Shared Stories: Confessions of a Recovering Hoarder

Mary Lou Garcia’s reflection on her habit of accumulating things leads her to new insight on a pledge to a best friend who is terminally ill, and thoughts about the best form of eulogy. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Maria Lou Garcia

While walking by the Sea of Galilee during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, my best friend Victoria and I made a pact. Whoever survives the other will be the one to deliver the eulogy.  It’s been 10 years since we made that pact, and, though I have had my own health issues, Victoria has contracted and battled with colon cancer.  

Early on, I expressed my strong desire to visit her in Maryland but she told me she was restricted from having visitors. Two years and three weeks past the prohibition to accept visitors, my husband, Ed, called me from work.

“I have a week off,” he told me. “Call Victoria and ask if we could come and visit her.”  
With a smile on her voice, Victoria did not only say yes, she asked, “Would you be my maid of honor and Ed be Tony’s best man?” 

Victoria declared that our visit was timely as they were spending the week at their condo near Beach City, Maryland, and renewing vows at St Luke’s Church for their 47th wedding anniversary. There would be no other guests except us. 

I noticed immediately that their condo was devoid of clutter. There was only a sofa, a dining set, a few necessary appliances, two wall paintings, and a bed for each room. I knew I was there for more than one reason. This would be a reminder of my recent goal to redefine and simplify my life.  

Last October, my sister-in-law Zenaida, who had lived in New Jersey for over 40 years, came with the intent of moving to California permanently. When she saw that our garage was packed with stuff from an accumulation of items unimaginable, she started the monumental task of tossing, donating, and keeping stuff to the bare essentials. 

From the darkness, created by piles of boxes from a garage fire and burst water pipe, came a glimmer of hope and light the moment she picked up the first object. Now, literally, there was light at the end of the garage’s tunnel! 

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that all the clothes, shoes, books and what-have- you - left by guest roomers, new teacher recruits, a friend distraught from a foreclosure, our own grown children, and ourselves - would stockpile into a nightmare. 

While the sorting of the garage is still in progress, it is possible and not too late to become a minimalist. 

First, I have to admit that I am a hoarder married to another hoarder. Once I admit this to be true of myself, I have to pledge myself to de-hoard 40 items a day (okay, so maybe four), and copy what Zenaida did, by creating piles for donation, trash and for keeps.  

So as not to be overwhelmed, I would repeat daily, like a mantra or affirmation, the proverb by the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  

Secondly, I will seriously comply with my vow of no needless shopping. Though I can honestly say that I am basically not a shopaholic, I admittedly do binge shop. The culprit is when I am on a trip abroad and go overboard with buying souvenirs and pasalubongs (coming-home presents for others). Things I might “need” someday to gift others land in my garage, stashed and forgotten.

In conversation with Father Lester about hoarding, he mentioned that the whole idea of hoarding can be cultural. Having more is a status symbol in the Philippines, something to be proud of. 

Also, after being deprived in the Philippines of things “stateside” or imported, and then moving to America, in the land of plenty, things are now for keeps and affordable. Then again, the custom of recycling, reusing, repairing is indigenous to the Filipino culture, long before recycling became popular in a throw-away society as that of the United States.  

Not to be derogatory, I am referring to how fresh, clean, unwanted foods, expired food, leftovers, broken appliances, and old sofas are conveniently disposed of.  I’ve seen it in schools and along curbs during trash pick-up days.   

Indeed, somebody else’s trash can be, in fact, another’s treasure. Growing up in the Philippines, it is not unusual to hear voices ring “Bote, Dyaro luma.” Street recyclers of bottles and old newspapers solicit door to door to buy those items for the purpose of selling them as a living.  In fairness, eBay, Craigslist, OfferUp, and thrift stores in the U.S. also create jobs of buying and selling for a living. 

During our visit to Maryland, Victoria and Tony took Ed and myself nowhere near the malls. Instead, after daily Mass in church and lunch at restaurants, we scoured thrift stores.

In fact, Ed and I were able to buy our maid-of-honor and best man clothes from a Methodist thrift shop. There were also Catholic, hospice, and the hospital thrift shops to choose from.  Being part of the equation for recycling and reusing was quite an adventure! 

Though unspoken, perhaps even unintentional, Victoria’s message was clear: detachment along with the old familiar adage, “You can’t take it with you.”  

Victoria had told me three times, “You don’t have to come to my funeral.” I pretended not to hear. I guess she knew our time spent together was the eulogy that was better experienced and lived than heard.