The Stuff That Came Between Mom and Me: A Story About Hoarding

Mom would make excuses about not having cleaned the house. I knew they were lies. I knew her house was full.

Susan Fekete | Longreads | March 2018 | 13 minutes (3,541 words)


I lived in Atlanta for six years after college. I only went back to St. Pete twice in that time, and both times I stayed with my aunt Linda.

Mom would make excuses about not having cleaned the house, not having done laundry, and therefore not having clean sheets on my bed. It made me sad, a little, because I knew they were lies. I knew her house was full.

Full — floor to ceiling, windows to walls — of stuff. Her mass of belongings included objects de art, trinkets, furniture, memorabilia, books, magazines, journals. And many cats, especially ones with extra toes. Although no one was sure anymore how many of those — or of anything else for that matter — she had.

When I visited, she came over to my aunt’s house, and we hugged and laughed and loved each other greatly and talked for hours on end. About everything.

Everything except the stuff in her house. My mother was a terrific metaphysician, passionate about the world around her and the lives of others. She was spiritual even at her darkest moments, and funny even in her greatest sorrows. She was a joy to be around, if you could avoid the stuff.

* * *

My mom must’ve grown tired of moving, because she stayed many years in that tiny house. I believe her tenure there resulted from a massive conglomeration of coincidences. Cosmic synchronicity. Karma. A big bang of sorts: A new beginning that ultimately brings the end.

She’d found a place she could easily afford, whether she was working a lot or only a little. She’d found a landlord, Joan, who was kind, and would frequently let the rent be late for weeks — even months — at a time, until my mother caught up. She’d amassed more stuff than she’d had in one place since we’d moved out of our big house, and moving it alone was a difficult, sad, embarrassing task to consider. I wasn’t nearby, so she didn’t need to keep up appearances for my sake. (A thing she always seemed to feel a need to do — even though, for my entire upbringing, I had been told that it was unnecessary to maintain appearances among family members, who were supposed to be honest with each other, real.)

So she stayed in the tiny house, and she lived and worked, and the garage sale sirens kept after her, calling her with their keening songs.

She was a joy to be around, if you could avoid the stuff.

I had a fairly good idea how things were going by what arrived in the mail, or via “Package Express” on a Greyhound Bus. Old habits die hard, and my mother was a brand loyalist (if she could afford to be) when it came to frozen vegetables, baking powder, and bus lines. It had become an ever more regular, more necessary part of her otherwise completely unstructured routine when I was away at college.

I loved her packages, and they usually made me laugh, so I never discouraged the practice, except on the occasions when I knew damned well she couldn’t afford it — and even then, my objections bore no weight with her. If I didn’t particularly want or need something that arrived in a box, I’d pass it on to a friend who might appreciate it. She’d usually send a card from her current “stack” of inventory, but the envelope would appear to be too small for the card, bulging at the seams from the clippings, articles, and pages from newspapers, magazines, and local bulletins. She clipped jokes that made her laugh. She clipped poems that she thought I’d like. She clipped articles about people we’d known and places we’d been together — lighthouses on the East Coast, space shuttle launches, a childhood friend marrying a prominent politician. She’d clip articles about things that she knew my friends liked and send them along, with little notes like, “This reminded me of Andrea,” or “Isn’t this the town in Connecticut where Steve is from?” scribbled across the top.

She was also famous for clipping the ends off of Celestial Seasonings tea boxes, because they usually contained some great quotation or sweet saying. She clipped these almost as loyally as we’d clipped Campbell’s Soup labels so we could turn them in at school. I always recognized these clippings as being from these particular boxes of tea because, well, she always sent me tea, too. And it was always Celestial Seasonings, unless the tea included Earl Grey, in which case it was nearly always Twining’s.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me, and please don’t be afraid to offer me tea, should we ever have the chance to visit together on a cool autumn evening. I love a nice cup of tea. I find something very soothing about preparing the water, steeping the bags in a teapot, filling the cup, sometimes adding honey or lemon. I like the presentation, the warm vapors rising to my nose from the cup as I slowly and deeply inhale the leaves, the herbs, the bits of flowers that season my water. So it’s not strange that my mother sent tea: I liked it, and she knew I did, so why not, right?

Right! But she’d send several boxes every time she sent me something, which was more tea than I could drink. More tea than I could serve and still have a life outside of serving tea. At one point, I owned no fewer than two boxes of every variety of Celestial Seasonings tea on the market.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

My mother’s care packages usually reflected some little corner of a disorganized mind. She’d include a couple of candles, pretty ones — maybe hand-dipped or made with organic soy or something. But she’d send them to me in a box along with some books she’d found at a secondhand bookstore, maybe about theater or Salvador Dali, or an old, gold-leafed copy of Longfellow poems, which I knew wasn’t worth anything, but it was ornate and beautiful, and I liked that it’d made her think of me. And some hard candies. All sent lovingly, by bus if she felt manic, or third-class postage if not. From Florida. In the middle of summer. So I’d open a box with great anticipation, made greater by the lovely lavender or patchouli or lemony scent from the candles inside, only to find the hard candies less than hard, and the candles melted over the pages of the books, an inseparable ball of wisdom and wax. And I’d laugh at my disappointment, and then I’d cry just a little because I knew she hadn’t considered this possible outcome, and because I knew that I’d be the one to break the news to her.

From time to time, she’d mail things to my friends, too. The ones to whom she sent things usually thought it was very sweet and thoughtful, and they rarely understood the caution with which the words, “What did she send, exactly?” came out of my mouth. Only one or two of them ever got things that were worth any negative mention. One got an envelope of clippings — good ones — but the whole thing reeked of cat piss. She was nice enough to assume, out loud and in my presence, that something had happened in transit — “Some feral cats must’ve gotten into a mail truck. Poor mailman!” — and laughed it off. Our eyes met at one point, and we both knew what we were afraid to say, but it was far too strange to address.

* * *

The other strange gift went to a couple, my friends and neighbors. I’d gone to school with one of them, and we were close, and kept a loving and watchful eye out for each other’s homes and welfare. It was Christmas, and I was working and busily rehearsing some theatrical production. Getting away to “home” seemed like an imposition on my oh-so-productive life, so I’d invited my mother to come visit for the holidays, my treat.

I thought it would be fun, different, and certainly less depressing than going back to my hometown with the full knowledge that I wouldn’t be invited into my mother’s house full of stuff if she could avoid it. With all of her stuff, her lifelong insistence that she wasn’t “very smart,” and her moods, which shifted more swiftly than a tornado’s direction, she was still one of my favorite people in the world.

My mother had always been the best hostess she could possibly be, given whatever means she had to host with. She was overly generous, spared no manageable expense, and would give up her own bed, couch, and floor for guests, even if it meant sleeping in her car for the night. She was equally as good a guest, and would never arrive to anyone’s home for a meal — be it friend, relative or stranger — without bringing along a gift, or more than one. Flowers bought or picked stealthily from a neighboring yard were always a good bet, or a bottle of wine — unless the host was a known alcoholic — maybe some dessert or fresh fruit or a tape of some piece of music she liked and wanted to share. She never arrived empty-handed, and the Christmas I invited her to Atlanta was no different.

My mother’s care packages usually reflected some little corner of a disorganized mind.

Getting her to town had already been a problem in and of itself when I picked her up at Hartsfield Airport that day. She was supposed to have arrived two days prior. It had taken me a full 24 hours to realize that the delay she said she’d suffered had been a ruse.

It shouldn’t have taken so long. I had experience with these things and should have known the signs. She’d missed enough school concerts, plays, graduations, and award ceremonies. Not to say that she hadn’t attended plenty. She had. But sometimes the world would get the better of her, and her strong, fighter’s spirit would be dragged down deep, drowning in the smallness of the situation. Held near the bottom, unable to gasp for air in the liquid uncertainty of these passing moments, she never knew how to signal for help. She seemed to think lifeguards were the enemy, so she’d flounder, alone, hoping to be thrown ashore by the oncoming tide. I recognized it as the depression shade of her colorful bipolar spectrum, and knew that somewhere inside herself she was, in fact, fighting — for herself, for me. But, as often as not, I also called it “selfishness,” because her depression seemed to get the best of her when I needed her most.

This Christmas visit was no different. I’d made plans for us, had lined up fun things to do, and had arranged to spend Christmas Day with some great friends, playing games, laughing loud, eating well. I felt, perhaps finally, grown up. I was managing my life, if not always easily, and coming into my own. I’d developed relationships, held down a job, had friends and artistic connections, and was as close to paying off both student loans and the IRS as I’d ever been. I wanted her to celebrate Christmas with me, while I celebrated that I was learning to live my life.

I’d called her five times the night before her flight was scheduled. No answer. I’d called the morning of her flight; no answer. I sat in my apartment, staring at the phone and out the window, wondering whether to go to the airport. I called again. Stared some more. Finally, 30 minutes after her flight was supposed to take off, my phone rang. Her “Hi” told me everything I needed to know. Then she tried to tell me a story about her washing machine at the laundromat breaking and not spinning properly, and having to move the clothes and rewash all of her laundry and, as a result, missing her flight. It was a long story with lots of phony details, but she knew by my lack of surprise and flat response — “So, are you coming at all?” — that I wasn’t buying it and was upset.

Two days later, she finally managed to get on a flight, and showed up with no suitcase: just two large tote bags, one with a zipper and one with things piled up and spilling out of the top of it. Somehow, they’d let one pass as her purse. She had layered herself in two blouses, a turtleneck, and a sweater because Atlanta was having a little cold snap. She wore a skirt, though, like she almost always did, and socks pulled halfway up her calves, underneath her Birkenstock shoes. She looked like she was either a wealthy, chic eccentric, or a bag lady. I waved at her when I saw her, mumbling under my breath, “Really?”

Thinking twice as much about others as about herself, she had managed, as usual, to bring something for everyone. In the bottom of the zipped tote was a second skirt, some underwear and socks, two more sweaters and a turtleneck — she’d sleep in her slip — her wallet, and a hairbrush with several rubber bands wrapped around the handle. Everything else she’d carried was for someone else. She asked me, as she got in the car, if I had any giftwrap, or if we might stop and pick some up. Did I mention that her flight had landed at 11:52 pm on Christmas Eve?

* * *

The next day, we arrived, with wine and gifts in tow, at my friends’ door. A lovely day was had by all, though sometime after dinner, my mom reported feeling ill and needing to retire to my home next door. I gave her the key and saw her off, thanking her for being there and giving her a warm, deep hug — the kind that I think always made us both feel at home. I stayed behind to drink wine and play games into the wee hours. This is when the embarrassment of my mother’s riches came to light. She’d given everyone a Christmas card. Though the envelopes had all been just a little yellowed, and the glue on the closures less than sticky, the cards were sweet, and each had a handwritten sentiment before my mother’s signature: Jonelle. (Though she’d found out that her name was spelled “Jonell” on her original birth certificate, she’d kept the “e” that she’d been taught to spell it with for most of her life, only ever signing “Jonell” during a particularly rebellious period.)

Most of my friends received some sort of handmade item from the bounty of the bottomless tote bag — a charm for a necklace, an ornament for the tree. Hand-painted. Crocheted. Decoupaged. Attached to the corner of each one’s card with a simple ribbon or strand of red yarn. I’d had some giftwrap, but I’m still uncertain where the ribbons and yarn came from.

The hosts were the reason she’d needed the giftwrap. She’d brought something for the couple generous enough to open their home to us on the holiday, and felt it deserved wrapping. It was a special type of chocolate, shaped like an orange.  It was the kind that presents itself as a whole fruit, but with one rap on a table splits into sections that each look like a real orange section robed in chocolate.  Mom had always found them unique and although she would rarely buy one for herself, it was a gift she loved to give. Something about it symbolized kinship and union to her, the parts of the whole.

I closed my eyes, ducked and waited for the pendulum to reach the end of the pivot, for the weight to oscillate over and over until she could finally rest again, in equilibrium.

It was hours later when one of the hosts remembered the chocolate, and opened it.

There’s a thing that happens to chocolate. I’ve never asked a chocolatier why, but I remember seeing something about it on The Cooking Channel or Food Network. Chocolate turns kind of white, or chalky, I think when it gets too old, or is heated up and cooled again (and again and again, maybe). Or maybe it happens when the chocolate gets buried and forgotten underneath a foot of clothing trampled by seven cats and stacked on top of a milk crate full of matchbox cars in poor condition and two Stretch Armstrong dolls sitting just next to nine cast iron skillets and a bag of 32 packs of cocktail napkins with “Class of ’89” printed on them (even though she knew no one who had graduated in 1989), all resting beside the five Styx albums she bought at least ten times, because she remembered that I loved them but forgot that I owned all of those albums in every form in which they have ever been available, including a now-broken cassette tape I still intend to splice.

Whatever it is, at any rate, the thing that happens to chocolate had happened to this Christmas gift. The host was sweet, especially considering that he’d only met my mother twice, and both times we’d been invading his home during a holiday. He had opened the discolored chocolate in the kitchen. Returning to the living room, where we all scribbled clues for the next round of some party game, he offered, “More wine? Anybody? Neal, how’s your beer holding out?” No one else had heard him mention the chocolate or knew he’d gone to open it. No one else had noticed that he had come back empty-handed.

When I thought an appropriate interval had passed, I excused myself to the restroom and made a pass through their kitchen, “to get a glass of ice water,” on my way back to the game. On the corner of the counter, resting on top of my giftwrap, was the chocolate in its foil wrapper. I peeked inside and noticed that its grandeur had been reduced to a chalky white orb as unappetizing as dung. I picked up the box and foil and turned toward the garbage can, ready to do away with the mess she’d made, when I noticed another problem with the chocolate. In addition to the appearance, the exterior of the box had a very slight smell, a faint odor, a soupçon of scent, barely noticeable. Once noticed, however, it was unmistakable. Cat piss: The same odor I’d caught a slight whiff of at the airport. The same liquid that had stained the unremoved price tag on the bottom of the pretty tin box she’d brought me. My mother, the woman who in my childhood had insisted that my baby-fine hair be brushed, combed, and tended to several times a day so it wouldn’t appear unruly, was living in cat piss. Merry Christmas.

I threw the box in the trash and returned to the game. That night, my mother and I had a terrible fight because she wanted to go home to St. Pete and insisted on leaving right away. (The bluest of the holiday blues had a firm hold on her. In retrospect, I understand that she didn’t want to “fake it,” and she especially didn’t want me to see her pain and sorrow.)

I refused to take her to the airport to await a flight on standby.

She cried.

She called a taxi.

I lost my cool.

She cried.

I yelled.

I told her that if she was going to come and visit again in the future, she should leave her cat piss-soaked presents behind.

The taxi came.

She left.

I cried.

We didn’t talk for two weeks, a desert of time.

* * *

I have a childhood memory. The moving truck had been filled and emptied twice, and the belongings continued to pour out of the house. Finally, in a fit of frustration and anger, our mother threw open the windows of the second-floor sewing room. Before any of us knew what was really happening, boxes of books and garbage bags full of fabric began sliding down the roof and falling with a thud into our front yard. The boxes of books split open on occasion, their syllables cascading across our lawn: Edgar Cayce, Carlos Castaneda, Merriam-Webster, and the “Illustrated Medical Dictionary.” It frightened me.

Even at 10 years old, I could predict that a huge box full of heavy books dropping from a second-story ledge would likely burst open when it hit the ground 12 or so feet below. Why could my mother not? THAT scared me.

I’d later understand that I was still connected to my mother’s heartbeat, still very in tune with the ebb and flow of her body’s rhythms. What scared me wasn’t boxes or books. What scared me was her fury, her upset, her confusion, her suffocation. What scared me was watching her flounder. What scared me was where she went whenever everything else — the madness — took over. It is, I believe, perhaps only by the grace of God that I did not see my mom’s illness clearly then, nor for many years to come. For years, every time her bipolar disorder swung, I closed my eyes, ducked and waited for the pendulum to reach the end of the pivot, for the weight to oscillate over and over until she could finally rest again, in equilibrium. Once her mood was at ease, days or months later, we’d together clean up the mess she’d made, whatever it looked like.

* * *

Susan Fekete is always dreaming about her next adventure and of how she’ll write about it. She’s working on her first book, Ten Boxes: A Story of Stuff.

Editor: Dana Snitzky