Mom wasn’t a hoarder. Just a “sale” shopper. Coupon clipper. Catalog browser, then inevitable buyer. You know, Walter Drake, Harriet Carter, and Carol Wright Gifts catalogs. Then she saved the acquisitions, often unopened. Mom was more a collector. But she didn’t hoard. Unlike in a hoarder’s home, we could walk freely through the living room. No stacks blocked our path. No rows of piled up miscellany created narrow aisles. We could sit on chairs and sofas as intended. We didn’t have to climb over a mountain of seasonal-themed welcome mats, kitchy tea cozies, and NFL flannel pajamas to get to the bathroom. Like a hoarder, however, once something fell into Mom’s possession, she could not throw it away. “I will use it,” she’d insist. Or “Someone will like it. Maybe one of your gay friends needs a mini-weaving loom to make potholders.”
Because of Mom’s shopping habits, the family home became a small warehouse, albeit a reasonably orderly one. In it were stored an overstock of useful household items, unnecessary cheap crap, and doodads that defied categorization or names. Any suggestion, however, that she stop buying catalogue merchandise, reduce her coupon cutting, or eliminate some of the clutter was met with anger, defiance, and insults.
I was aware of this quirk in Mom’s personality while growing up as well as during my adult life when I lived on my own. So was my sister Dorie. But the obsessiveness of that habit was not fully appreciated until Mom fell and broke her hip at 95 in 2011 and was moved into an assisted living facility for the remaining three years of her life. Within days, I began exploring the nooks and crannies of what had become, after Dad’s 1999 death, Elizabeth’s Estate. What I found stashed in out of the way places did not surprise or shock me; instead, it triggered a panicked realization that now that we finally could get rid of this accumulation of varied paraphernalia, it was going to be a long, arduous task.
But several years before I explored the stacks of stuff stashed in the Nussbaum home, I had to examine the inordinate amount of junk mail Mom received. Most came from charities, frequently accompanied by a free gift which was, in actuality, a bribe, and they contributed to the organized clutter in the house. The frequent pleas from charities came because they knew they had found a sucker, a weak, heart-of-gold sucker. Mom had been unselectively giving minimum donations to charities for decades. She gave to any group that asked. Any group. Cancer research organizations. Animal adoption agencies. MADD. World War III Veterans. Disabled Christian Strippers. People With Poor Penmanship. The Pompano Beach Sunburned Lifeguard Association. Dogs with Large College Loan Debts.
Because I was aware of the number of charities sending her solicitations, I had had Mom’s mail delivery stopped and rerouted to a post office box several years before her fall. The first goal of this ploy was to amass one year’s worth of solicitations to analyze its volume. The results of this surreptitious collection showed that Mom had received over 450 pieces of mail from more than 150 charities during one year. After that was determined, the focus switched to halting the constant pleas for donations. To do this, I did a terrible thing; I fabricated the death of Elizabeth Nussbaum and, with faux tear-stained notes, informed the charities of it.
But the damage had already been done; Mom had amassed so many “gifts of appreciation” from charities that the large, heavy box holding them sitting on a bed in her sewing room overflowed. The bed’s mattress groaned with the pain of sprained springs. The overflow surrounded the box like lava from an erupted volcano. The box’s lid hovered over the box like the eruption’s gaseous cloud. In the box were 27 trees-worth of greeting cards designed before humor had been invented, outdated calendars, self-promotional bumper stickers, monogrammed key chains, photographs of the charities’ D-list celebrity supporters, notepads, pencils, pens, pins, and a partridge in a pear tree. The greeting cards alone could have filled a Hallmark Store, provided that particular shop only sold sappy saccharine cards. Around the box were scattered burlap shopping bags, tee-shirts, and paper-thin beach towels stylishly adorned in charity names or logos.
That collection of charity bribes straining that bed was only the beginning. In the living room a book shelf housed three sets of 1950s-1960s encyclopedias full of obsolete information. These reference books had not been used since the 1970s when both my sister and I had left the house to live on our own. Accompanying the encyclopedias were numerous editions of the Farmers’ Almanac and World Almanac & Book of Facts from decades past. They, too, were rarely used as references once Dad died. I had suggested at some point Mom toss out the encyclopedias, but she insisted they were “worth a lot of money.” I researched them; they were not. The internet had replaced encyclopedias. So there they sat, surviving in Mom’s Google-less world.
In the dining room were two doorknobs—one on the hallway door and the other on a closet door—so covered with dried, brittle rubber bands the knob’s narrow stem section could not be seen. Any rubber band that had ever entered the house—Thank you, The Seattle Times delivery person—was placed on one of those knobs. Very few ever left. They all dried out with age and non-use. They died of dehydration.
Mom’s kitchen was a major collection site of…oh, Lord, Mom’s kitchen; archeologists have certified the room a historic excavation area. In one cupboard, I found enough packets of sugar substitute to cause faux-diabetes in each person in China, India, and Indonesia. Many were boxed, probably bought with coupons or on sale, but far more were loose, taken from every restaurant Mom had ever visited. Next to the sugar substitutes were a near equal, no pun intended, amount of Coffee-Mate packets. Which she never used.
A plethora of pots, pans, dishes, and cooking utensils old enough to be honored by Willard Scott on The Today Show filled cabinets. You might think, then, they were antiques. But they had no value because they were in such poor condition last rites should have been performed every time one was used.
One of the bottom drawers in Mom’s kitchen contained food wrapping supplies. There was tin foil, three rolls. Unopened. There was Saran Wrap. Six rolls. All started. Aged. Dried out. With the ends permanently stuck to the remainder of the rolls. Useless. There were several boxes of sandwich bags intended for on-the-go meals, to pack work lunches, or to take when hiking the Himalayan Trail. Mom, however, did not eat on-the-go, work, or hike in Asia.
While many of us collect paper or plastic shopping and produce bags for future use, Mom did so with fanaticism. She had enough bags for every child in Oshkosh, Wisconsin to go trick or treating. For the next seven Halloweens.
The basement, however, was collection central for Mom. It was also a fire trap. Stacked haphazardly in the dark end of the basement were so many cardboard boxes, the entire Kardashian Family could pack and move without going from Safeway to Safeway begging for discarded boxes, which I am certain they do when they move into another multi-million house. There were so many boxes, even flattened, I filled our 32 gallon blue recycling bin about eight times.
On a shelf nearby were more decorative cookie tins than there would be elves at a Keebler convention. Because they could neither be easily flattened nor nested, the tins, too, took several weeks of recycling bin filling. Oh, and we tried finding the tins homes before tossing them; two garage/estate sales failed to place one cookie container in an adoptive home. People seem to adopt children and pets. But not round or rectangular cookie tins. Misguided priorities, I say.
Mom was a fine seamstress and talented dressmaker; she made most of her clothes as well as professionally altered clothes for other people. As a result, she had gathered so many fabric remnants through the decades that they, if sewn together, could have covered Canada. Well, maybe not Prince Edward Island. They remained, however, in the basement, near the cookie tins, waiting to be used again. That rarely happened. Therefore, these ancient remnants sat, collecting dust, housing insects, and deteriorating with age. Like the aforementioned cardboard boxes, these boxes of fabric leftovers were a fire hazard. But they were not nearly the danger the countless envelopes of paper sewing patterns were. These out-dated patterns, of course, reflected styles popular during the days of Madame Curie, Dolly Madison, Jean d’Arc, and Eve.
Another fire danger simmered under the stairwell. That is where Mom stashed every piece of wrapping paper she had ever received. She would unwrap gifts with what she thought was care in order to save the paper. She then would reuse the old paper. That, in itself, is not terribly unusual; many people do that. But Mom would wrap gifts using this paper without totally removing the old scotch tape or cutting off torn ends, which, of course, exposed her careless recycling. She didn’t, however, limit her reuse of wrapping supplies with the paper. Mom also recycled bows and ribbons, whether or not they were stained with age, crushed, creased, fraying, or deceased.
We had a cupboard in the basement that served as a pantry. The shelves were stacked with countless cans of mandarin orange slices, pineapple chunks, Dinty Moore Stew, Hormel Corned Beef Hash and jars of pickles and olives, all bought on sale at Bartell’s because Bartell’s offered these items on sale more frequently than Steve Harvey TV appearances. But the real treasure found in the pantry was the Mason jars Mom used for canning. There were so many, every American named Mason, first or last name, could have had one. Some still had contents like canned pears. Most did not. I was quite surprised, however, how easy it was to dispose of the Mason jars; I simply placed them on the parking strip. Neighborhood canners came out of the woodwork. I should have Super-glued a cookie tin to each jar.
Across the basement from the pantry was the paper products department, another fire hazard. Mom had bought so many paper towels, tissue boxes, and 12-packs of toilet paper that neither my sister nor I had to buy any for the remainder of the Obama presidency. And I use these products as frequently as a teenager says “like.” I have constant spills, runny noses and diarrhea. OK. That’s not true. I went for the cheap joke. I don’t have constant spills or runny noses.
After Mom died, Dorie and I emptied the house of Mom’s clutter in preparation for the house’s eventual sale. But, I was surprised to find more clutter, my own, most of it flammable. There was a box full of yellowed newspaper clippings from the early 1960s chronicling the building of Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair. There was a six-year accumulation of The KUAY Weekly, my junior-senior high school newspaper, from my years at Queen Anne. There were years of rubber banded weekly Top 40 lists from KJR, the radio station of my youth. I found stacks of miscellaneous magazines, usually gay-themed, like the newsy The Advocate and the nudie Blueboy. There were countless newspapers editions and magazines issues reporting historically significant events like political assassinations, sports championships, and visits to Seattle by The Beatles. I uncovered an almost forgotten collection of tee-shirts from gay bars or events that dated to the early 1970s. These were all items I only looked at when I packed to move. For that moment, they gave me comfort and memories. They, however, really served no purpose. Suddenly I understood the difficulty Mom had throwing things away. But I was moving to Mexico. I had to say goodbye to much of my past because I was not going to move, one more time, that heavy hoarded collection of nostalgia.
It would have served me right if I had found among my old belongings, a mishmash of my yesterdays, a plaque, poster, or crocheted wall-hanging saying “Judge not lest ye be judged.”