My mother passed away two days after Christmas in 2016, and in the year following her death and going through my mother’s belongings I came to realize that, to some degree, she was hoarding.
Now I myself know the difficulty of throwing some things away, or the mild worry of running out of shampoo or toothpaste or hand soap and not having any in the house. And along those lines, I think, my mother was hoarding quite specific things.
A little bit about my mother: she was born in 1932, a child of Depression Era Johnston County in North Carolina. Her father was a tobacco farmer at a time when farms and community were hit hard by first the postwar agricultural depression of the 1920’s, and then the banking collapse of the Great Depression.
Families were large back then, and children were expected to help on the farm. My mother’s mother had her while her mother was still bearing children so Mavis, my maternal grandmother, raised my mom and her younger brother alongside all her younger siblings.
“We didn’t know we were poor” was a common refrain at family reunions in my life, when the elders would look back at their childhoods. They had enough to eat, a roof over their heads, each other, and a community to lean on. Nothing was wasted but if anything was needed, it would get figured out.
And, they worked hard in the fields. Farming tobacco is especially difficult and dangerous for children because the children are exposed to nicotine and any pesticides that may be used. The aunts and uncles would tell stories of scrubbing their hands with lye until they were red and raw to get the sticky tobacco residue off of them. Some climbed high in the barns to hang the tobacco leaves for drying.
But what does it mean to grow up poor, devoutly Baptist, and then find yourself in the box of a decades-long abusive marriage?
My childhood was quite different from my mother’s, but even still — I was taught to clean my plate and waste not a bite of food. There were nights I sat at the kitchen table under a gloomy light fixture — in a standoff of sorts — to see which of us would would cave first: if I would eat the food or if she would give in and release me. She always won.
And into my adult years, I noticed her continued penchant for thrift morphing into a an impulse to keep. Paper printed on one side was still good as scratch paper for our to-do lists, the odd phone number, or to scribble on to set a pen working, and she had more than she’d ever use, stacked in drawers. When she carpeted her condo she kept the leftover remnant and handcut squares to place to foot of every table and chair upon so as to save any wear on the carpet. Candles were amassed for the odd power outage and never burned. Her choices were excessively practical, laudable, and deliberate.
Not to say she kept everything. But she kept specific, necessary, useful things, whether or not she used them.
When she passed away, her belongings were left to me to sort through. As I made my way through the silent work, arriving every day to go through her things and pack boxes, it was left to me to figure out what we could keep, and what must be donated.
In the last decade or so of her life, she stockpiled the things she was most anxious to run out of and storing more than she could ever use: several drawers in one of her dressers wholly devoted to bleached and pressed white cotton panty briefs uniformly folded and which, if I remember correctly, she saw as a luxury; cases of toilet paper stored everywhere and anywhere — under bathroom sinks and stacked high on shelves that rose to the ceiling in her garage; bathroom drawers and linen closet shelves filled with new, unopened toothbrushes and toothpaste.
And on the floor of the pantry, just off the kitchen, at least forty or fifty pounds of white cane sugar in five pound bags she was no longer able to bend over to lift. Now, my mother didn’t bake or have any real need for that much sugar, but rather than give it away or get rid of it, she held on to this sweetness to the end of her days.
And as I went through the rooms, touching her furniture here and there, taking in what was the material world she had created for herself, I realized that another item she seemed to be hoarding were, well, angels.
They were everywhere — large ones, small ones, those carved from wood, some made of brass, the musical angels, the papier mache angels, the hand-painted ones, and even cheap ones made from plastic. Angels serenely gazing from every angle in each room. Angels lifting their silent song through the carved “O” of their lips.
Now one might call this a “collection” — and I’m sure that I did, too, during her life. But in the context of these other parts of the story, having angels en masse throughout her home and at least one or two on most every surface in her space, it feels more like hoarding.
And I like to think of it that way: angels as a necessity. My mother, hoarding what is holy.
Hoarding her guides. Hoarding song. Hoarding someone to watch over her, over her home, over her beloveds.
Whispering Bless this house, bless us and keep us safe, over and over.