I’ve always been single-minded, putting all my energy behind one goal. It’s a strategy that helped me get into my favorite college and my first job in advertising. “No” was a throw away word if I really wanted something, a signal to start working on wearing someone down. I used to be relentless too, especially as a child. One day I locked my father out of his car and demanded he throw away his cigarettes. He begged me to let him in, his six-foot-two-inch frame bent toward my window. “Please Maureen, let me in.” “Oh C’mon!” “Jesus!” He promised not to smoke in the car. I didn’t open the door until the whole pack was in the garbage. When he was finally seated behind the wheel, he turned to me and said, “You never give up, do you?” They should have called me Little Machiavelli. Instead I heard echoes of the word spoiled from time to time.
At some point we all learn to bend a little. I’m 56 and these days I compromise more often than not. If my father were still smoking, I’d suggest a nicotine patch or just let him smoke. When do you know if you’ve become Gumby in Capri pants? I think it’s when you agree to make your dad happy by sleeping on his crippled, 51-year-old pullout sofa instead of your bed because it has a pile of mail on it that can’t be moved. A sofa with a mattress that reminds me of a crushed Mallomar with a meta frame so arthritic and
that you need a can of WD40 to safely close it in the morning. After pushing with all your might, it flies out of your desperate hands and snaps back into the frame, making ghost house sounds.
My father lives with his older brother who hoards paper. He is the reason I have to sleep on the sofa every time I come home. Uncle Tony keeps hundreds of newspaper circulars, envelopes, magazines and bits and pieces of their wardrobe on my bed. I’ve been single-minded and relentless in an effort to get a yes from him so I can clear the bed. With a couple of boxes and detailed labeling, you could see the bedspread again. begged him to let me move the mountain.
Sometimes I think I’m going to bite right through my tongue when I see that bed. To my tidy girl way of thinking, the mess is freakish. I can’t allow for anything but my vision of a clean, smooth bed with every paper topping swept away.
I am not allowed to touch a single piece of paper on that bed. He reminds me nearly every time I go in the bedroom. I tried once and somehow his 84-year-old ears heard movement with 18 feet and a wall separating us. Another time I spotted a pair of Brooks Brothers men’s pajamas made from the softest, lightest cotton. When I asked my uncle if I could have them he said, “You didn’t move anything did you?”
A very small part of me understands why everything must stay at rest. When you are hoarding mail on a twin bed for years, you develop a pile with a peak. A small adjustments can cause an avalanche. Also, I may have figured out why the piles are there and can’t be touched. The circulars represent opportunity. The mail is mostly a record of problems solved. The sweaters and pajamas? I am going to stretch and say they represent longevity. Sleeping and waking. Keeping warm. Once a month his housekeeper Mabel comes over for four hours to help my uncle clean up the bed. “Make a dent in the piles!” as he says. I’ve watched him carefully examine each envelope inside and out before releasing it to a particular plastic bag, discussing its purpose with Mabel who acts like he is as normal as can be. The essence and size of the pile never changes.
His one-track mind is richer than mine. With his stubborn insistence that the bed remain unchanged, he has amassed a treasure chest of opportunities, accomplishments and comforting reminders. I’ve always called my uncle a hoarder, and technically he is, but it’s a narrow point of view, grim and lacking imagination. There is a sweet story here too. Each month he has an important job to do. With four plastic Stop and Shop bags and Mabel by his side, he can reach over and carefully edit his life. He can spend the afternoon sharing stories, big and small. I am pretty sure Mabel has always understood the ritual. If I’d been more flexible, I could have gotten in on it sooner.