sometimes, hoarders

Jenniey Tallman

                    / i

sometimes you watch HOARDERS

to remember how to empathize

(with your mother)

and you love them sometimes

when you cry, you are learning

how to believe in broken people

but your youngest son watches

over your shoulder and asks

(after several seasons)

how come there aren’t less than 3 million

by now and my god it is funny

his twelve-year-old perspective —

that these television shrinks are clearing the world

of the hoarders

(one episode at a time)

                    / ii

(f) “Between 5 and 14 million people in the US are compulsive hoarders.”

(o) Things that might be mistaken for hoarding: collecting, fear, hypochondriasis, OCD, childhood, owning a museum, shopping, barricading yourself in your closet, your “posterity” box, and/or being homeless or a librarian.

(f) “Hoarders do not exclusively collect junk and are not lazy, disorganized, or unclean people.”

(o) An alternate reality to a show like HOARDERS is a show called ODDITIES, where instead of having your curiosities scorned, they are celebrated. A show that might encourage hoarding is ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. A show that might discourage hoarding is not watching a TV show at all.

                    / iii

I. Am. Not. One. But I could be.

          My youngest son throws things away just to prove he can

he will throw anything away

          Dare Me Not To

his smirk says, as he holds a small plastic zebra over the trash can.

We are in a stand-off, eyebrows up, ready to laugh or yell

          I’m like, Dude, knock it off

but he drops it in anyway, so I pick it out of the trash

          and he is making me feel like a freak show

as I dust coffee grounds off the little striped body

and think awful thoughts about myself

          but Cedar is just laughing

like a little litmus test

          Watch out. Fine line between you and them,


                    / iv

I watch HOARDERS when I need to clean the house. It helps draw the line between Needing and Wanting. Living and Surviving.

Because once upon a time, a long time ago, my husband wanted to get rid of a kitchen stool. It was wicker and wood and had been left in the house we bought. I wanted the stool / he didn’t : simple.

He made me feel bad for wanting it (or maybe I did that to myself). We fought about it.

I was feeling defensive of myself. Defensive of a kitchen stool. The stool was ugly and worthless and the wicker was starting to fray. Must I psychoanalyze myself now? Was I the stool? Was the stool a mirror?

I picked up the stool. Carried it outside. Threw it into the yard. It broke into pieces. If we had not lived so far out in the country away from witnesses to my minor breakdown, it could have been a scene right out of HOARDERS.


                    / v

An explanation should go here. I can tell you I was raised very poor and that my father left when I was five (thankfully). That I have rarely lived anywhere longer than a year and while we were never actually homeless it was only because my mother was good at loopholes and backdoors. And we were actually homeless, we just didn’t call it that. We called it camping. There is a certain pride in poverty — but only if you’ve never lived it — in which case there is only crippling and persistent anxiety.


                    / vi

A Visual Guide to Amounts of Time I Have Lived in Houses


Where each segment is a different house and one perfect square is equal to about one year. Colors and sizes correspond to amounts of time: lighter colors/larger segments equal the most stability; darker colors/smaller segments equal the least stability; with tiniest black lines representing periods of house-less-ness.

Row 1 = childhood — living with mother and 2 sisters and sometimes a stepdad/other.

Row 2 = age 17-24 — living with my life-partner and our pets.

Row 3 = age 25-41 — living with my life-partner and our 3 sons.


A Visual Guide to What This Actually Feels Like



                    / vii

Things I’ve hoarded, personally: nearly empty bottles or tubes or rolls of things I believe we will need later; baby clothes; lotion; stuffed animals; shoes (especially worn out); bread and eggs.

In the second grade my teacher used to bring me hand-me-downs in a brown paper bag and let me secretly rummage through them in the coat closet after class. The best I ever chose was a sturdy pair of dark blue jeans with swirly pink thread on the back pockets. I saved them until I was 21.

When I was very young, I secretly kept empty boxes of all kinds: graham crackers, oatmeal cakes, macaroni and cheese. I loved taking them out of my secret drawer and lining them up; the orderly way the boxes fit together; the perfectly smooth paper bags.

We moved and my hoard moved with me.

On HOARDERS a woman is storing memories. On HOARDERS a woman is storing desires. On HOARDERS a woman is storing her past / her own piss, like when your sister was breaking again and refused to leave her room so started peeing in the cat litter box and leaving the bags of clumped litter on the roof out the window.


                    / viii

What if I watch HOARDERS because I miss my sisters? My childhood? The southern accents; the yelling and the screaming? When my oldest son was four or five he kept a pile of phone books under his bed. One, he had saved from Virginia; another, from the first house in Canada; another from the second, another from the third. My pages, he called them. And he couldn’t even read yet. The pile grew unwieldy. Ridiculous. Water spilled on them. That is when I insisted he give them up. He threw a fit. He cried. Sobbed. Lost control. My God, I understood him then, clinging to something nobody else could begin to understand. I listened and we struck a deal. All he really wanted, it turned out, were the maps. What if he missed Virginia, too?


                    / ix

You are watching your father tinker with his cars. He says, this car is for you. But you are 14 and can’t drive yet. It’s OK, he says, neither can the car. And it would be funny if you were both other people. Nothing works. There is a washing machine in the side yard. There are too many dogs, too many cars. There are beer cans under the porch, but he has “been sober” for nine years. Everything is and always will be a lie.

Sometimes when you are watching HOARDERS you go to the bathroom and secretly cry. It is a kind of homesickness.

                    / x


          How many sentences can you write

about hoarding before the collection itself

          becomes a hoard?


                    / xi


                                   after Scientific American, 2013


“Almost anything can become

          the object of a hoarder's interest and affection.

          Some collect bits of their own body:

          fingernails, strands of hair, urine.”

It may be tempting

          at this point

          to look down at your child

          and consider

          their dinosaurs


          used Band-Aids

          acorns / pebbles / bones

          things-that-are-green and Legos.


“By age six, most children have begun a collection of some kind,

          but these collections rarely become so unruly

          that they interfere with a family's daily activities.”

                    / xii

I don’t know if my mother would say she has a problem with hoarding. I refuse to humiliate her here. To tell you the things she has kept. To prove her dirty and crazy and all the bad words.

In a certain light, with the right narrator, and a specialist on hand, I am sure someone could film an episode devoted to her. To prove her dirty and crazy and unworthy of love. After going through that shameful intervention, I bet she would see herself through their eyes.

This is where the empathy happens.

This is where I want to pull the people out of the television set and tell them it is all going to be OK. There is nothing wrong with your dolls and your moldy yogurt container collection. Your yellow TidyCat buckets filled now with “compost.” Your very important paper clips.

You are OK. You have always been OK.


                    / xiii

Here is a reason I might be a hoarder underneath this façade: I can remember where every single thing I own originated and how I came to acquire it and how much it cost. Every. Single. Thing. Each article of clothing, dish and utensil, book, piece of furniture, tube of chap stick. If I bought it, I know where it came from.

I do not know if that is a symptom or not, but it feels like it could be. It feels like something is off. Why hold on to that information? I worry that if anything really terrible went wrong in my life, I may find comfort in that information.

I might wrap my lonely hands around a disintegrating cookbook and begin to recite to you its life story until finally setting it precariously on top of twenty-five other cookbooks and not even flinch when way too many cockroaches scatter out of the stack.



I keep saying this is the last one.
But of hoarding, there is always more
          to say.
I just want you to understand me.
I just want someone to love my mother.

                    / last

We are moving this month from an apartment we have lived in for seven years. Seven Years. I have not ever in my whole life lived anywhere this long. I am finding this move a little stressful. I keep saying this out loud but it feels less true each time I say it. Moving is like settling back into an old wound. I relate to children who grew up in the army. I think it might be true what they say: Security breeds security. Do they say that or did I just make that up?

Sometimes I gather old photos of black and white relatives, squirrel the nearly depleted toothpaste tubes away under the sink for a rainy day, and feel like a goddamn savior when I pull the last drops of dish detergent out from under the kitchen sink in a bottle I’ve been saving for a year (but my husband just looks at me, says, Jesus Jen. Just buy an extra bottle next time. How is that even worth the space it took up?).

I suppose the metaphor here is fairly obvious. I collect books in lieu of extended family; hold on to baby clothes and not-so-secretly want another child; run my fingers over tiny yellow dresses at thrift stores even though I have 3 teenage boys; buy excessive liquor and wine glasses because my father never used a glass; and once saved empty food boxes to comfort myself — there was once food and there would be food again.

Lord, this is tired and boring and humiliating. But my sons can throw anything at all away and I should take it as a compliment: they love me and feel secure.

What I am saying is: I have thrown away the Christmas box. I have got rid of the plastic zebra (and the cow and the gorilla and even the little elephant, for what it is worth). I keep filling bags with clothes and taking them to Goodwill and I went into the bathroom and threw away 4 shampoo bottles and 2 toothpaste tubes and the bath toys my children are far too old to use.

What I am really saying is: Cedar, my smallest son, the one who can throw anything away, took the bath toys back upstairs for one last bath before he threw them away again, himself.

                    / last-last (scene)

Tus, my oldest son, has just finished reading this collection of HOARDER-thoughts over my shoulder when Cedar appears on the stairs, holding up two battered Little Bear books.

Can I throw these away or are they “sentimental” to you? He demands, air quotes heavy in his voice —

and Tus laughs in a way that proves he knows me now more than he knew me before. Cedar does not understand the joke, but hands me the books, which I flip through until I find the story about the moon. I begin to read the story aloud

slowly my three sons gather
held captive by the familiarity
          and they listen and listen and just keep listening
          all the way to, you are my little bear and I know it.

My voice knows these words
recalls every inflection
          every child drifting to sleep
          every second contained in the pages.

The books are kept. Cedar says they are very small and won’t take up much room.
And I am apt to believe Cedar when he says we are OK.

about the author