Trash has meaning in Grandma’s mind

My intention in writing about hoarding syndrome in today’s paper was not to capitalize on the new-found fame of the condition, recently popularized by shows such as “Hoarders” on A&E and TLC’s “Help! I’m a Hoarder.”

What I really wanted to do was let anyone who identifies with the symptoms of hoarding know they’re not alone. Anyone can have hoarding syndrome. Including my grandma.

My grandmother’s hoarding tendencies began when my father was a child. He remembers the kitchen counter piled with items as far back as 1957, when he was 8 years old.

Her compulsive desire to collect and cling to items, even those that wouldn’t hold meaning for anyone else, didn’t really go full tilt until 1972, when the youngest of her three children went to college and she and my grandfather moved.

The new house grew so full that the last time she let the family come over was Christmas 1988. She only lets my aunt in the home now.

I’m not sure if it’s more because she’s embarrassed by the mess or because she doesn’t want anyone to tell her she has to clean up. Any mention of cleaning out the house or taking just enough stuff out of her car so that she can see out her back window sends her into a defensive panic.

I knew something was different about my grandma when I was growing up, but I didn’t have a label for it. I thought she had a lot of money because she’d always stock a hotel room with food and souvenirs when she went on vacation, and I always got a stack of Christmas presents from her. These weren’t expensive presents, or even things I wanted. They were random things like a puzzle of the White House or a calendar with pictures of porcelain dolls. My brothers consistently received Georgetown sweatshirts for Christmas, even though our family had only been to Washington, D.C., once.

As I got older, I realized the presents were just items she threw in a shopping cart throughout the year.

Often the items never made it into wrapping paper and were lost in a pile in the living room, or a box in the basement, or at the foot of the bed, forever. Even more stuff she never intended to give away, like her obsessively collected Beanie Babies.

From what my aunt tells me, there’s a narrow path through the junk leading from the back door, reaching through the kitchen and winding to a bedroom and a bathroom. The rest of the home is covered in piles of newspapers, old mail, knickknacks and whatever else my grandmother has hoarded.

She gave up cooking years ago, her oven full of flower pots, and she eats fast food on a regular basis. I peeked in her car when I was home at Christmas and saw the seats stuffed with magazines, shopping bags and restaurant containers any normal person could easily throw away. Something in her brain tells her she can’t do that.

She fell in the basement once before, and I wonder how long it will be before something falls on her. When her dog died about five years ago, I seriously pondered whether the terrier had suffocated under a stack of magazines. Mice skitter through the mounds, and I worry what my grandma is inhaling as she sleeps.

Luckily, my grandfather sleeps in a nursing home, and sometimes she stays overnight in a room there for a $50 fee. She’d be better off getting a room with her husband, but she can’t afford to move in without moving out of her house. That means cleaning it, and she won’t do that.

In her mind, the trash has meaning. The last time my dad offered to help clean, she said, “Don’t push me” and ended the conversation. He’s given up on the idea his 86-year-old mother will ever change. So have I.

When she passes, we’ll probably have to hire a cleaning crew and reserve a few Dumpsters. Family and strangers alike will traipse through the mess she hid for decades. The carpet is likely destroyed and there could even be holes in the floor. The place could easily be beyond repair and need to be demolished. A lifetime of saving everything my grandmother touched will be gone in a matter of seconds.


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