“Am I a hoarder?” my darling 81-year-old husband, Ralph, asks me.
I know this is one of those Do or Die moments i.e. I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t answer him honestly. With over 50 years of marriage behind us, I know how sensitive he is and I don’t want to ruffle his drooping feathers. He’s always told me he likes me to be honest, but when I am, most of the time he doesn’t like my honest answer. What do I say?
“Um… do you want me to be honest, Ralph?”
“OK, so I AM a hoarder eh?” Ralph shouts, not realizing he’s shouting. He’s 90% deaf. “Do you have to be so blatantly honest about it?”
I roll my eyes, hoping he doesn't notice. I don’t remember answering his question. Did I? I think I zoned out temporarily when I sensed his irritation. Perhaps I somehow beamed my answer into his mind since his hearing aid is constantly hit-and-miss. The ubiquitous “they” say that ability to think the same thoughts happens to couples the longer they are together because they know each other so well. Well, that’s up for debate as far as I’m concerned. If he always knew what I was thinking and vice versa, I doubt we’d even be together having this conversation about whether he’s a hoarder.
We are standing in our basement storeroom, surrounded by boxes of yellowed molding books and dusty shelves of memorabilia from five decades of marriage. Every so often I remind him that it’s selfish of us to leave this monumental job to the children. I use my gentlest “drive the point home” voice:
“If nothing else, it’s heartbreaking to dispose of something a parent cherished, especially when you’re still trying to get over the loss of that parent. You get that Ralph, right?”
Ralph gets that, but convincing him to part with what he treasures hasn’t been easy…till this afternoon over lunch. He has agreed to come downstairs with me and take a serious look at what he might consider tossing out or giving away. Oh, happy day!
“Where’d all this stuff come from?” he asks, looking around the storeroom like it’s the first time he’s seen it. He shakes his head. He sounds weary as he continues: “I just don’t get how we’ve moved ten times and had garage sales every time and this storeroom is chock-a-block with stuff. Some of it MUST be yours. It’s definitely not all mine!”
I can sense he's miffed that, without saying anything, I’ve somehow confirmed his conclusion that he’s a hoarder. I feel the need for immediate damage control. I don’t want him to get upset over this now that he’s agreed to come down here with me.
“Oh, of course, some of it’s mine. I haven’t quite been able to part with all the poems and short stories I wrote when I was a teenager. Those are in those two boxes over there,” I reply pointing to the corner of the room near the Christmas tree we no longer use and several boxes of decorations. “For that matter, you know what? We really should take all that Christmas stuff and some of these other things we haven’t used in the 20 years since our last garage sale to the SallyAnn’s, don’t you agree?”
“Well sure,” Ralph replies. “That’s fine about the Christmas and other stuff, but don’t ask me to donate my James Patterson and John Grisham books and all the other paperbacks in my collection! I’m just not ready for that!”
Ralph’s paperbacks occupy space on 3 shelves, each about 10 feet long. Another shelf is piled high with his collection of old comics, car mags dating back to the 60s, and National Geographics. Marvelous reading I must admit, and yes, quite the collectibles.
However, I grimace. This is already not going according to plan. I bite my tongue and try to avoid saying what just occurred to me, but as usual, my mouth takes over my brain:
“Honey, honestly, what are you keeping all the darn books for? Do you plan to read them all again?
“Well, I might!” His tone is defiant. I persist.
“Oh come on love! When do you plan to re-read them? You came home from the second-hand Thrift Store with ten more books just the other day!”
“Well, each of those books was only ten cents.”
He’s getting edgy and I’m getting exasperated. “Ralph, that’s not the point! It’s not about the money. Wait…” I say, suddenly getting a bright idea (an infrequent occurrence nowadays):
“I know you don’t want to part with your books, but how about we agree that each time you bring home ten new ones to read you donate ten of your least favorite to the SallyAnns? Don’t you think that’s a great idea?”
“They’re ALL my favorites!”
He’s shouting again. My patience gives out.
“I’m not deaf Ralph! You don’t need to shout.” I take a deep breath and try again.
“OK fine,” I concede. “Let’s forget your books for now. How about we get rid of mom’s old record player? Mom’s been gone over 10 years now. That thing’s a relic and you said it speeds up on 33s and slows down on 45s. So we can’t even sell it…”
“Linda, it’s not a relic, it’s an antique, and antiques are valuable. It could be worth a fortune. Besides, I heard the other day that vinyl is back in demand and so are record players, not to mention that I’ve got all those great LPs as well.” Ralph crosses his arms over his expanding torso with a triumphant smile. “Gotcha!” He grins.
Now he’s really ticking me off. Before I can stop myself, I blurt,
“Valuable Antiques are those in perfect working condition! They’ve been stored carefully, not gathering dust and mouse poop in moldy-smelling basements!”
Silence descends. I’m thinking forlornly how this conversation we’ve been having every few months since we first discussed downsizing…about five years ago…always ends up like this. Right now, we’re only looking at what’s in the storeroom. There’s still the old laundry room on the other side. It’s full of darkroom equipment: trays, drums, 2 enlargers, and 20 to 30 frames for wall portraits of all sizes. Ralph was a professional wedding photographer for over 40 years. I managed to convince him to take all the wedding negatives to the dump 15 years ago as it’s unlikely our former customers might want reprints in this digital age. That said, I pray he hasn’t read that recent article about film cameras making a comeback!
Meanwhile, almost lovingly, Ralph is running his fingers down the spines of his paperbacks, eyeing his old, well-read comics and those priceless car mags collected since he was a youth.
Watching him do that, I’m almost jealous. For a moment it doesn’t seem that long ago that he would lovingly run his fingers down my spine when we first got married and we spent more time making love than warring with words.
Ralph breaks my reverie.
“What’s in this box here?” He asks.
“Why don’t you open it and look,” I reply, trying not to be nasty. “Probably something else of yours you need to get rid of,” I reply dismissively.
He pulls back the interlocked flaps and peers inside. “This isn’t mine. Do you recognize what it is?”
I go over to take a look.
“Oh, it’s our old Wii set. Remember how we used to play Wii bowling and table tennis with Eric and Sandra when they lived with us before they moved to Florida? Eric must have packed it all up and left it here for us in the storeroom. Oh, we used to have so much fun with them. Do you know how to hook it up?
“I think I do. I remember helping Eric pull it all apart bit by bit. If I could remember which lead connects to which input in the back of the TV in the rec room, I would love to have a crack at the Wii Golf. Hey, maybe even you would like to try some Wii golf with me?”
“Well, I only played bowling and table tennis. I was pretty terrible at those and I don’t know golf at all.”
“I’ll teach you,” Ralph says with a grin on his dear old face. Twinkles have come back into his eyes and for the first time in days, he looks animated. He’s come alive again. My heart fills with joy. Have we empty-nesters found another way to keep ourselves from dying from boredom over these long winter months?
“Let’s do it,” I smile. “What the hell! I’ll go make some coffee while you hook everything up. The job here can wait till tomorrow, right?
On that point, we both agree.