My Struggle for Less

Decluttering has become an all-consuming obsession. I crave an open, peaceful living space, yet I am often surrounded by so much clutter that it’s suffocating. I live in constant conflict with two sides of myself: the one that craves simplicity (the real me) and the one that seeks to sabotage the real me at every turn.

It’s not that I seek out stuff to fill some gaping maw in my life. I have no specific desire to collect any tangible items. It’s not that I want to hold on to things—it’s that the things I want to discard hold on to me.

My mother was an obsessive-compulsive hoarder. She called herself a “collector.” She loved antiques, and in the early days of her budding compulsion, antique auctions became her passion. She would proudly score a desk here, a chair there, china cabinets, and her pride and joy: an old wooden icebox. But as more and more items entered our home, none ever left. Our home became cluttered with valuable antiques clamoring for attention, but mostly buried under piles of newspapers, photographs, and letters. My mother could not bear to discard anything, and this became a source of conflict between her and my step-dad.

Then came the losses. First, my sister, Denise, was born with Down’s syndrome, a condition we now know is always accompanied by congenital heart defects of varying severity. When she died at the age of 11, my parents were desolate. This was not my mother’s first tragic loss. She had been widowed at the age of 31 when my biological father was killed in a small plane crash.

Eleven years after my sister died, my older brother, Ronald, took his own life six weeks before his thirtieth birthday. At some point, between losing my brother and my sister, Mom discovered yard sales and more stuff piled up. Mom’s yard saling seemed like nothing more than a harmless hobby. I was of the mind that it was her business how she kept her house and spent her money, and as long as she wasn’t hurting anyone, we should let her be. At one point, my sister and I even took her to a therapist, who concurred. I never considered the toll it would ultimately take on me.

Eventually, my mother was no longer satisfied with collecting things for herself—she began to scout out items to give to the rest of us. This became a source of great conflict between my mother and me. Once, out of profound frustration, I begged her to stop bringing me other people’s trash. She was highly affronted, and I lived to regret my words.

My mother passed her gift for emotional attachment to inanimate objects on to me. She had suffered so much and was unhappy so often that I lived to please her. And much of what she gave me had great value to me, whether sentimental or tangible. She loved coming to my house and seeing the way I displayed her heirlooms and would regale the younger generations with stories attached to each one.

The loss of my mother was like nothing I had ever experienced. It was so sudden and shocking that I fell into a depression so deep that I was committed to a psychiatric hospital for five days. I was overcome with guilt about minute details—I didn’t do enough for her. I should have just been grateful for anything she did for me or gave me. There was no shortage of transgressions for which I deserved to be punished.

And so, I punished myself. Why should I deserve to be happy when my mother could not? My mother was gone, but I still wanted to make her happy and proud. These feelings began to manifest in my belongings. While it was difficult to purge my own things, it became impossible to even consider discarding things she had given me. How could I throw away a gift from my deceased mother? The stuff piled up, and my despair grew.

I have always believed that failure to let go of lost loved ones keeps them earthbound. I watched my mother hold so tightly to my deceased father and siblings that she became stuck in time. She once showed me a $20 bill that she kept because my late brother had touched it. She also kept my sister’s shoes. She couldn’t let them go.

I came to realize that I was perpetuating the pattern that my mother had bequeathed to me. I was holding on to her the way she did her lost husband and children. I finally understand that in order to let go of things I no longer needed, I needed to let go of my mother.

Caron Wunderlich

About the Author | Caron Wunderlich

Caron Wunderlich is a teacher, journalist, and future novelist. A true-blue New Englander, she is happiest riding her bicycle along the winding hills of her farm town. Her dog, Remi, and cat, Cash, share their home way back in the woods with her, her husband, their daughter, and two teenage grandsons. She is currently working on a memoir about being rescued by dogs.

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