By now, everyone knows about the malady called “hoarding”. It was made infamous by a Reality TV show — if ever there was a misnomer, that’s it! But I suspect you’ve known someone afflicted…
My sister’s mother-in-law was (Bless her sainted soul!) an extreme case. I’m told that in the basement — and in the attic, too — she had, saved, every newspaper and magazine she’d ever bought!
Seeing her kitchen’s state the first time I’d visited her in her house in Cambridge that she and her husband bought in the ’30s, I believe it. (If I remember correctly what I’d heard, they paid about $18 grand for it. At the the time of my visit Harvard had likely given up on trying to buy it — their latest offer -again, so I heard- had been a million, five…) They wouldn’t sell: They’d spent their entire married life there, raised their three boys; it was home. And, as was common with most people of their class, they accepted only working till retirement, or death — whichever came first — as reasons to leave.
Her husband had died a few years prior…
She greeted me graciously at her back door, which led directly into the kitchen, and gesturing at the table -small, as befitted their unpretentious ways- seated me with my back to the ancient black and white speckled enamelled gas range. Had she had a kettle already on one of the front burners I could have mixed my instant coffee without rising; and since she was a tea drinker it actually surprised me that she had to “prepare” the water.
But first she needed to fill the kettle, which presented me with a scene reminiscent of a Ma and Pa Kettle short: To the sink she went, lifted a dish pan half-full of dishwater out, walked past me to the back door and, from the old wooden stoop, emptied the pan into the yard.
I asked why she hadn’t used the drain. She opened the doors to the enclosure under the sink, displaying plastic plumbing in disarray. The pipes were not connected to the drain!
We chatted while I sipped my coffee, she her tea; then I took my leave. I excused myself, telling her I’d an errand to run…
I found the nearest hardware store, bought.pvc and sundries; returned to do a simple job…
Her three sons had since her husband’s death been pleading with her to let them repair the kitchen plumbing, the last job her husband had begun. To no avail. She was a strong willed woman unused to either confrontation or contradiction…but the latter in particular was mildly ferociously guarded against.
My errand was a simple one: Find the nearest hardware store!
I’d halfgfrown up in Cambridge, so I was familiar with its people and places. (The dreaded Boston drivers didn’t intimidate me! I’d driven in New York and Los Angeles; and many places in between…) And having spent the last seven years living in northern California’s Central Valley -orchards and farms and ranches surrounding towns and cities large and small-I’d picked up some skills not everyone who grows up in a northeastern city is likely to learn: Welding, metal fabrication and carpentry, Heating and AC repair, heavy equipment operation, and -of course- plumbing!
The PVC fixtures I figured I needed were ready to hand and easily priced, I’d thought, “Ya done good, kid!”
Back in the kitchen I went to the cabinet under the sink with my plastic bag of mostly plastic piping and whatnot and my canvas bag of tools, retrieved from the trunk of my car. As I set the bags down, I asked might I have some more coffee? as I turned my back to the good lady and prepared to go to work…
I could feel her contradictory impulses battling for primacy: Her speech became a soft sputtering and her movements hesitant, as if she was unsure which way she was going or what she intended to do! The poor dear didn’t know me well; but I knew her well enough: A head strong matriarch still quite at sea after her husband’s death, living alone — something she’d never done before!
Since I was raised by what we now call “a single mother”, my way of dealing with situations involving grown women was polite, respectful and incautious. But, too, practical.
The job took perhaps twenty-five minutes all told. Clean up was a snap. And when the water was ready for my coffee we sat and resumed our conversation. Beyond her first few quiet sputters when I’d begun to work, she said nothing of it, and the rest of my visit was comfortable and a welcome relief from traveling, for me.
I hoped she’d enjoyed the company; but she’d never say she didn’t. Such things simply weren’t done. Certainly not where family was concerned!
When next I saw one of her sons, he remarked that they -all three- and others acquainted with the family were amazed that she’d let me fix the kitchen plumbing! He -and, presumably, the rest- wanted to know how I’d managed it. She’d reused to let any of them do it!
My answer was simple, and a simple matter of experience: I didn’t ask her if I could; I didn’t ask if she wanted me to…I saw a job that needed doing; a job that I knew how to do. So, I did it. Without a by-your-leave.
Because there’s only so much one can do. Leaving the little things undone, to accumulate and get the chance to fester in their abundance, is no way to live…