Inheriting the Hoard: Greg’s Story
“I knew as a kid I’d have to take care of it. I had prepared myself for it - for this moment,”Greg M., 41, says rather stoically of the overwhelming hoard that he inherited four months ago. Even so, “this is beyond what I thought it would be.”
In May 2010, Greg entered his childhood home for the first time in nearly 18 years. He’d driven the two-and-a-half hours from Burbank to his mother’s home in San Diego after she’d failed to answer the phone and missed a dialysis appointment. Greg figured something waswrong. Even though he’d stayed away from the house for years, he and his mother remained close.
When Greg knocked on the front door, hecould hear his mother’s soft cries in the entryway. But he could not get in.The doorway was blocked - by his mother - and by stuff. He spoke to her through the mail slot then went around to the back door, prepared to breakit down. “The door basically disintegrated,” Greg recalls. He then climbed over what had become mountains of clutter and possessions… through the kitchen…through the living room… and to the entryway, where he found his mother,collapsed, in a virtual air pocket. He struggled to get her out the door, tothe front steps, where paramedics could treat her. Mrs. M., 83, a fun, feisty,and fiercely independent woman beloved by her neighbors… and, an extremehoarder… would never return home again. For son Greg - an only child- thejourney “home” was just beginning.
Shortly after hismother died, Greg took an indefinite leave of absence from his job incommercial construction to work full-time on cleaning up and clearing out his childhood home. He calls it simply “the project.” And he’s given himself sixmonths to get it done. But truth is, he’s already falling way behind schedule.The scope of the project, as well as Greg’s reluctance to accept outside help,has made any sort of deadline near impossible to predict. “I have a feeling itmight go longer than six months,” Greg concedes. “It might have to.”
Despite tremendous progress, the houseis still overflowing with a cacophony of items ranging from the valuable (a boxfull of nambé serving pieces), to the sentimental (a 1970s Christmas card fromGrandma, with a five-dollar bill still inside), to the somewhat interesting (apre-Snuggie “body mitten” still in its original package), to the worthless(expired medicine bottles, a bristle-less brush, drawers full of bottle caps)to the positively absurd and ironic (a “bless this mess” sign, stacks ofunopened boxes of storage shelving, detailed logs of thrift store purchases andfreebies).
Most of the trash isgone and there are pathways where before there were none. Greg is on industrial size dumpster number four, has donated about four tons of clothing, andcollected five small dumpsters of recyclables. But it’s like a teardrop in anocean.
Thousands of books balance precariouslyin dust-laden stacks in what was his father’s study… bags and bags of craftsthat his mother bought from a Native American bazaar line the living room floor… a guest room known as the ‘orange room’ for its orange carpeting, orange bedspread and orange drapes is - quite literally- filled to the raftersin what looks like an over-crowded time capsule from the 1960s and 70s. An oldtape recorder sits atop the pile and Greg ponders what to do with it. Heremembers trying to show his father exactly how it worked. “I was a little embarrassedthat he didn’t know. I mean… he was such a brilliant man, very smart, couldn’t figure out how to use an old school tape recorder,” Greg recalls with somedismay. The wheels are in motion in Greg’s head. The tape recorder is obsolete.But it holds memories. He has trouble putting it down or letting it go -despite the specter of corroded batteries leaking out the back. Greg places itback on the pile. It’s a “keeper” item, at least for now.
Greg had to hire a locksmith to evenget into that orange room. He doesn’t know how long it had been sealed off, orwhy. The answer may lie somewhere - buried in the hoard.
Greg figures his mother hadn’t gone upstairs in at least two years - because of her frailty and because ofthe blockade that had formed along the stairwell. Not that it mattered, he says.The whole upstairs had become “just storage.”
“It Was All I Knew”
In Greg’s early years, the 2400 squarefoot, two-story house with a large garage and sprawling backyard was filledwith life, and only hints of clutter. The kitchen, living room, formal diningroom, bathroom and study on the lower level, as well as a master bedroom, guestroom, bathroom, and “Greg’s room” upstairs provided plenty of room for a familyof three to function, and entertain. But as Greg got older, his parents starteddrifting apart and his mother’s penchant for collecting, and thrift shopping,and saving, and storing spiraled out of control.
Greg started noticing the change when he was about 10. His mother saved everything - even dental flosscontainers. She was convinced that they could be gutted and used to storethings - really small things- and she had a whole bag of them. There were also bags of pen caps andplastic lids. All meticulously labeled.
The hoard grew as Greg did - and he learned to live with it. He stayed at the house until he was 23. “You’dthink as soon as I turned 18 I’d get the heck out,” Greg says with a knowingsigh. “I don’t know why it took me so long to get out. I guess it was all Iknew. This was the only house I’d lived in. So perhaps I was scared - andcomfortable here. Even though it was a mess, it’s what I knew.” But it came ata price. “Living here at the house, it affected me, y’know, in not being ableto bring friends over, especially in high school, friends, girls, there’salways the embarrassment factor, having to make up stories why I couldn’t havepeople over. And as a kid, just always [being] self-conscious either home orout in public to the point of being paranoid. My folks would always wonder,‘why do you think people are always watching you? Why do you think they’realways looking at you when we’re out in public?’ Well, cause I knew the secretat home.”
When Greg left home in the early 1990s,there was no looking back. From that point on, “going home” meant going as faras the driveway, or meeting up with his parents at a local restaurant. “I don’tthink I ever said the words ‘I’m not coming back until it’s cleaned up, orimproved, but I think it was understood,” Greg recalls. “And then towards thelast few years, my mom didn’t want me in ‘cause she was embarrassed. She knew how much worse it had become and also she didn’t want my criticism… She got toa point where she basically would start crying when I pushed too much.” So Gregstopped pushing. “She didn’t want any help from me, any other family, orfriends, neighbors…. Everyone understood there was nothing I could do, as muchas I wanted to,” he says, with a small catch in his voice. “I had to let herlive the way she wanted to. But actually if I knew it was as bad as it was, Imay have intervened.”
“He, Too, Became a Hoarder”
Greg’s mother was a registered nursewho retired when Greg was born. His father was a high school English teacherfor 35 years. They were well-liked, intelligent, active members of the community. But they never sought help for the hoarding. “I don’t think they sawit as a problem,” Greg says, and perhaps they enabled each other. “[Dad] wentto garage sales to buy books. [Mom] went to garage sales and thrift stores tobuy schlock and clothes and what-not.”
Greg says his mother suffered fromdepression and other mental-health issues that may have contributed to thehoarding. “I think I recognized stuff as a kid and as a young man that I now know is like [Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder] type of behavior, perfectionism,moodiness. My dad on the other hand, he never showed any signs. He was quite stoic and quiet.” But still, he was not immune. The study, where he spent mostof his time, grew to resemble a used-book warehouse. “[When I was] a kid, thebookcases were full, but not stacksof books everywhere. So he too became a hoarder.” The dusty enclave that washis sanctuary had to impact his health. “He had respiratory problems,” Gregsays. “He had quit [smoking] for the last few years of his life but I’m prettysure the air quality in the house was not good for him.” His mother alsobattled a myriad of physical ailments over the years, including heart problems,osteoporosis, and cancer. “I’m sure the conditions in the house did not helpmatters with her,” he says. And as a retired nurse, “you’d think she’d be awareof the health risks involved with hoarding.” Evidence shows the couple sharedthe house with a bevy of dust mites, spiders, bees, and rodents that foundample hiding space amid the hoard.
Outside the house, Greg’s mom was considered a petite powerhouse. “Everybody loved my mom,” Greg says fondly.“She had more energy than any of us. She was well-loved, involved in manyorganizations, volunteered much of her time. A very colorful person [with]vibrant, colorful clothing. You wouldn’t know that her house was the way it isif you met her on the street. And even people that did know, they accepted itand liked her for who she was.”
In recent years, Mrs. M. was forced to slow down as her health took a turn for the worse. When Greg found her in the entryway last May, he knew it was the beginning of the end. He also knew that the state - and fate- of the house would never be discussed. “I didn’t[bring it up] because her health declined very quickly and I didn’t want togive her any stress. I knew she didn’t have long. Days, maybe a week,” Gregsays. “What was there to discuss? I mean, I suppose I could have asked her ‘Why- why it got to this point’, but she was having trouble talking. Hervoice was very hoarse, it was hard to hear, so um…” The words trail off as Gregstruggles to answer a question that lingers still. “She’s tried to make herpeace in the past - apologized for certain things, but the house nevercame up.”
“I Have Not Grieved”
Greg loved his parents, but he hasn’t been able to grieve for them. “I have not grieved for my dad who died four yearsago, nor have I grieved for my mom. My dad - I don’t know why. I guess Iknew there was still the house to deal with. There was something basicallybigger than the two of them that I had to deal with. I haven’t felt the need togrieve. I want to though. I want togrieve, I want to cry, but I have this house to deal with,” Greg says with afrustrated glance toward the cluttered home. “I’m hoping that will happen. Idon’t know when. Maybe when the house is done. Then maybe I’ll be able togrieve for my parents. Then I may missmy parents.”
The Storage Units
Greg had braced himself for the job at hand. But his parents’ hoard was not contained to the house itself. Thebackyard had become a jungle of overgrowth mixed with trashcans, plastic containers and a shed filled with more “miscellaneous” things. Inside thegarage, a washer and dryer sat buried under more random stuff - including several unopened boxes of yet-to-be-assembled storage shelves, various papersand small appliances, old campaign posters, and even an egg carton filled withrocks labeled “Wisconsin rocks 1979”. Among many other things, Mrs. M., a native of Wisconsin, liked to collect rocks.
And then there were the off-sitestorage units. Greg knew his parents had one, and a few years ago, he asked hismother for a look inside. She showed him four.One belonged to his dad. It was filled with books - thousands of them-and a couple of filing cabinets with paperwork from his teaching and uniondays. The other three belonged to his mom and were jam packed with randomstuff. “All I saw was newspaper, junk, who knows what. They were so full shecouldn’t even look over the piles,” Greg recalls. He and his mother discussedstrategies for clearing them out and donating items to charity, but they failedto reach agreement on how to go aboutit. Stalemate.
“I knew it wasn’t going to happen, so Ilet it go. I said, ‘Well, I’ll have to take care of it when the time comes.’”When that time arrived, Greg returned to the storage facility and was hit withanother devastating surprise: There were actually six storage units, not four.Not surprisingly, the storage facility managers were sorry to hear about Greg’smother. She was a favorite customer. “Their six units were costing them roughly700 dollars a month,” Greg says. “And for what value? I don’t think any of itwas valued at 700 [dollars].”
In some ways, the storage units wereeasier to deal with than the house itself. “I started with my dad’s unit. Thatwas the most basic. I just boxed up books, got ‘em ready for pickup, recycled anything in there and trash, and had it picked up for donation, all the books.That was the easy unit. The others - my mom’s units - I rented aUHaul truck and proceeded to just empty ‘em out. I didn’t have time to sort. ButI did bag up clothing and various items, knick-knacks, for donation.” That’snot to say Greg got rid of everything.He kept the smallest of the units, filling it with items that he wasn’t quiteready to let go of. “Sentimental stuff, things of value, whether that value ismonetary or ‘other’. And that can be sorted through, processed, at anothertime. But I have to watch myself. I don’t want to become a storage ‘person’myself.” Greg’s goal was to rent the unit for one month. That was three monthsago.
“I Could Be a Hoarder”
Back at the house, Greg’s progress hasslowed in recent weeks as “the project” gets ever more personal. The livingroom chair in which his mother often slept remains untouched - with aslightly dented pillow still capturing rays of sunlight peeking through thecurtains. His mother’s colorful array of hats and shoes remain scatteredthroughout the house. Stacks of pots, pans and dishes - some clean, somenot - align the kitchen counters. Greg has forged a path into his oldroom, but he’s saving the bulk of what’s in there - for now at least.“This is where my progress in the house slowed down, for the most part, cause Icame across a lot of sentimental [things], whether it be toys or just anything- anything I remembered.” The closets and drawers remain full anduntouched. “The rest of everything in here I need to go through, need to do thefinal processing,” Greg says, “[to] see what I’m gonna keep.”
In the hallway outside his room, ashelf is stacked with a hodgepodge of things that Greg has collected fromvarious spots upstairs and doesn’t want to lose track of. Among them:decades-old books and photos, a McCalls Magazine from 1966, boxes and bags ofcostume jewelry, Christmas items, coins — and even old clothes tags. “[Mymother] has an envelope of clothes tags of mine purchased in 1972. This is anexample of the stuff she kept. I don’t know why I held onto this but for the…”Greg stops to think, and rationalize why it hasn’t gone into the trash. “Thisis a look into her mind I guess.” And perhaps, into his as well.
“I have recognized these tendenciesare…” The words trail off. “I could be a hoarder. But that’s another reason I’mgoing through this process the way I am, so I don’t become one,” he says, wellaware of the challenges ahead. “I’m still in the ‘trash, recycle, donate’phase. It’s when everything that I want to keep is here in the house… Do I justkeep it?… Or would that be like hoarding, cause there’s a lot that I’ve kept. Ineed to go through it. I need to clean this house and get it to a point whereit can be lived in.”
Though Greg is an only child, he doeshave someone else to consider in the equation of his life and the house thathas recently consumed it.
He’s got his own house, 120 miles away,that he shares with his girlfriend of 13 years, Sidney. She says Greg has anissue with clutter - especially paper - but that he’s done a goodjob keeping it in check and respecting their home. It hasn’t been easy, and nowshe’s got a better idea why.
Sidney knew and liked Greg’s parents- for all intents and purposes, they were her in-laws — but shenever saw their house. “I don’t remember specifically when Greg told me thathis parents were hoarders,” she says. “I did think it was odd we could onlymeet them out for lunch instead ofgoing to their home to visit. He finally just told me, ‘The house is a wreck.That’s why I left. And they don’t want me[to go] in, I don’t want to go in,and I certainly don’t want you to goin.’”
Sidney got her first glimpse inside thehouse shortly after Greg started “the project.” He needed to clear a pathbefore he would - or could- let her in. “I didn’t have any expectations,”she says. “It didn’t smell, like I thought it might… but just the enormity- the mass, the sheer mass” was overwhelming. “I didn’t go upstairs thefirst time. It wasn’t clear.” And she couldn’t begin to fathom how Mrs. M gotaround. “She was very petite, even when she wasn’t sick- I don’t know how shedid it. I don’t know how she got to the fridge or the microwave, I don’t know.Greg did notice in the fridge the leftovers from the last lunch we had withher. So she got there, I just don’t know how she did it. Willpower I guess.”
“The project” has been a double-edgedsword for Greg and Sidney. It’s put a definite strain on their relationship.But it’s also brought some issues to the forefront that needed to be addressed,including Greg’s disposition to hoard. “That is a bright side of this project,”Sidney says, “[Greg] seeing this (shemotions toward her in-laws’ house) in himself. That doesn’t mean everything’sfixed at once but there’s an awareness that maybe wasn’t there before.”
“Hoarding Is Selfish”
Sidney tears up when looking at Greg’s“inheritance”. She is mad at her in-laws, for what they’ve done to Greg and totheir life together. “The irony is [that Greg’s parents] were saving this forhim,” she says. “Every little baby bottle, every little scrap, every rock thatyou see. In their minds they were doing it for him. And it’s just turned intothis beast… I look around and there’s so many things that I guarantee should bea no-brainer [to get rid of]. But [Greg] doesn’t see that yet.”
That’s not to say that Greg isn’t angrywith his parents too. “I think hoarding is very selfish,” Greg says. “For themto collect all this stuff and they know they’re gonna pass soon, and leave it…yeah, that’s been frustrating me a lot with this project,” he says with a deepsigh. “Even if I had many siblings, it wouldn’t be fair.”
The house is paid off, but the cost of“the project” has been adding up in terms of money, lost wages, physical andemotional strain, and precious time. Eighteen years after leaving home, Greg’sparents’ big secret is once again his. “It’s been a secret whether people knewit or not. It’s been painful. Not having people over. Having to make upstories… It’s just something that’s inside that doesn’t go away. I’ve had thisin the back of my head, probably thought about it every day my whole life. AndI knew this day would come.”
Life has been on hold since “theproject” began. Greg is four months and counting into what was supposed to be asix-month project. And he’s still reluctant to accept outside help. “I wantedto do this by myself. And I think I’ve always had that in my head since I’vebeen planning for this for so long. I have the need to touch everything… I needto see what it is, what all this hoard is. I don’t want help cause then [otherswould] be going through stuff that I want to go through. Yeah, I can tell themwhat’s trash, what’s not. But I want to see those items. I want to get my handson them. I want to go through every box. Cause this is my life… I’m doing itfor possibly selfish reasons by myself, but I think it’s therapeutic,” Gregsays with a somewhat defensive sigh. “I just need to see everything myself. AndI want to make the decision what happens to each item.”
Where does that leave Sidney? “I justkinda have to stand back and let him succeed or flounder,” she says. “Hopefullysucceed. I want to see him succeed.” But “I need some milestones and timelinesstuck to. I can just see this being a constant uphill battle never finishing. Idon’t want to be a part of that. [In a] perfect world, we’d get this fixed upand move down here and find jobs down here. But - my biggest concern isthat there won’t be any finality to this.”
Sidney’s been keeping a blogdocumenting Greg’s progress and hopes it might help others in similarsituations. “If you think you’re a hoarder,” she pleads, “look around, get somehelp, because you’re really hurting the people you love.”
As for Greg, he’s taking it one day ata time, one object at a time. “When I was younger I always said I’d never livehere again.” Now he’s not so sure.
Note from the author, Hannah R. Buchdahl:I interviewedGreg for this story in September, 2010, four months into “the project”. Helater discovered three additional attic spaces - all full. It’s now beenover a year and despite tremendous progress, Greg still has a long way togo. Clickhere for video of Greg and the hoard, and here to follow Sidney’s blog.