The Hoarding Gene

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.
Inside of a garage filled with various objects and rubbishMy 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.
190s radio casette playertwo 1960s suitcasesInside 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.
Cover of Weird Mysteries comic book showing a doctor unable to help a patient and a woman pointing to the devilIf 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.
photo of man and woman from 1960s on a plate that has had smoke damage


Confessions of an Incidental Collector

Last week I attended the funeral of Mrs J, the beautiful and much loved mother of one of my oldest friends. Thinking about Mrs J three things immediately sprung to mind. Orchids (she was a renowned grower with many pots of different colours and varieties), knitted dolls (she was a prolific knitter and knitted dolls for grandchildren) and salt and pepper shakers, because years ago the wall unit in the “J” family home housed a huge collection of salt and pepper shakers of every shape and size.

Remembering that collection made me reflect on my own collections over the years. In my teens and early twenties I made a serious effort at collecting matchboxes, women’s fashion magazines and, for a solid decade, Vanity Fair magazine.

None of these collections still exist, or at least they don’t exist in the same form. A lack of storage space at various times in my life caused me to say goodbye to all but a handful of the fashion magazines, to relegate my Vanity Fair magazines to boxes in my garage, and to get rid of about 90 per cent of my matchboxes, only keeping a handful of my favourites in a bowl on the coffee table and some of the Redheads, which I framed.

bowl containing various matchboxes including Greek Michelin tyres, Gnome, Frida Kahlo, Vogue Johnny Walker whisky, and Automatic Restauranta white box frame containing nine different Redheads matchboxes

These days I sort of collect bookmarks. I say ‘sort of’ because despite collecting them since I was a child, I don’t really put much of an effort into it. It’s only been in the past decade that it’s really kicked off; I’ve added bookmarks picked up on my travels and coincidentally received a few as gifts. They’re flat and lightweight so they don’t take up much space in your suitcase nor, importantly, when you get them home.

bookmarks of varying sizes and styles scattered on the floor

I did think bookmarks were my only active collection. Then I remembered my movie ticket collection. Since I was about 19 I have been collecting my cinema tickets. I’m not sure why I started, but I did and now I have over two decades’ worth of movie tickets in a small cardboard box.

The movie tickets box sits atop my collection of MTC theatre programs. I’ve bought a program from every play I’ve seen since the late 1980s. I’ve got nearly 100 programs. Needless to say inside each program is my ticket from the play.

When I opened the tickets box to photograph it I realised it came with several other mini collections inside it: concert, opera and ballet tickets (no programs for these: too expensive). And sporting event tickets.

a box containing used cinema tickets with more tickets scattered around it

But wait, there’s more. There was a little plastic wallet in the box that held a mini collection of Australian dollar and Greek drachma notes (no longer in use), and, inexplicably, some stamps. And a 50 cent coin or two. A wee mini collection that I’d totally forgotten about, stored within another collection.

Of course that reminded me of my foreign coin collection, kept in a small ceramic jar from Greece. It holds coins from places I’ve been to and a few I haven’t been to. Another mini collection.

Australian one dollar note, two dollar note and Greek 50 and 100 drachma notes, stamps (Blinky Bill, Weary Dunlop, Click go the Shears), 50 cent coinscattered coins of different sizes and metals from Greece, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the United States

There’s more too. On the same bookshelf that holds my theatre programs and bookmarks there’s my collection of … well, I guess you could call them little toys. Mostly they’re things I’ve picked up travelling, like the beaver soft toy from Vancouver, or the yo-yo from Cordoba. Within this collection I have a little sub-collection of small spinning tops, too.

Despite being a keyring, the Canadian beaver doesn’t live with the other keyrings I’ve collected (only a handful, honestly). They hang blue-tacked on the inside of one of my kitchen cupboards. Does this location make sense? No, it doesn’t. But I’ve come to realise that nothing much about what and why I collect things makes sense.

And still there are more small collections. I’ve got about a dozen decks of cards collected on my travels or received as gifts from friends who have travelled. When I took these out to look at them I discovered my old collection of pins and badges which used to adorn an oft-worn denim jacket in my uni days but now sit in a wooden box in the cupboard in my study.

Selection of small toys including Elvis Mr Potato Head, spinning tops, a robot, a small plane, figurines of a knight, king and jester, yo-yo and plush beaver

Oh and my marbles. I still have all the marbles I played with as a kid (cue countless jokes about not losing one’s marbles). Is this a collection? I would’ve said no except a few months ago I bought three very beautiful marbles and added them to the bag. So I’m going to say yes, it’s a collection.

I’m not including here my many collections of practical things that get used, or have had a practical use. Things that I just have a lot of, for example: bathers, scarves, handbags, cardigans, embroidered linen, books, cds, cookbooks, postcards, diaries.

I’m not even including the many other memento collections I have from my travels: the fridge magnets, the artworks or other wall hangings, the wee kitsch things that sit on my kitchen window sill.

selection of small spinning tops, some made of wood, others metal and plastic

Though even these things have something in common with all my other small collections, and that is that they haven’t really been put together with much intent. They’re all incidental collections.

I don’t go out of my way to collect things. I just happen to buy them or receive them or pick them up for free every now and again. Then I hold onto them. And I don’t often let go.

You could say I’ve curated the objects of my life into little groups that make sense to me. I guess the only thing I actively collect, then, is little wee collections.

scattered marbles of different colours and sizes