Every spring I watch “Hoarders” as a nod to the cleaning I don’t want to do. I lay on the couch as the camera pans over piles of old newspapers and soda cans and furniture. But the show is never about the stuff (no matter how shocking the mountains of junk may be). It’s about the person who collects it all — why they are the way they are and what’s “wrong” with them.
I’m fascinated with the show because I consider myself to be something of a hoarder, too. By my mid-twenties, I had packed every closet in my condo, filled my garage and ended up renting the biggest storage unit I could find, which I filled to the ceiling. In some ways, I could relate to the people on TV — but there’s nothing wrong with me, I thought. I just always wanted to be a mom.
Ever since I was little, I collected all the favorite toys, trinkets and clothes I’d outgrown, placing them neatly in boxes and hiding them under my bed. I didn’t want to donate my special things or, God forbid, trash them. But I also didn’t have younger siblings to take my treasured hand-me-downs. The next kid in the family, I realized, would probably be my own. It made sense to save my stuff for my child.
As I got older, the collecting didn’t stop. In high school, I saved band shirts from favorite concerts, notes from friends, and my cheer uniform. I packed a bin after every school year, after each summer at camp, and even one after starting my first job.
As I closed each box, I imagined opening it again with my future child, revisiting old dress-up clothes with my little girl or cracking open a high school box to prove to my angsty teenage boy that I used to be cool. I had so many stories and lessons hidden under lids: how to pick friends, how to choose a major, how to make the best chocolate chip cookies. It was important information I wanted to pass on.
I carried boxes from apartment to apartment, choosing complexes based on garage size and security. The safety of my memories was much higher on my must-have list than a balcony or a washer and dryer.
It wasn’t until I got married that all my stuff really became a problem.
But it wasn’t until I got married that all my stuff really became a problem. In 2018, my husband moved into my one-bedroom, and despite our two large closets, he didn’t have a spot to put his modest collection of clothes and books. He also pointed out that since we also had a two-car garage, he’d like to park inside, instead of on the street. I wanted to make room for him but I just didn’t know how.
In fact, in those first months married, I only made the garage more crowded, adding boxes commemorating our wedding and our honeymoon in Australia. “Won’t it be fun to look through these same wedding magazines with our daughter when she’s engaged?” I asked my husband as we struggled to tape the top of yet another crowded box.
“No,” he said.
One night, a plumber had trouble reaching our water shut-off (which was hidden behind a mountain of boxes in the garage), resulting in a broken sink continuing to flood our kitchen. Finally, I decided enough was enough: it was time to rent a storage unit. If I couldn’t get rid of my collection, I reasoned, at least I could move it. While I was happy to move my things to a facility only a few miles away, it was odd seeing my garage finally empty. It was as if a big, messy roommate, who knew me better than anyone, suddenly moved out.
One year later, at 29, I had a baby girl. I had been preparing for this my whole life and now I finally had someone with whom I could share all my advice, my stories — and, of course, my stuff.
When my daughter was 6 months old, I brought two heavy bags of my old toys home from the storage unit and laid them out on the floor. There was a shaggy dog — my favorite all through elementary school, the Beanie Babies I was sure (even at 8) would be worth something someday, and even Happy Meal toys from my favorite ’90s movies. My daughter loved them, snuggling the stuffed animals I treasured growing up. I was so glad I kept every single one.
A few weeks later, I went to the unit to find more age-appropriate treasures for my infant. But when I opened the metal door, I was overcome by just how much was hidden behind it.
I couldn’t preserve all these items for decades, only to toss them before the next kid came along.
Sure, my daughter loved my old play things, but she’d have to wait years to appreciate my childhood jewelry box and my dress-up clothes. It would be even longer before she could sift through my boxes of cool camp treasures and my (surely very interesting) essays from college philosophy courses. It would be decades before a lot of this would even make it home. And even then, if we had another baby, I’d need to keep my old things even longer. After all, I couldn’t preserve all these items for decades, only to toss them before the next kid came along.
“Look, buddy,” I pictured myself saying to my second-born. “I carried mountains of my most important treasures from home to home all my life so I could share it with your sister, and your sister only.”
I realized I couldn’t keep all this stuff but I didn’t know what to do next. I locked the door to the unit and went home empty-handed.
A few months later, my family moved to a bigger place. I was excited to upgrade from our cramped one-bedroom, plus, I knew the move would be a good opportunity to go through my mementos.
Every day for months, I went to the storage unit to open boxes, organize their contents, and throw some things away. I read old notes, tried on jewelry, and texted pictures of blurry Polaroids to family and friends: “Remember this?”
I tried to go through a box a day. And while I usually put more in the “keep” pile than the “give away” pile, I made progress. A lot went into our new garage. But some of my most special things from my childhood, like a black and white photo that hung in my room as a kid, went straight to my daughter’s room. Some other important things, like letters from my grandparents, took a well-deserved spot in mine.
I was surprised to find that a good portion of my stored treasures was, indeed, just junk.
There was a lot I was glad I kept. But I was surprised to find that a good portion of my stored treasures was, indeed, just junk. I didn’t even remember owning some of it. Maybe there was some important memory attached to an old pair of Mary Janes, but I couldn’t remember it. Maybe the collection of seven woven friendship bracelets were important to me as a kid, but I couldn’t remember who gave them to me.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
After a few weeks I got tired — physically and emotionally — of sifting through these things. I ended up moving the last third of the boxes to our new house without even opening them. When I finished transporting my stuff to the new garage, I was disappointed. I’d thrown away and donated so much, but my storage still seemed excessive. After all those hours of work and tough decisions, I felt like I was back to square one.
I’d worked so hard and my new garage still looked like a “before.”
I thought back to the episodes of “Hoarders” where the former pack rats got to show off tidy houses. I’d worked so hard and my new garage still looked like a “before.”
But I guess it’s OK for now. I’m proud of my progress and I’m thankful for the gifts from my past self. Every so often, I’ll open up a letter from a long-gone grandparent and I always smile when I see that black-and-white picture hanging in my daughter’s room.
Months have passed since the move, and in that time, my now-toddler has inherited a few more heirlooms. I love when she sits in my lap and I read books to her that my mom once read to me. I love having tea parties together with the plastic set I saved so many years ago. Still, looking around her room, I recognize most of her toys and clothes as new, with memories I connect only to her. I have to admit, I like it that way.
More personal essays about our relationship to stuff: