I should probably start by saying there’s a difference between a pack rat and a hoarder.

We’ve all heard of hoarders. These are the people who can’t find space to walk in their own homes, or who have aisles arranged in their living and dining rooms so they can. They amass piles and piles of stuff that to normal people appears to be worthless trash.

Hoarders make the news. When their collections create a health hazard or a public nuisance, the Health Department comes in and condemns their homes and hires a crew to come in and clear out all their belongings. Hoarders sometimes wind up in court, and in worst-case scenarios, mental wards. People laugh at them.

I’m not a hoarder.


But I am a pack rat.

I come by it honestly. My parents, both children of the Depression, were also pack rats. My mom, raised on a farm where nothing ever went to waste and nothing repairable was ever thrown away, was mortally offended by the idea of planned obsolescence, and she used appliances until they were irreparable. Radios, toasters, electric mixers, TV sets, VCRs, microwave ovens—all, in her mind, could and should be repaired, not replaced, if they stopped working. She used the same hand-held mixer all my life, and it still works. I have it here somewhere.

She also hung onto a wide variety of paraphernalia related to the numerous projects and hobbies in which she involved herself over the years: A set of resin grapes she and her sister made in 1968 and the rock tumbler she bought in 1971; candle-making supplies from the early 70’s; a couple of tennis racquets in wooden frames; gold leaf from her cloisonné period; a set of golf clubs from the 50’s; a pair of wooden skis and poles from the 40’s, and skeins and skeins of yarn she used for knitting and crocheting afghans, as well as several of the afghans themselves. She kept it all because you never know when you’re going to decide to come back to an old hobby again. But she kept it all neatly stashed in closets and in the garage (which also held her car), so it was all out of sight if not out of mind.

The only thing that wasn’t out of sight was her art. Paintings on every wall. Easily a hundred of them. Some of them quite good.

My dad was also a pack rat, but for different reasons. He had a lot of space at his house—the garage, a rec room, a horse stable that in later years was empty of horses, and closets galore. He had plenty of room for stuff, which was a good thing because whenever a member of his or his wife’s family passed away, their stuff found its way to his house.

The way my dad saw it, if nobody else in the family wanted it, or if there was nobody left in the family to want it, that didn’t mean it didn’t have value—and it was up to someone to keep it safe. So he appointed himself as Someone. The Caretaker.

He had it all fairly well organized: My stepmom’s Uncle Jimmy’s stuff was in the entry hall closet; her mother’s was in a front bedroom (which was mine as a child); her Aunt Margaret’s was in the attached two-car garage, along with mountains of boxes from his own earlier years, containing, among other things, some of my great-aunt’s china, an assortment of architectural pieces from the house his grandfather built in Redlands, CA in the late 1800’s, and all of his grandfather’s now-antique tools.

I understood my mother’s need to save things just in case, and my dad’s need to archive everything. My parents are gone now—my dad in 2003, my stepmom in 2005, and my mom in 2010—but I have all of their stuff, including everything I rescued from my dad’s house after it burned down, very little of which has any value as nearly all of it is either burned or smoke-damaged. Why do I have it all? Because it’s now my turn to be Someone.

Fortunately, I have a big house with a full basement, and not one but two pole barns.

And they have aisles.

The only room in the house itself that so far has been overrun is my office, which still contains boxes and boxes of my parents’ stuff. I have no use for any of it—not in my office, not in the basement, not in the barn—but having my parents’ stuff keeps them close, and throwing any of it away feels like I’m throwing them away.

I’m just not ready to do that.

My husband, whose philosophy is that one’s memories are safe in one’s heart and soul and therefore have no need for physical representation, reminds me gently but with increasing frequency of my promise to go through all of my parents’ stuff, to donate, to throw away, to organize. I approach each summer and winter break with plans to get just one of the areas under control, just to prove that I can.

But summer break passes, and the aisles remain.

It’s no laughing matter.