A hoarder in the family, a collector of fraying memoriesBy Cristina DC Pastor
I’ve been spending a bit of time with my elderly aunt who lives in the Upper West Side.
Tita Emma is neighbors with the Lincoln Center, the Juilliard School of Music, the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Opera. The Central Park is a hundred or so steps away. She is right in the center of New York’s cultural mecca. On the rare times we’d get to chat on the phone, she would regale us with stories about the shows she’s been to. She invited us to the Neil Simon exhibit at the library and at one time asked, “Do you like Italian opera? There’s one at the Met next week, let’s go.”
See, there’s something else you should know about my aunt: She is a hoarder. She lives in an apartment that has floor-to-ceiling clutter, and the first time she opened her apartment to her daughter (who lives on the West Coast and came to check in on her), they could hardly open the door. She pushed away a few of the boxes, crouched underneath and walked through piles of paper, towels, suitcases, Playbills, blankets and clothes. The junk is astounding. My cousin was both shocked and angry. Shocked that Tita Emma had accumulated so much mess, angry that she came too late to stop it.
So there we were, wading through a mountain of casino giveaways, unopened bank statements, the takeout packets, the paper cups and napkins, the plastic bags, old books and magazines – all gathering dust and sprinkled with mice droppings. We sorted out the junk and created piles labeled as GIFTS, OFFICIAL PAPERS and FOR DONATIONS. She would rationalize that some of the stuff would be given away as gifts, others as donations, but never got around to doing it. Procrastination is a classic hoarder’s trait.
When I came one morning, she was washing a plastic spoon after having a bowl of cereal for breakfast.
“Tita, there’s more where that came from; you can throw that away,” I said gently.
“Sayang naman,” she said with a laugh.
The carefree in her is usually in jeans and loose top styled with a colorful scarf or layers of beaded necklaces. When she goes for her afternoon stroll wearing a wide-brimmed hat around the David Rubinstein Atrium, she looks every inch the urban-loving Manhattanite – which she has been over the last several decades. On nights she would go out to the theater, she would put on a shimmery blouse and a pair of showy earrings. She looks very pretty with just a touch of lipstick.My aunt is the “prototype,” according to a professional organizer we spoke to. She looks neatly put together masking the hidden clutter in her life — in this case, a two-bedroom apartment with a view of the sparkling Lincoln Center at night and the former World Trade Center Towers from her living room.
“I saw the towers collapse,” she would say of her recollection of 9/11. “Horrible.”
The death of her mother in 1985 may have set off her collecting instinct. She began with packets of sugar and powdered milk, soy sauce, chopsticks and paper napkins. That’s how many of them begin, according to medical literature and the TV reality shows: Grief and the need to be surrounded by what is familiar and comforting. It developed into a compulsive habit that worsened because there was no immediate family telling her ‘no’ or ‘stop.’
My aunt remarried a tall, good-looking American gentleman, who by my cousin’s recollection, was somewhat of a pack rat. Together they would collect odd stuff they’d pick up at weekend flea markets; some may have value, others not, but my aunt would continue to hold on to them long after her husband’s death in 2000.
Today, she is one of nearly 3 million Americans considered “compulsive hoarders” or suffering from “saver syndrome.” With or without professional help, they are torn on what to do with their possessions.
“So, now my mother lived alone since 2000 but it became even worse which I really could not imagine. I would talk to her and she would say that everything is fine,” said her daughter.
The fear is that she might lose her apartment because of the condition it’s in. Her daughter left a couple of phone numbers in case the building management comes calling – including the number of a junk cleaner. Some of her neighbors are aware and admonished her to get help while there’s still time. My aunt boils her tea with stacks of yellowing paper around her stove. She knows hers has been a life in decay, but like most hoarders, knowing when to get help is the most difficult decision.
“I know in my mind that I should do something,” she told me, “but it’s my heart I’m listening to.”