Magazines and mail fling themselves off my filing cabinet. A book shelf vomits books. Atop a stack of plastic bins, refugee items lounge: a toddler life vest, homeless since summer vacation; a dress waiting to hitch a ride to the closet; a growing bag of too-small baby clothes, off to new homes; a bag of nursing bras (can you even donate those?) Toy trucks and plush animals make a break from their overcrowded toy chest onto the floor.
Every time I see an episode of TLC's "Hoarding: Buried Alive," I wonder if the producers will be knocking soon. What separates them from me, these people with floor-to-ceiling "collections" of brick-a-brack?
It's easy to blame our problems on our narrow Philadelphia rowhouse, which is the residence equivalent of jeggings (looks like a real house; fits like leggings). My husband, The Gryphon, and I began renting it in our comparatively wild pre-baby days, when we stayed up until 3 a.m., and there were no bottles involved; or at least, no milk. Babies bring with them a bewildering blizzard of stuff, from Boppys to temperature ducks.
But other families live on this densely-packed street, some with multiple children and the entire village it takes to raise them. Are their bedside tables covered with ATM receipts? Do they own old vinyl records they could never play because of the baby shoes, tool chest and miscellaneous papers stacked on the record player? Or are they immune to the peculiarly American disorder of -- dare I admit it -- hoarding?
These stock-piling tendencies were passed down to me like a family Bible. My grandmothers perfected the technique and taught it like a religion. My maternal grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, insisted on keeping anything useful: from used twist ties to Christmas paper, lovingly pressed flat and folded for another use. I, too, keep sandwich bags of rubber bands and paper clips; along with a deer-shaped basket filled with ground-scored pens. The shelves in the office/nursery contain IKEA boxes of used manila envelopes and used office paper for scrap. I could comfortably supply a chapter of the Sierra Club for several months.
On the other side, my paternal grandmother, a librarian, amassed a virtual document warehouse, consisting of genealogical documents, bran recipes, and interesting articles. I make no apologies for a basement crammed with plastic bins of letters and journals. As a writer, I'd no sooner toss them than shred a pile of twenties. Admittedly, I probably don't need to keep every book I've reviewed for Wild Violet or every concert stub and theater program. As my brother warned me once, the longer you keep something, the harder it is to let it go. That third-grade craft project, a Valentine's heart made from home-made flour cement, tinted with food coloring? Thirty-some years later, it's transformed from a holiday craft into a crumbling relic.
It's easy to get used to whatever surrounds you, to the point that you no longer see it, no matter how nasty. In college, I knew a guy who had inherited his family farm. But the combination of his lax housekeeping methods with unfettered farm cats, and soon the house was so vile -- if you saw a pile of whitish clay-like substance, you prayed it was dirt but knew it probably wasn't -- that he was sleeping every night in his girlfriend's cramped double-wide trailer.
When do such tendencies turn? How quickly do cluttered tabletops turn into floors that need to be shoveled? How long is the interval between vacuuming up balls of cat fur and excavating fossilized cat poo?
The frightening answer: shorter than you might think. I discovered that in the third trimester of pregnancy, when our porch was transformed from a repository of garden tools and lawn chairs to a disorganized storage room. The glass table was covered with baby gifts, and storage bags filled with pre-pregnancy clothes took up residence. Then, after we set up the baby's space, other items moved in: displaced furniture, books to donate or store, and, impossibly soon afterward, outgrown toys and baby items.
When we reached the point of having just a narrow path through the boxes and bags, I knew I had to act. At that stage, we had to squeeze by, holding the baby carrier ahead of us, because you couldn't set it down on the porch. I was reminded of a fellow student radio volunteer, who had lived in the same apartment for 20 years, since his own college days. His hallway was lined with stacks of record albums, and in his disaster of a kitchen, on a broken burner, he kept a hapless goldfish. That was 20 years ago. I wonder if his floors have buckled yet.
So far, at least, I have avoided the sort of extraordinary accumulation that leads to embarrassing archeological expeditions. ("I haven't seen the baby in a while." "Look behind that pile of laundry.") My fear-driven efforts have paid off: you can see the porch floor again! When it first made its reappearance, I wanted to kiss it, like an expatriate returning home. While there the parade of baby items for resale or donation will continue, my goal is to keep them moving. As long as at least one bag leaves the home every week (and one or fewer bags come in), I figure I can stem the tide of flotsam and jetsam.