83. Trash Talk

83. Trash Talk

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters

Trash Talk

There is something deep in the human psyche that keeps people, myself included, in sort of a hoarding mode. You have to overcome that.

~Tim Winship

You can learn a lot about someone from her trash, especially if she hasn’t thrown anything away in decades. The first thing you learn is that your relative is a hoarder, a fact that is easy to hide when you are living alone in a large home with multiple bedrooms and ample closet and cabinet space. When my aunt died after a fourteen-year bout with cancer, I had no idea that I would be embarking on a voyage of discovery, learning about my aunt through taking out the trash.

My sister Grace and I had chosen a three-day weekend, starting on a Friday, to begin preparing Aunt Margaret’s home for listing with a real estate broker. My daughter Lexie came home from college to help, which was fun for me since Saturday was my birthday and her presence would brighten an otherwise undesirable way to spend my birthday weekend.

On Friday morning, with some trepidation, Grace, Lexie, and I set out on our big adventure. I was so nervous that I missed the exit, which I had taken hundreds of times before, and we had to go a few miles out of our way, delaying the awkward moment that was coming. It was going to be weird opening that front door with our newly issued set of keys, as if we were somehow breaking and entering.

When we crept inside that morning, we huddled together as we moved among the rooms, surveying the job ahead of us. The place was packed! Cabinet doors were half open, revealing shelves bulging with papers, closets were full from floor to ceiling, garbage and old papers were stuffed into corners, and into boxes and bags. There was so much furniture and so many lamps in one of the rooms that it looked like a consignment shop. All that was missing were the price tags on the dusty, worn items.

It was strange that none of us had ever noticed how overstuffed every room was while Margaret was alive. Her powerful personality must have filled up the rooms so that we didn’t see anything else. We decided to start at the heart of the mess—Margaret’s bedroom. After a few hours, I realized that the room was so full it had turned into a storage facility for her, and that must be why she had started sleeping in another bedroom.

As we cleaned, we kept noticing new things. After every few fifty-gallon trash bags were hauled out, filled with everything from decades-old half empty boxes of chocolates, to old cards and thank you notes, to hundreds of magazines, the layers of new stuff were revealed, as if we were peeling an onion. It took hours just to clean out one regular-size closet in her room, packed as it was floor to ceiling with mail, boxes and bags, decades of old bills, and souvenirs dating back to grade school years. Of course, we had to check everything we found, reading all the old correspondence. We found some real treasures this way—a letter my mother wrote from her honeymoon, fascinating photos of relatives who died before we were born, a family tree, and some real surprises, such as law school acceptance letters from the 1950s. We never knew that Margaret had considered becoming a lawyer.

We discovered that Margaret was quite superstitious. There were chicken wishbones everywhere—in boxes, between the pages of diaries, in drawers. We shrieked when Lexie, who was throwing out underwear and pantyhose, found a plate and carving knife at the bottom of an underwear drawer. Did Margaret carve out those wishbones in the privacy of her bedroom, away from the prying eyes of her live-in help? We knew she ate chicken almost every night. Perhaps this love of chicken had been motivated by a desire for more wishbones?

We also found hundreds of four-leaf clovers, carefully saved in envelopes and even mounted on pages in a binder. They were pretty, but so old that when we touched them, they disintegrated immediately.

Margaret had never lost a little girl’s love for stuffed animals, and we threw away dozens of stuffed animals, many decades old. They, too, almost disintegrated as we lifted them from room corners and tables and beds to gently place them in garbage bags—they were so dusty and dry, and we could feel the stuffing inside them crackling. Margaret’s favorite stuffed animal had always been her panda bear, and we had even found what appeared to be birthday greetings and notes that she had written to Panda Bear.

The panda bear had eluded our cleaning efforts so far, however. But as we threw out more stuff, and the layers of the onion were revealed, we suddenly realized that the panda bear and another bear were sitting in a chair in the corner of Margaret’s bedroom, each acting as a mannequin for one of her wigs, carefully prepared with curlers, ready for their next use. Margaret had been wearing wigs for more than a decade as a result of the chemotherapy.

Finding the wigs was a poignant but somewhat disturbing moment. And finding them on top of the bears was funny, and a great reminder of our aunt’s sense of humor, but still disconcerting. Here we were, sneaking around throwing away Margaret’s most treasured possessions (at least that’s what if felt like), and these two large stuffed animals, including Panda Bear, had witnessed the whole thing, watching us from a corner of the room, wearing Margaret’s hair.

The bears had to go. Grace and I had to do it. We stood tall, took deep breaths, and prepared to do the deed. She held open the garbage bag while I gingerly lowered the perhaps seventy-year-old panda bear into it, still wearing the wig with its curlers. We were both squealing as if we were being forced to touch big ugly bugs. I felt a little guilty about Panda Bear, now at the bottom of his black plastic final resting place, but I soldiered on. I reached for the next bear, which looked like one of those large but cheap amusement park prizes. Still wearing its wig and curlers, I dropped it into the bag, it landed on Panda Bear, and we immediately heard a little digital voice coming from the bag, singing “Happy Birthday to You.” We burst into loud laughter. Lexie came running in and started laughing too when she heard the bear singing from deep inside the garbage bag. There I stood, grimy, wearing rubber gloves, receiving my first birthday wishes of the weekend from a discarded bear wearing Margaret’s wig singing inside a black garbage bag.

We kept finding wigs that day, screaming as we encountered each one. They were expensive, made from real human hair and probably worth selling, but we just couldn’t face them. They were too much of a reminder of what our aunt had gone through, and way too personal to touch for more than a moment as we flung them into trash bags. It seemed that every time we turned around, we found another wig, inside drawers, in bags, behind cabinets. At the end of the day, we saw what we thought was a cat sunning itself on the windowsill in another room, but sure enough it was another wig!

Throwing out the trash took many visits, and as I discussed my findings with family members over the next couple of months, we felt closer to our dear departed Margaret and understood her better. Our seemingly powerful aunt, whose personality had filled her rooms, was really a vulnerable woman who had spent her life clinging to the past and looking backward not forward. And that had manifested itself in the hoarding.

We started throwing away more things in our own homes. One evening, returning from a day at Margaret’s where I threw away two decades worth of Christmas and birthday cards that I found stashed in shopping bags, I was horrified to find the last two years of Christmas cards we received, in paper bags, in my own home office. What was I planning to do with them? Was hoarding in our blood? Out they went. My mother reported that my father started throwing away old books and papers, and my husband has finally agreed to throw away his old college textbooks and other “treasures” of that ilk, as he doesn’t want the kids to have to do it for him. Thanks, Aunt Margaret!

~Constance Madison

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