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My ex-husband came from a family of hoarders. His parents were children of the Depression, and kept everything. Their house was packed - dolls and cat knickknacks everywhere, a sewing room piled to the ceiling with boxes. (Any time his mother was working on a project, she'd bring the sewing machine down to the kitchen table because it was the only open surface in the house.) I may, in twenty years, have seen the dining room cleared and the table unburied for use once. I never saw the attic; I'm told I should consider myself lucky. His sister, for a while, ran a junk shop - the perfect opportunity to collect stuff and (in theory) sell it on.

What the fuck is this doing in my house?

My ex, likewise, would keep everything, just in case he might use it someday.

Five lawn mowers, in varying states of functionality. Two chainsaws - those, once rescued from a lack of maintenance and careless handling, have turned out useful, but I suspect there's another in the shed. What do I need with three chainsaws?

Bins and bales of leather scraps. Enough sets of dishes and silverware for a month of dinner parties. Upwards of a dozen cases of empty wine bottles. And clothes - I've lost track of how many garbage bags full I've taken down to the thrift shop. I emptied two entire dressers, then (with the help of a friend with a pickup) took those too off to be donated. Countless boxes of books I know I'll never read have gone to the library, and bookshelves distributed among friends who needed them.

I couldn't bear to see it just go into the dumpster.

My friend P runs a business doing estate sales. It's easier, a lot of times, for the survivors to get an outside person, someone without sentimental attachments, to empty out a house after a family member dies - especially someone with contacts among antique dealers and consignment shops, who has a good sense of what is and isn't worth selling.

P has seen her share of hoarder houses. One of them had a room packed so full that the door wouldn't open - one of her setup people had to crawl in through a window and over the piles of boxes inside to unblock it. As part of running these sales, she always rents a dumpster: anything completely unsaleable goes into it during setup, and anything that hasn't sold that she knows she can't eBay goes into it at the end of the sale. This is why I have two dining room tables.

Sometime after we bought this house, my ex (who had been chronically unemployed or underemployed for going on two decades) started working for P as part of her setup crew. This gave him double opportunity: the opportunity to keep more stuff and the opportunity to bring home more stuff. Anything that's going to be thrown out anyway is fair game for employees; P doesn't care where it goes as long as the house is empty in the end. What doesn't sell is a result of the taste of the buyers who show up to the sale, and frequently mere fashion; it's no commentary on the quality of what's in the sale. Dark wood furniture, apparently, is Not Fashionable these days, which is how he ended up bringing home a perfectly serviceable dining room table and four chairs - never mind that we already had a dining room set. (I kept both, in the end - one table moved into my sewing room as a cutting table.)

If you want it to just go away, we can do that. Hire a dumpster, I'll round up some of the guys from the shop, and we'll take care of it for you.

Before it ended, I used to daydream about packing one carload and just leaving - taking a minimum of needs and wants and going to live in a small apartment somewhere. When it ended, I could have done that: paid P to do a moving/downsizing sale, emptied the house, and gone...somewhere.

Instead, four years on I'm still in the same house and still excavating. I've made progress: the last bastions are what used to be his office, the garage, and the shed. The latter two will need to wait until spring; I'm not working in uninsulated storage spaces until the weather is warmer. I spent most of this past weekend working in the office. One carload to electronics recycling and the thrift shop, two full contractor garbage bags for tomorrow's pickup, two more bags to go into recycling. I think I've found everything related to the wedding and the funeral now. The only bits I'm keeping are the official paperwork and the note I wrote to him when I left (which is stored away with the suicide note he left me).

I really hate this accumulation of stuff. Partly on a personal level: more often than not, I find energy to deal with it in a state of frustrated anger, looking around and finding yet another pointless item that I don't need, don't want, and now have to somehow deal with. But also as an expression of mindless consumerism; there is no reason to have so much of it. I hate throwing so much out, but there are limits to how much I can donate and sell and give away.

P has seen houses with stacks upon stacks of collectibles, trinkets, kitchen gadgets, every kind of trivial item, still in boxes, untouched. Why? What is the purpose of accumulating things like this, and getting no use or enjoyment from them? I can understand, if not share, the feeling that "I should keep this thing because I might use it eventually," although in my experience finding it when that moment comes is another matter. But acquiring things just for - what? For the sake of acquisition? - makes no sense to me.

Hoard"er (?), n.

One who hoards.

 

© Webster 1913.

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