Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Packrat: Nature vs. Nurture

I come from a long line of packrats. De-cluttering goes against my DNA structure.

My grandmother, whom I adored, could have been featured on one of the hoarder TV shows that are so popular right now. She lived in the same home for 45 years. From pictures, it looks like the house was clean and orderly until my grandfather died. Then everything went off the rails. My grandmother, a product of the Great Depression, began saving everything: newspapers, plastic containers, broken appliances, tins of old food. She got a job at a salvage store and brought home the items the store deemed too bent or broken to sell.

Most of my childhood memories of her house involve walking sideways down the hallway because the newspapers and boxes were piled to the ceiling and only allowed a narrow space to get by. Two of the three bedrooms in her house were always inaccessible because of the amount of stuff inside. She would sleep on a small section of exposed bed or on the living room sofa. My brother and I were never allowed into the basement. Never. It was one of the great mysteries of my childhood. I remember my brother and I peeking down there from the top basement stair step and seeing a jumble of boxes, papers, and junk.

To a child, this was heaven. I was always discovering something new at my grandmother's house. She kept all of my mother's toys (near mint-condition, highly collectible 1950s toys and comic books. My brother and I systematically destroyed most of them). We loved going over to her house because we could always, always find something new and interesting to play with. Sure, we had to crawl over boxes or dig through 25 years worth of junk to find it, but that was part of the fun. She did use this stuff as it was uncovered. I can still remember her ecstatic joy when she uncovered a metal box full of bar soap she had made back in World War II. A bar of it was at the kitchen sink for use thereafter.

When she passed away, I was in my early 20s and life circumstances allowed my husband and I to be the people to clean out most of her house. It took four 30 cubic foot dumpsters to clean it out. The dumpster company said it was a new record for them. The basement mystery was plumbed. I vomited in the front yard after inhaling the dust, mold, and grime that sailed off of an 80 year old sofa as it was carried to the dumpster. There were jars and boxes of strange chemicals and compounds. Probably most of it was toxic, but at that point we just had to make it go. It took two years from her death to get the job done.

My mother got the packrat gene, too, in a diluted form. Her tendencies were curbed by my father who was a throw-it-away-if-it-isn't-nailed-down type. (His mother lived a Spartan and utilitarian life in her tiny home where there was just enough of every item and everything had its place. Cleaning out her home after she passed was a breeze; it was done in a few weekends.) After my father's death and my mother's remarriage, the amount of stuff kept has mounted. My mom admits that there are spaces and rooms that are accumulating piles.

Me - I have the packrat gene, no doubt. One look at my crowded, cluttered house will tell you that. Unfortunately, the man I love is also a packrat, even more so than me in many ways. In his previous marriage, he lived in hoarder type conditions (apparently he is attracted to packrats). So I'm fighting an uphill battle here: my own predisposition and the instincts of my spouse. To de-clutter and organize will go against the grain for the both of us.

But, oh, the pay off at the end! The ideal of living in an organized and charming home! Instead of fruitlessly hunting for a required item, giving up, and buying another one - only to discover three versions of the lost item two weeks later - we'll be able to find what we need when we need it. Bliss.

So I'm going to do it. I'm going to fight against generations of packratdom to acheive an organized and de-cluttered household. One room at a time.


  1. This is a huge undertaking (regardless of the amount of your clutter)!

    So, the reason you are de-cluttering is control? Just curious. I honor my mom by stockpiling food, I suppose. I'm always afraid there is never enough. I logic that "it is just easier to have a spare on hand." I finally decided de-cluttering was a way to pick just what I needed / wanted to support my life. It was a freeing experience.

    I hope your husband is on-board! What is his motivation? What kind of motivation / teaching will you do for the wee packrats?

  2. @Scarlett: Well, gosh, you've just given me fodder for weeks worth of posts! I think each of the questions you ask are excellent and probably deserve a post of their own.