The chairs before me sat in mismatched shades of chocolate brown with noticeable dents and large areas of missing paint. The open basement felt like a vulnerability I was uninterested in and smelled like the must of the root cellar of my childhood. I couldn’t recall the last time I was able to stretch out my arms without being able to touch a thing. My thoughts quickly imagined my old body out at sea, bobbing up and down without a life preserver left to figure out survival without anyone or anything. A deep inhale reminded me that I wasn’t in the ocean but in the space where the Hoarders Anonymous meeting was held every Thursday.
The night before last my daughter Gwen stood on my porch, the rain drizzling down her lilac-colored hair leaving tiny droplets along her wispy hairline. I thought about how she was as small as the orbs of rain that kissed her head in my own body once. How could something so microscopic expand into the woman before me, into a being so radiant? Gwen cradled the top and bottom of her belly protectively in a curved-like position of yin and yang. Mae, my unborn granddaughter, was guarded softly by her mother, in the same way, I held her some twenty-five years ago. The stance in which my daughter held before me was one I knew all too well, it was one I took with my mother many years ago.
“I won’t bring Mae here mom. You need to get help before I can step back into this house.”
The words my daughter lent me were more promise than an ultimatum. I raised my daughters to keep their promises, but the thought of not seeing my granddaughter was like slow suffocation, like being in that ocean as the waves tried to overtake my airways.
After Gwen left I found my way inside, not further than the entryway as this is where I usually got stuck in all my stuff. A wall of empty popcorn tins stacked tall like a secondary wall acted as a protective barrier from the space that remained. Some were vintage with Christmas patterns on them, while others were cratered with the damage of being dropped a time or two. I learned to pack them with shredded newspaper and packing peanuts to make the inevitable fall less noisy. Quality didn’t matter to me as much as the filling of the emptiness.
This was the home I raised my children in, the place where I marked their heights on the inside of the pantry door with colored markers and puffy stickers. Reaching five feet in height was a big deal, one we celebrated with vanilla ice cream with warmed sliced peaches on top, peaches I’d canned myself. The popcorn tins were but a small part of my childhood, now consuming a large part of my adulthood.
A warm-faced woman approached me, her tortoiseshell framed glasses similar in color to the chairs in the basement.
“Hi, I’m Jana. You must be new here, please sit wherever you would like and we’ll get started once everyone is here and settled.”
Grateful that Jana didn’t linger too long to ask questions, I found myself missing her brief proximity as soon as she stepped away. The uneven circle soon filled with folks that looked nothing like me, but they all had that vacant look in their eyes that felt all too familiar. It was a look that said, I have all of this stuff, but I have nothing to show for it.
“Welcome to the group. This is a safe space for you to listen, to share, to know that it gets better. Let’s start with why we’re here. We’re hoarders and we want life to get better. Your reasons for getting better might be different from hers.”
Jana made a subtle finger gesture from a man in a crisp three-piece herringbone suit, with black slicked-back hair to the young twenty-something woman next to me wearing neutrals from head to toe. They didn’t look like hoarders to me, but then again Gwen didn’t know how bad it had become for me until last night, so who was I to judge who did and who didn’t look like a hoarder.
“Hoarding is the accumulation of items within a home that exceeds what is needed for a normal, functioning household. While we are in this space, we will reserve judgment of others and their story and truths. You will all have the opportunity to share only what you feel comfortable with. In this space, we believe that sharing your story is one thing you can let go of, one less thing you have to hold onto.”
I took a deeper breath and crossed my ankles so that I could feel the touch and proximity of something even if it was myself. I wasn’t out to sea, but I was barely treading water and now Jana wanted me to share, to give something of me away.
“I think I’d like to share if that’s alright. My name is Joyce and well, I’m here for my granddaughter. I suppose it helps if I start with my momma, at least that’s why I think I’m here.”
My arms crossed my body, creating a secure fort around me as I gazed upon the other group members who looked just as upended as I felt.
“Momma would shout from the upstairs nursery to my father the step-by-step process for canning the green beans and stone fruits. “Harold, wait until you hear that pop of the seal before you take those jars out of the water bath!” In all my childhood years I never saw my mother can a vegetable or a preserve, it was always quite reluctantly my daddy who stood over the hot stove. The flames of the gas stove would lick up the side of the canning pot for hours causing the sweat to roll down his back. He didn’t have much of a backbone when it came to momma. The pools of sweat pouring from his body puddled in the space where his spine should have been reminding us, kids, that it was momma’s house and we just lived in it. In the tiny spaces that remained in the kitchen, my brothers and I would play Jacks and play hand-clapping games. They didn’t seem to bother daddy much, the sounds of kids clapping underfoot with not much space for him to maneuver through.”
Jana interrupted, “Joyce, was there much space for you to play in your home as a child?”
A chuckle popped from my lips making the sound of a canning jar ready to be taken from the pot. “You could say that my momma found a way to fill the space in our house, yes. As far as places to play, no.”
The group nodded in unison. Taking it in that perhaps we had difficult packed childhoods in common, put me at ease.
“I was fascinated that my daddy was the one doing all the cooking, and the preserving. I’d ask him, “Daddy how come you’re always down here doing the cooking and not momma?”
He’d squat down and hold my chin with his thumb and forefinger softly, the gesture left me feeling adored and attended to but still without answers about why he was doing all the motherly chores.
“Joyce, babies don’t keep. Now, your momma is busy tending to the baby, that’s all.”
My momma wasn’t your classic farm wife. I never did see her harvest the green beans from the garden, or blanch the orangish-red peaches and peel them delicately with a paring knife. She had many babies, I was number three out of the eventual five she had, and we were the center of her entire world. She loved us fiercely when we were babies. She didn’t know how to love us the same when we got older.”
“With each child added to our home, the canning and cleaning fell on daddy and so did the love and care. It was when she could no longer hold us against her chest that she found herself lost. We had enough preserves and vegetables to last us through an atomic bombing and then some, but that didn’t stop momma from demanding that daddy do more so that she could rock the baby just a little while longer.”
“Joyce, did your mother hoard anything besides canned foods? You know, it’s not uncommon for children of hoarders to grow up as hoarders themselves.”
“My momma never kept much of mine from my childhood, it wasn’t her way. She kept plenty of her things. The preserves mostly, but also stacks of old Life magazines piled high and empty jars. She allowed each of us kids a round metal tin of our things. I asked her once why we had all this stuff lying around. She looked at me like I just didn’t get it, as if there were some big secret to why our house was constantly filled to the gills and in shambles. Do you know what she said to me?”
“She said that her efforts of motherhood were spent on us kids, rocking us, savoring the moments when we were small, the kind of moments you can’t ever get back. She said that babies don’t keep and made some comment about how I was sixteen and I didn’t need her anymore, so what did it matter that the house was a mess?”
I hadn’t made much of a connection until I’d said all the words out loud to the strangers that sat by me. That perhaps my momma was filling the void of being needed, of having someone completely rely on her with a bunch of meaningless things in our home. She was trying to function without a purpose, we kids weren’t babies anymore and by growing up we took her purpose away. The canning and the collecting, all of it was a preparation to crowd the emptiness that would eventually come to her. It was an emptiness I knew all too well, that when you are barren, you find other ways to fill up your insides.
An urgency propelled me back to my home that held tins filled with nothingness. I left the meeting feeling a levity about me that I hadn’t felt in years since my daughters had moved out. I’d spent their entire lives keeping a tidy home so that there was room to run and play. The kitchen floor and counters were never covered with jars of food and stacks of paper covered in dust and residual spatterings of cooking oil. And yet, the moment they both left my home the desolation of not being able to keep a baby, my children, any longer became very apparent. I filled every space that I could with the tins, to have something to touch, to be able to reach out and feel something that had always been mine and always would be.
The doorknob slipped from my hand, causing the weight of the door to clang against the tins in the foyer. Madness can slip over people when they decide whether they want to swim or drown and here I walked in on my mess spilling at my feet. My feet punting the tins in any direction I could move them, I turned toward the open door aiming them out the front and into the yard. I thought of my daddy and the way the sweat used to spill down his head in the heat of the kitchen when he canned the peaches, and I wondered how many times he wanted to kick the things around him. To send them flying down the stairs and out of the kitchen where we played, to give us space for once.
I wiped the sweat from my brow, the pressure now released from within me. I searched for my phone and dialed Gwen. My momma was right about one thing, babies don’t keep. But there would always be babies, and growing into children wasn’t a sorrow I was willing to hold onto anymore. It was one I was ready to let go of.
“Gwen, I’ve made a space for Mae.”