In the last few weeks, I’ve gotten pretty obsessed with the A&E reality show, “Hoarders,” which if you can get past the piles of junk, “treasures,” and poo, is compelling. In the season preview clip above, the newly famous Possum From Hoarders makes her (not his) daring leap for freedom after being poked with a stick. This little clip apparently kept the other obsessed fans talking all summer, but the actual appearance of the Awesome Possum did not disappoint; she hopped in a handy Pet Taxi and lit off for the bright lights of the big city. You can read all about her adventures on her Facebook fan page. Seriously, comic relief like this makes watching “Hoarders” bearable; otherwise it’s just one horror show after another. So fans focus on silly things like possumbombs and kitchen rakes to keep from shouting “NO, THROW IT OUT, THROW IT OUT, NO DON’T SAVE IT, IT’S GARBAGE” at their televisions.
Since then, I’ve been cleaning and organizing stuff pretty much every time I catch an episode, and today I’m cleaning out the guest room, which has been “the room where all the snorkel stuff is in the middle of the floor” for many months now. At the moment, the luggage and snorkel gear is now neatly stacked in the closet, which has been cleared for my guest, but after my lunch-tea-and-blogging break I need to get the freshly laundered sheets on the bed (fancy new dryer just beeped happily) and sweep the floor, vacuum, and damp mop with the wooden floor cleaner.
I already cleaned a lot of guck, bucum, and scrud in the kitchen, but there’s more to do. Definitions to follow…
Each 60-minute episode of Hoarders is a fascinating look inside the lives of two different people whose inability to part with their belongings is so out of control that they are on the verge of a personal crisis.
What causes people to surround themselves with useless junk? Why can’t they bear to part with piles of used tissues? Why do they feel the need to fill their homes with stuff, while buying more stuff every day online or at yard sales? From what I can make out, it’s a form of self protection. They have so little sense of self that they’re compelled to keep anything they associate with something they’ve lost, or that they wanted but never had. Where we see a stack of old National Geographics, they see a gold mine of valuable information. That’s STILL GOOD.
I’ve been reading websites for the last couple of weeks, participating in fan forums, I’m even a fan of the Possum from Hoarders on Facebook (he had a cameo in the episode with Jo, the collectibles hoarder from a few weeks back). I’m pretty much addicted to Hoarders, and shows like it, at the moment.
Why? Because it reminds me so strongly of a family member from my childhood (long dead, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem to lay out the dirty (and brand new, never worn) laundry here. Also, I have a tendency to tolerate clutter, I am disorganized, and I definitely have been hanging on to some things (especially stuff associated with my mom or other family members who’ve passed away) that don’t otherwise have much value.
On my favorite fan site, I posted:
Jo’s collection of valuable gewgaws brought back a lot of memories for me, because many years ago my mom and I would periodically drive 6 hours to clear out her sister’s house. This sister was also a compulsive shopper and collector, plus there were other issues. But she would also certainly be classified a hoarder now, and it might have been easier for my mom to deal with it if she’d known it was a real mental illness and not sheer cussedness.
Apparently it’s now okay to say “my aunt was a hoarder,” as Matt Paxton recently said in an article.
It’s always been there. I mean, everyone has a crazy aunt who did it. It’s really like alcoholism, only it’s a new alcoholism. It’s now OK to say, “My aunt is a hoarder.” Before all this publicity, people just thought it was weird, but now we’re understanding that it’s a disease. In 10 years, people will be very nonchalant and accepting of it, but right now, there’s still a negative association. We’re seeing the last of the kids of the Depression hitting old age and dying, so we’re just now getting into these houses that people haven’t been in for years. Then you have that next generation of baby boomers, who have money to buy things and are receiving everything from their parents. And a lot of the baby boomers don’t want this stuff, but they feel guilty, so they take it. We’re seeing the effects of the last 50 years of consumerism.
Yes, I now know that my aunt was a hoarder, and I wonder if Mom would have found some kind of comfort in knowing there was an actual diagnosis that fit my crazy aunt Florency. I suspect, though, that Mom would still have been angry about the need to clean up Florence’s house and balance her checking account and tell the local merchants not to extend credit to my aunt and her son every few years.
There was so much more to the story than that. For one thing, Florency was the kind of person who corrected the grammar of anyone around her, because she was a college-educated woman and a teacher. She was rather insufferable about it, too, and I remember a long-standing family joke/feud between Florence and my dad about whether it was proper to say “curtains” or “draperies.”
My dad couldn’t stand Florence, from what I can make out. My sisters probably remember a whole lot more, but he definitely used to make fun of her with my mom, but not in a really mean way. After all, Florence was his wife’s sister, and Pop wasn’t a mean person. He just thought it was funny that Florence would always rise to the bait when he used “curtains” in a sentence. And then he’d imitate the high-class way she’d say “Drrrrraaaaape’ries.”
After Pop and all the other men in the family died (various uncles, brothers-in-law, fathers) it was up to the surviving women to keep things together, in their own households mostly.
I’m thinking of it as… a kind of inoculation against the tendency to become a stereotypical older cat-hoarding lady who can’t bear to part with Momma’s precious broken knick-knacks.
On the other hand, Mom really had some nice things that got broken that she tried to repair for display. But now that I’ve got them, they’re associated with sorrow – Mom’s regret that they got broken, or my sadness that she’s gone and I wasn’t there enough for her. My sisters have some of her stuff, too, and I recall how we kind of laughed sadly when just about every pretty thing Mom had on the hutch turned out to have a carefully mended crack, or a chip turned away to the back.
The funny thing is, I still remember how some of the things got broken (neighbor kids playing in the house, cat knocked it over, heavy hanging object fell on crystal bowl, etc.).
. And as it happens, I used to be responsible for cleaning all the beautiful antique glass that Florence collected… and there was not one piece that was chipped, cracked, or damaged in any way. With Mom’s stuff, it was about the relationships that the stuff represented. With Florence, it was always her beautiful things and clothes that came first, family relationships a distant second.
Deep background is called for, if you’ve read this far.
Florence was the oldest sibling, born in 1900. There was a younger sister named… Sis, whose name I can’t recall at the moment. Then middle sister Ginny, my namesake, who died many years ago. Then my uncle Charlie, the only son, who was a pretty successful businessman in Salt Lake in his adult years. And then Mom, the youngest, who was born in 1915. She was closest to Charlie and Ginny, but it was Florence who stepped up when their mother was… I’ll say ill. I guess she was hospitalized with some kind of psychological problem, which was a terrible dark secret that people didn’t talk about then. Nowadays I’d make a guess that she might have either had some kind of reaction to anesthetics (later, Florence and Ginny both had bad reactions to prescription drugs). Or it’s possible there might have been some postpartum depression, based on something Mom said once about how much her mom wanted to avoid further pregnancies. It was another time, when women had to pretty much trust to luck and the rhythm method… anyway.
Hoarding, and why my aunt did it, and what Mom did to deal with it. Topic, dammit.
As a young woman, Florence married pretty well; she and her husband owned a guest ranch that they ran during the summers in Steamboat Springs, and then they both were teachers during the winter. During the summer, Florence used to hire college girls to help her run the kitchen and do housekeeping at the ranch, while my uncle Had (that was his name, Had) looked after the stables and took guests on trail rides and fishing trips.
My mother apparently spent summers there helping, and my sisters know a LOT more about that than I do. One of the things that came out of that time was Florence’s classification system for dirt: guck, bucum, and scrud. It mostly applies to dishwashing, or general cleaning of surfaces such as in the kitchen or bathroom.
Guck is wet, messy stuff like wilted lettuce or leftover sauce that can be rinsed off with a spray of water, or wiped off with a damp sponge. You can then wash or clean it normally.
Bucum (byoo’-cum) takes a little more elbow grease, soap, and cleanser to remove, and is in fact greasy and nasty to the touch. It might smell bad enough for you to retch. You’ll probably have to use something pretty strong.
Scrud is dried hard, may be greasy, but is more often a concretion of something that might have been bucum before someone let it sit for a few days in their room or in the sink. Or it might have once have been some guck that spilled down the back of the fridge and left for a few months. You’ll have to hit it with something toxic, with the windows open, and use gloves. The stuff on the bottom of the oven is almost always scrud.
Usage: For some reason, something can be described as “gucky” or “scruddy,” but never “bucumy.” Any of the terms CAN be used to describe a cold, flu, or other upper-respiratory infection and the secretions produced by same – which all look like bucum, frankly.
A fourth word, “crud,” is actually an almost-acceptable dictionary word but in my family it describes the specific kind of sinus infection you get when you go to Salt Lake after a long absence living someplace where the air quality is better. When you return to the valley, you get “the crud.” Happens to me every. damn. time. I go to Salt Lake and so it’s probably the main reason I haven’t been there in years.
Anyway, back when Florence was ordering the help around, she had a lovely ranch home full of beautiful antiques, and a showplace “country” kitchen that was both homey and ahead of its time (there are pictures, perhaps sometime I’ll get the scanner hooked up).
After the glories of the ranch (and the stables) began to be too much to handle, it was sold, and every year there was a big balloon payment. There was plenty of money, and Florence enjoyed semi-annual trips to Denver to buy expensive clothes. My uncle Had loved to indulge her and he also liked to show off with a new car, generally every three years. He also found that there was a hefty tax benefit if all of Florence’s prescriptions were set up so they could be bought in bulk, once a year or once a quarter, whether she needed them or not. This would eventually become significant as Florence got older and went a bit… strange.
Meanwhile, she had a son who was bright and capable, but unfortunately he died young and tragically from a simple infection. Even more tragically, Florence’s second son was born the day of his brother’s funeral, and pretty much from the moment my mom laid eyes on my cousin Marty, she knew something was not right. Although it was never formally diagnosed or spoken of in Florence’s presence that I know of, Marty had Down’s Syndrome. He was very high functioning and could drive a car and work menial jobs, but he never had training and was quietly pulled out of school after about the sixth grade.
Years went by. There were feuds over “stuff” that had belonged to my grandmother, which caused rifts between the surviving sisters that never entirely healed. Some of the “stuff” ended up in each house, but Florence ended up with the prettiest glass, and added to the collection. My mom and my Aunt Sis didn’t speak too much for a while, until they realized that something needed to be done about Florence as she got into her old age. My uncle Charlie wisely chose to stay out of it, but was always there to help if needed.
My aunt Florence was in the habit of checking herself into hospitals to “just rest” and as Salt Lake was sometimes easier to get to than Denver, there were visits from Florence, Had, and Marty about once a year. Marty would generally call to say they were coming, and there was nothing anyone could say to stop them. They stayed at Charlie and Lucy’s house in those days, where there was plenty of room (and Florence thought Mom’s house was dreadfully small, and also she didn’t approve of Pop and his declasse’ “curtains”). She was really a snob, our Florency.
Uncle Had died, and although most of the income was no longer there for Florence and Marty, there was some inheritance to get through, some Social Security, and there was always the balloon payment… and so there was no problem with continuing the trips to Denver to shop at Denver Dry Goods, which became May D&F. We would get phone calls sometimes from Marty, when there was some kind of trouble he couldn’t cope with… like the bank saying there was no money, and the store saying they couldn’t charge anything, or the doctor saying he couldn’t write open-ended prescriptions for the Darvon my aunt required any more. Well, there soon would be money, but somehow they always ran out of credit and cash a month or two before the big, comforting balloon payment for the ranch.
Uncle Charlie soon found himself writing checks to “straighten out Florence’s bank account” now and then, or he’d give Mom some cash and she’d go over to Steamboat and clear out whatever mess there was that needed clearing. With Charlie’s help, this meant Mom actually flew to Steamboat on at least one occasion, rather than drive; even then (1966) there was seasonal air service into HDN.
That must have been a big blow-up, I was really young. Must have been when Had died and Mom had to get there fast. I think that’s the chronology – Had went first of all the men in the family (in that generation, anyway). Then Pop and Wally, and a few years later Charlie.
When Charlie died, the bubble burst. My aunt Lucy needed to focus on her own life and get her house sold and downsized to a condo, and wanted nothing more to do with Florence, Marty, and their baffling problems. My mom understood this, because Lucy had been hosting them on their visits and we knew that they were very odd, even then.
It became my mom’s role to take care of Florence as needed, because Florence had taken care of her. We would get these phone calls from Marty – they always started with him just saying “Lell?” which was his version of my mom’s family nickname. If “Lell?” was high-pitched, it meant there was trouble. If it was low-pitched and happy, it was a social call – but that could also mean trouble in the form of an imminent visit from them.
I’ve already blogged about the trips to Steamboat in a long post, but I was reminded more of the hoarder-like aspects of my aunt’s obsession with good wool, pens, purses, and pill cases by watching the A&E show. Also, there was the issue of the dog poop and rotting food. Based on the files I’ve seen online, she woul probably have been classified as “only a level II” hoarder.
Wow. The older post really goes into a lot more detail about the trips, but here’s a quote:
Poor Marty. I never could feel a lot of affection for him, because I was always a little frightened of him (and apparently, with good reason). He was harmless enough, but grabby. Always poking and pinching. Always quacking away about the same few things that held his interest. If you picture Ernest Borgnine, but with his features blurred over and dulled, that would be Marty. He would have been in his thirties then. As we drove up toward their house, he kept up a constant narrative about the neighbors, the houses we passed, and how well his mom was doing, and whatever cute little dog they had then.
When we walked into the house, it was generally though the pantry, so we got the worst first. Marty was in the habit of buying crates of fruit, eating half of it until it began to go bad, and then buying another crate of fruit. So often the first job after dumping our stuff in the guest room (which was usually pretty much as weâ€™d left it last time) was to clear the rotting fruit out and put it out in the garage, where it would have to wait until garbage pickup day. However, first weâ€™d have to pick through and get all the paring knives out, because Marty also tended to stand there snacking with knife in hand, drop the knife in the crate for the next time, and walk away.
Then weâ€™d be in the kitchen, where piles of dishes and pans would be gauged: would this be a quick, easy trip with just a little slicking up, or would this be 3 days of hard labor? That winter, the cleaning wasnâ€™t so bad â€“ it only took the first day to clean up the kitchen and make the dining area useable again.
Florence was either in her bedroom, or on the sofa in the family room, which like the living room had glass shelves in the big picture windows to hold her collection of antique glass. Weâ€™d come in, and sheâ€™d greet us rather in the manner of minor royalty whose pedigree is assumed, but never proven.
After an initial cleaning binge to get the worst of the piles of dishes and laundry dealt with and put away (inconveniently, the washer and drier were in the kitchen, right in the path of anyone working there), Mom would ask to see the bills and the checkbook, and then call the bank to see what was what. Iâ€™m not sure how she knew who to contact, other than sorting through piles of old mail and searching all over the house for anything that looked like a relatively current bill. However, it was generally the same list of local businesses. Sheâ€™d call and arrange some sort of payment plan, and tell the managers (again) that under no circumstances were they to allow our relatives to put anything on account.
And then, of course, there was indoor poop patrol. This meant hunting down errant poops in the corners of the living room, which was rarely used. Marty was never consistent at letting the dogs out, and of course when it was cold he felt sorry for them and wouldnâ€™t toss them outside by the scruff of the neck, so if they didnâ€™t want to go outside, he wouldnâ€™t make them. Theyâ€™d go out to pee, apparently. Weird. Anyway, this job generally fell to me, while Mom worked on getting the account to balance.
I’d forgotten that I’d already done such a lengthy post on Florence and her weird collecting habits, but I still have a vivid memory of dumping a mixing-bowl full of brightly colored prescription drugs down the toilet, with Mom at my side and both of us feeling both gleeful and horrified. Florence was hollering death and brimstone from her bed, but everything we were throwing out came from expired prescriptions that had been bought many years before and dumped in the “junk” room, which I mentioned in the earlier post. We probably pulled at least 200 full prescription bottles out of there, once we finally removed the piles of clothes and boxes of junk.
However, the drugs of choice were not in there – the “good stuff” was Darvon or Darvocet, and those we found tucked into the side pockets of purses, in every single “sweetener” case and pill case (sometimes more than one in each purse), and in even odder places. I remember my aunt grumbling and then speaking sharply to me when on one of the pill-hunting trips. I started going through the pens in the mug on her bed table, which she DID NOT LIKE, although I was more interested in the fountain pens, frankly. She got quite, quite shirty and ordered me to stop, which I took as a sign that there was something to find. By then, as a surly teen feeling pretty resentful about having to spend time cleaning shit and decayed fruit out of the house, I wasn’t about to stop. She started shouting as I sorted through all the pens, feeling their heft and shaking them. I now had an idea about where her last stash of Darvocet, which we knew was in the house somewhere, was hidden. Mom came over from where she was shaking her head over the price tags she’d found on the latest batch of unworn new clothes hanging in the closet to see what all the commotion was about.
The silence was deafening when I picked up the next Parker pen, unscrewed the top, and 4 pink pills slid into my hand as my mom and aunt watched.
After that, my aunt sort of deflated. We emptied every pen, every bag, every envelope, drawer, chest, pocket, tube of antacid, ANYTHING big enough to hold even one or two pills. And we generally found one or two pills, everywhere we looked, even if we’d already checked the obvious places. The search became much grimmer and quieter after that, the much smaller bowl of Darvon and Darvocet pills went down the toilet, and that was when Mom talked to the county about a visiting nurse to come in and make sure Florence took the right medications at the right times. We also had a lot less to deal with as far as objections when we removed usable stuff and wearable clothes to be given away or sold in consignment shops.
What I also did not mention was the little attic over the garage, which was almost completely full of old National Geographic magazines, that hoarder’s delight. In summer it was a nice little hidey-hole, because there was a rug and I think an old sofa or overstuffed chair, and a reading light. Also, Marty didn’t like to go up there because he was too fat and unsteady on his feet to make it safely up the vertical wooden ladder that his dad had built on the garage wall – this attic was over the kitchen, so it was warm in winter, but not that comfortable. It was where I spent a lot of time keeping out of Marty’s way. I was lucky in that although Marty grabbed at me a couple of times, I don’t think I ever was stuck alone with him in the house where I couldn’t get away. At least, I don’t remember anything bad happening. I just remember being really grossed out, and I would do anything to sit at the dinner table where I wasn’t right next to him, but also not right across from him. Which was quite a tricky maneuver at a small round table with only four people, now that I think of it.
As I think my quoted blog post makes clear, Florence was a clothes, pens, and collectibles hoarder, and Marty was more of a food, poodle, and poop hoarder. Neither of them ever, ever put anything away. Marty had more mobility and if reminded would take out the trash, but I don’t think he ever emptied wastebaskets in any room, or in the kitchen either. They would all just get full to overflowing, and then he’d either start taking garbage right out to the garage, or he’d… find someplace to put it in the pantry or under the sink. Where the dog would get it, eventually.
No matter what age I was – child, pre-teen, or teen, the work was the same. Haul out the rotten stuff, haul out the trash, haul out the ruined stuff the dog or dogs had gotten into. And then it was get rid of the guck, bucum, and scrud in the kitchen and bathrooms before we could really get down to ordinary cleaning, dusting, and polishing in all the rooms.
Guck, bucum and scrud. Lather, rinse, repeat. We generally had to give away more than a few pots and pans to the neighbors so we could close the cupboard doors, but at least they were clean.
I think that as soon as we left, my aunt and cousin immediately went back to their old ways: Marty would cook something nasty and greasy, and the scraps would be put down for the dog and probably not thrown away, and then he’d go and buy a flat of fresh peaches and dump it on top of something in the pantry so he could eat whenever he went through there. Florence would demand dinner on the couch, or she’d bestir herself to make a cake for the neighbors and leave the mess for Marty, who would put the pans away dirty. And then the next week, she would order something from the May company, or tell Marty that she needed to see a Denver doctor, and then go shopping for new clothes to replace the one Lell threw out.
The thing is, she could hardly walk, so I’m not sure how she kept up her shopping activities in her later years. It was probably all catalogs by then.
The last time I remember Mom taking off to go to Steamboat, I was in high school, and that was the time she came back sick. I stayed home alone, and although I didn’t have a wild party, I did get up to a fair amount of no good. Mom picked up a fungal infection, was running an extremely high fever, and was speeding in order to get home before she got too sick to drive. So she got popped for a speeding ticket in Duchesne, and got home several hours later than planned. I remember the “WHUMP!!” as she pulled into the driveway and smacked into the house where the flowerbox used to be, under the dining room window. She’d taken out the flowerbox over the course of several snowy winters, but this time there was no snow: she just was so relieved to be home that she forgot to brake in time. She went straight to bed and was as sick as a dog for a week. Then she had to go back to Duchesne to deal with the ticket.
After I went off to college, Mom dealt with things. Florence became bedridden and went quite ga-ga and was unable to care for herself, so Mom reluctantly put her in a nursing home, where she raised hell for a couple of years before passing away. Marty got a bit more independence and got more involved with the local handicapped adult service group, and was quite happy, even after his mom passed. But then he, too died – heart failure, very common with Down’s Syndrome adults.
By then the house was relatively straight. Mom had supplemented Marty’s bank account for years by selling off the most valuable pieces of glass, one by one, through a consignment shop. She kept the less valuable or damaged pieces, which weren’t worth much but looked pretty on the hutch or on a windowsill. Florence hadn’t displayed the damaged ones, though Mom figured out how to put their best face forward, so to speak.
The last of the clothes and purses and shoes were gone. And after Marty was gone, Mom inherited the house and sold it for a pretty decent price, as Steamboat had become a kind of yuppie mountain town. The money problems were pretty much solved for her after that, but she did always regret the pretty things she had to sell, especially the house.
She was sad about that, because it was a cute little faux-log cabin, with aspens planted in the front yard and in the back. She always thought that the house was like a little jewel box inside when we had finished cleaning and clearing it. She loved sitting in the clean family room or out on the patio in summer, listening to the hummingbirds and chatting with Florence after my aunt’s head had cleared up and she was more inclined to intelligent conversation. But after the sale, Mom was also happy that the house was finally going to someone who would take care of it, and enjoy the view down the long lawn sloping down to the creek.
On a road trip a couple of years ago, I made David go by the old house – we were in town to scatter Mom’s ashes, in fact, because that’s where Pop’s ashes are. She never forgot the happy times she had in Steamboat, even though years later, the thought of cleaning out yet another mess at Florence’s was like she had “died and gone to hell.”
The house is still there, although some of the open space on either side has been subdivided and built up, there’s still a long stretch of back lawn sloping down to the creek. Here it is – the people living there have no idea that their house used to belong to the lady who invented guck, bucum, and scrud.