When my brother and I were teenagers, if our mum found our rooms untidy she would use only one threat to get us to tidy up.
“If you don’t clean this mess up by the time [insert arbitrary deadline here], I am going to throw all this stuff out! All of it! In the rubbish!”
My mum does not like mess. She also does not like to hold onto things she no longer needs.
My dad on the other hand, was a hoarder. Dad liked to hold onto everything that ever passed through his hands, or so it seemed when we cleaned out his garage (because in the last decade or so it was definitely his garage and no one else’s) a year after he passed away.
My brother, his brother-in-law and I took just three and a half hours to clean out what we’d imagined would take three days. We thought we’d be deliberating on each item: Do we need this? Does anyone want to keep it? Can we donate it? Or is it just junk?
As it turns out, there was very little to deliberate on. Save for the comprehensive collection of tools that Dad had amassed, one quick glance around the garage revealed that most of its contents was rubbish.
As we systematically went through it and turfed things out, the men repeatedly asked, “Why would you keep this?” and I would always reply, laughing, “Just in case!” and “You never know!”
Dad was the ultimate re-user, recycler and re-purposer of things so he saw the potential in all objects to become something else. He had both an enormous imagination and a sense of preparedness that would’ve made any scout jealous.
In one enormous box we found about 20 hubcaps from different cars. Rubbish, we decided, and out they all went.
About a month later my mum lost one of the hubcaps on her car. We all saw the irony and could just hear Dad laughing at us from the other side. “See?!” he’d be saying, “What did I tell you?!”
A few of the items in the garage reflected Dad’s acute sentimentality. Some telephones from the 70s and 80s from when he worked in telecommunications, our first portable radio cassette player and, most surprisingly of all, the suitcases that he and Mum brought over from Greece when they first emigrated to Australia in the mid 1960s. They’d been securely wrapped in plastic and were still in good condition.
Inside one of them was a plate with a photo of my parents from around the same time, which had become smoke damaged when we’d had a house fire. Mum had thrown it out with all the other smoke damaged items. To our surprise, Dad had pulled it out of the rubbish and kept it.
If you read the post on my collections you won’t be surprised to hear that I take after my dad in the sentimentality and hoarding stakes. I definitely have the hoarding gene within me and I often think of how dad ended up (he didn’t always have a garage full of junk) and caution myself with “there but for the grace of God go I”.
But I also take after my mum, and definitely have the purging gene in me, too. I find purging really cathartic. Some people, when they find that their cupboards are full and spare rooms overflowing, buy bigger houses or more storage. Not me. When the house is full I realise I’m overdue for a good clean out and get to it. I may hold onto things for a long time but then I’ll decide to clean out a cupboard or a whole room and – whoosh! – it’s all gone. Just like that.
There are pros and cons with each gene. I’ve accidentally held on to some odd little gems that I consider priceless, such as a single copy of the Weird Mysteries comic book series from the 70s. On the other hand, my purging zeal has led to some colossal mistakes being made, such as the time I donated my mint condition 70s Lego sets to charity and then found out they were worth a fortune.
If you’ve seen the TV show Hoarders you’ll know that serious hoarding always has an emotional basis. The inability to let something go emotionally and the quest to control one’s life in some way manifest in the extreme collection of everything from household goods to household rubbish, to the point where homes and backyards are filled wall to wall and chest high with utter, and in some cases truly bizarre, crap.
But it’s a fine line. In a way, collecting is socially acceptable and sanctioned hoarding. I read recently of a woman who has a shed that holds 13,000 teaspoons. An impressive collection, or a case of organised and narrowly focussed hoarding?
Perhaps we just don’t relate to what hoarders collect because it doesn’t make sense to us in the way a collection of teaspoons might, though for militant purgers like my mum, there is as little sense in a shed with 13,000 teaspoons as there is in my dad’s garage of crap.
Let’s face it, if hoarding is about holding on and purging is about letting go, we’re all hoarders in comparison to say, Buddhist monks, who let go of everything on their path to enlightenment. We could all look around our homes, I’m sure, and think about what meaning we gain from our possessions and what emotions lie behind our inability to let go of some things.
I can see myself giving away a lot of my things and living a very minimalist if not totally ascetic lifestyle when I’m older. Until I get to that point, I’ll continue to balance my two genetic dispositions to hoard and purge. And meanwhile, I’m holding onto that burnt out plate. Not quite ready to let it go.