Adventures in Hoarding or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

My mother-in-law was a hoarder.  Not a pack-rat or an enthusiastic collector of useless stuff, but a full-fledged, afraid to throw away the trash because she might need it someday kind of hoarder. When she died at the age of eighty-one, the amount of stuff she had managed to cram into her house and barn had reached mind-blowing proportions. And we had a mind-blowing challenge. In order to sell the property, someone had to clean up the house and for reasons that I still don’t understand, I decided I was up for it. So in the summer of 1996, I flew out to Virginia and had the experience of a lifetime, a life changing summer, a near mental breakdown. It was a bizarre, stressful, exhausting, disturbing, disgusting, fascinating experience. Did I overdo the adjectives? Perhaps, but the eight weeks that I spent in that house was full of adjectives as well as expletives and more than a few tears.

Even without the hoarding, the place would have been fascinating. Originally, it was an outpost built in the early 1700’s in the mountains of northwest Virginia, not far from the Appalachian Trail. The small, square, log structure had one door, a couple of windows and steps that led to a flat roof with a waist-high balustrade and was used by Indian Scouts. After that the history is a little sketchy, but we were told that the property was used as a bivouac for Mosby’s Rangers during the Civil War and that a mountain family of ten had lived there in the early 1900’s.

A portion of the original outpost.

My son was afraid to go up these steps by himself and he was twenty years old at the time. But then, he’s also afraid of bees, spiders and crickets. It’s actually kind of embarrassing.

My in-laws bought the property in the late 1940’s, added a few modern conveniences like electricity and indoor plumbing, made it livable (kind of) and used it as a vacation house. It isn’t my idea of a vacation home, but each to their own. In the late 1970’s, they decided to live there year-round and a contractor was hired to make the necessary improvements. I’m not sure what the contractor was smoking or what my mother-in-law was drinking, but the final product was obviously the result of a drug/alcoholic induced state. Windows that once opened on the outside world now opened into other rooms, the library was only accessible through the bedroom, the only practical entrance was through the kitchen and the refrigerator and stove, shower, toilet and sink were all in one room. She also put a round, red velvet bed, red chandelier and little refrigerator that looked like a mailbox in the master bedroom. Honest.

I was just getting started here. Seriously. We were maybe a week into our adventure.

By the time my mother-in-law passed (my father-in-law had died seven years earlier) every room was full of crap. Literally. There were mouse droppings everywhere. And stuff. Tons of stuff. Some of it was good stuff, some of it was garbage, but I had to go through everything to sort it all out. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do it alone. Some might call it an incrediably lucky coincidence, but I believe the Universe was looking out for me. I’ll save that story for my next blog My Sister-in-Law is a Saint and Sleeping With Mice. In the meantime, let me know what you think. Would you have taken this on? Or was I just plain nuts?

If I’ve asked you once, I’ve asked you 2000 times… Take out the trash!!!


About Diana Douglas

Diana Douglas, author. Coorganizer of the Arizona Novel Writers Workshop. Member Arizona Historical Novel Society, Member BooksGoSocial Authors, Transplanted Texan.!/themodernscribe
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18 Responses to Adventures in Hoarding or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

  1. Wow! I thought my dad’s apartment was bad to clean up- thank goodness he didn’t have all that space to be able to clutter up!

  2. Yeah, it was pretty wild. When I look back, I’m not sure how we did it.

  3. Nuts, definitely!
    No seriously, the toliet was IN the kitchen? That’s going to give me nightmares. What happened if a visitor needed to use it?
    That must have been a loooong eight weeks, Diana. Hopefully you found some cool stuff to make it worth it!

    • Actually, the refrigerator and stove were in the bathroom. And the bathroom was in the storage room. There was a sink and hot plate in the kitchen, but no bathroom or stove. There was also an enormous brick oven in the kitchen that we couldn’t use because I was afraid it would catch the house on fire. Happy to clear things up for you.

  4. Marcia says:

    I can’t wait to read the rest of the story! I think you’re a brave soul (and a little nuts) to spend an entire summer cleaning that out. I might have hired someone to come in and do it after a couple of days. So, hurry up, tell us more!

    • My mother-in-law did very strange things like slipping money between the pages of books and tossing sterling silver or jewelry into bags of garbage. Plus we were on the hunt for things that had belonged to my husband–his Lionel trains and old comic books–and felt like we couldn’t trust someone else to do it. Glad you liked it. I’ll try to post twice a week.

  5. Char Bishop says:

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful (if at times difficult) journey with us! It’s so much fun to see the historic structure featured in your novel. For all the work and worry, you have been given a slice of history to enjoy and share with others.

    • I definitely took a lot away from it that was good. It triggered my desire to write, but it took me a long time to figure how I would use it in my novel. I toned it down some because I was afraid no one would believe me.

  6. Well, I know someone has to deal with the material stuff that people leave behind when they die, but really. This looks like a case for a bulldozer and the sanitation department, not a few well-intended family members. I’m going to make darn sure that Alex won’t have to deal with much when I die–well, there will be lots of batik material quilters may fight over. But other than that, it’s going to be some furniture, clothes and household items. I down-sized when I got divorced.And I never liked clutter around me. He’s one lucky boy. His father, however, has a houseful of junk. But that’s none of my concern now. 😉

    • Believe it or not, there were a lot of gems in all that trash and I had to resist the temptation to keep it all. I think knowing that one day our kids would have to do the same thing, is a major part of what kept me from lugging it all home. (Plus the fact that we lived 2700 miles away and shipping is expensive) We actually kept very little of what was there–five pieces of furniture, a few knicknacks and some things that belonged to my husband as a child.
      My husband has a much harder time giving things up than I do. Mmm… Wonder where he gets it?

  7. kokyquirk says:

    What an unholy task this was! I don’t like to mess around in anything that might be dirty – so I probably would have wanted to do it in a bio-hazard suit! I had an aunt by marriage who left a house full of junk when she died. She had children before her marriage who inherited this mess. There are likely some things relevant to my family – but going through it would be dangerous to say the least. For one thing, the first floor completely caved in due to the weight of the junk, and it all settled into the basement.
    What a great primary source for a story though. I do envy you that!

  8. hawleywood40 says:

    Wow! I think if I wasn’t working I’d take it on – I know there’s no way I could handle both! But like you, I’d spend much of my time there cursing and crying, I’m sure! I feel for your son about those stairs – I wouldn’t want to go up them either : )!

  9. Lafemmeroar says:

    I could not have cleaned that up! While it might be interesting going through someone’s history and helping sort it out the mouse poop and the rest of it would have been too much. So I hereby award you the Awesome Chick Saves the Day Award. It’s not much, but it shows my awe and appreciation for people like you.

  10. Denise says:

    My grandparents are quite a bit like this. Although my grandmother is trying to go through what they have and slowly clean it out and my grandfather doesn’t add new items to the house anymore. I think in this case, I would have submitted my story to one of those tv shows that deals with cleaning and/or hoarding and gotten their help (on national television- ha!). I can see it now, a special cross-over episode, Clean Sweep:Hoarder’s Edition.

    • At the time I did this, there weren’t any hoarder/reality shows on TV. If there had been, I think they would have donned hazmat gear before they went into the back storage room. It was pretty scary.

  11. Christine says:

    Absolutely fascinating. I would’ve done the same thing for the sheer curiosity of what you’d find in a house with that much history.

  12. truefinds says:

    As an estate sale professional, I completely understand the situation you found yourself in. Too bad you didn’t hire an estate sale company. We would have loved doing the work for you. In fact, I handle hoarder houses all the time. They are a LOT of work, but you never know what treasures you might find. Which is another reason to hire a professional instead of doing it yourself. When I saw the picture of all the trash bags you had lined up, I admit that I cringed. That’s because I’ve seen the things that many of my clients throw into trash bags before they call me, and too much of it isn’t trash! An estate sale professional knows the difference. One of the first things I tell people when they call me is to not throw out ANYTHING: if it is truly trash, I will throw it out. Thanks for sharing your interesting story with us.

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