whole bedrooms were piled nearly ceiling high with unopened paper bags, the receipts still stapled to them.
Inside, you’d find three sadly mashed women’s hats, long out of date, or six pairs of men’s tube socks, never worn. It was as if Mrs. Brown had run through K-Mart with a magnet.
The drawers of every room were stuffed full, too. And over the years, wildlife had been busy. Mice had gnawed tunnels through the bags and the drawers and made cozy little nests for generation after generation. It looked like a miniature German POW camp in there, with tunnels running everywhere. Sad, useless stuff that no one could have employed when it was new was now ruined and mired in the dust and neglect of the ages.
Stuff had piled up in the living room and the dining room. The closets were full to bursting. The attics and the cellars were a wonderland of boughten treasures, now covered in a while beard-like mold. An old chicken coop filled, over the years, with three decades of old New Yorkers, most of them unread. An upright freezer in the laundry room held a frozen side of beef, neatly butchered and wrapped some twenty years ago, long ago freezer burned beyond use. Pots and pans dating back to the Victorian era. Women’s gowns, ditto.
Well, we salvaged what we could, and the siblings claimed what they wanted. I have to admit that I got a few nice souvenirs of Back in the Day too. But so much of it was beyond any use to anyone or anything.
We considered, as we filled trash bag after trash bag with dreck such as used wrapping paper and thousand year old Djer Kiss Face Powder, putting a sign at the foot of the driveway that said: LOOTERS WELCOME!
And believe me, they would have been, too. We would have greeted them with open arms and filled up the back of their pickups with broken- down couches and lamps in need of rewiring. There’s a point at which this kind of obsessive-compulsive hoarding leads to severe burnout. We could have tossed out the Star of India diamond into that dumpster and we wouldn’t have cared as long as it cleared out a room before the real estate lady started showing people the place.
A year or so later, I drove past the old farmhouse. I barely recognized it. The front porch no longer sagged beneath the weight of Christmas lights still out in July, and the whole place had been re-pointed and gentrified. And landscaped, too. It no longer looked like the kind of place where a bunch of teenagers lay on the back lawn at night, gazing up at the sky and wondering when they were going to get out of this godforsaken town and off to Real Life.
I bet it’s real clean inside, too.
But not half as much fun.