Should we throw away Mom's things?
ARLINGTON, MASS. — Newspapers and magazines fascinated my mother. She clipped articles and photos with abandon: news stories, travelogues, recipes, and women's fashions. During my pre-Internet college days, she was an indispensable one-woman clipping service. What more could a student ask for? Even after my graduation and her retirement, large manila envelopes arrived once a week, crammed with coupons, product samples, and, of course, week-old news items.
Yet over the years, my mother saved more paper than she mailed. One daily newspaper wasn't enough. She collected multiple copies to deliver to friends. I explained that I didn't need clips anymore. Even so, a Mount Everest of reading material grew in her bedroom. She couldn't part with greeting cards, supermarket circulars, or mail solicitations either. Purchases also piled up: clothing, household items, and more. "Well, it was on sale," was the response to curious, then anxious, inquiries about bulging shopping bags. A double-sized bed morphed into a twin; a bedroom became a warehouse.
Mom hoarded far too many of her favorite things. My brother, sister, and I debated solutions. Should we throw away her possessions - junk to us, yet precious to her - and risk her anger? Let the stuff accumulate and risk a fire?
Living at home, my brother maintained a fragile peace with Mom. Farther removed from our mother's routines in her Philadelphia rowhouse, my sister and I argued for intervention.
Family conferences deadlocked. Alternating between jokes and scare tactics, we attempted to prod Mom into action. When we were children, would she have tolerated our rooms looking like hers? And what about the neighbors? Her belongings threatened not only her quality of life, but public safety as well. Neither approach worked.
Mom downplayed our concerns. "I'll get to it," she'd say, "I'm so busy!" An active senior, she was quite involved in community activities. She refused our offers of help, however, and warned us not interfere.
Instead, we settled for incremental measures, tossing out stuff Mom wouldn't miss. During weekend visits, I launched preemptive strikes on the newspaper "collection." But those periodic clear-outs upset her and failed to make any headway. Mom's things tumbled out of her bedroom into an adjoining bedroom, and spilled downstairs to the kitchen and dining rooms. I dreaded a phone call from the fire department.
The call came before Christmas a year ago, but the voice at the other end was my brother's. Hearing a noise downstairs late one night, he got out of bed to investigate. Perched on a small pile of newspapers while writing cards, Mom had dozed off at the kitchen table and fallen to the floor. He found her sprawled in pain. She'd broken her left arm.
This time, our response was swift. Despite her protests, I cleaned her kitchen and dining rooms before bringing her to my home to recuperate. Over four months, my brother cleared out her bedroom, throwing out countless bags of trash. Never-opened, still usable purchases went to charity. Personal mementos ended up in plastic storage containers. He scrubbed floors, painted walls, replaced curtains, and rearranged furniture.
We dreaded Mom's reaction to my brother's - unsanctioned, but heroic - efforts.
Mom returned home in the spring. Opening her bedroom door, she cried - in relief. Stymied by attempts to sort through mounds of paper and purchases, she confessed she hadn't known where to start.
Perhaps we waited too long. But overruling an elderly parent's wishes is one of the most difficult situations an adult child faces, a quandary few of us anticipate. Now we children have adopted the vigilant posture our mother once assumed. Confronting hoarding is an ongoing battle whose victories are bittersweet and, sometimes, short-lived. Recently, after receiving an "amazing" discount offer by mail, Mom subscribed to a number of magazines. I'm planning a trip home to recycle them.
• Gabrielle Gurley is a Boston-area journalist.