I’ve always been single-minded, putting all my energy into one goal. It’s a strategy that helped me get into my favorite college and my first job in advertising. When I was seven I locked my father out of the car until he threw his cigarettes in a trash can. He begged me to let him in with his six-foot-two-inch frame bent toward my window. “Please Maureen, let me in.” “Oh C’mon!” “Jesus!” He promised not to smoke in the car. I didn’t unlock the door until the whole pack was in the garbage. When he was finally behind the wheel, he turned to me and said, “You never give up, do you?”
At some point we all learn to bend a little. I’m 56 and these days I compromise more often than not. If my father were still smoking, I’d suggest a nicotine patch or just let him smoke. So, when do you know if you’ve become Gumby in Capri pants? It’s probably when you agree to make your uncle happy by sleeping on his crippled, 51-year-old pullout sofa instead of your bed because it has a ten-year-old pile of mail on it that can’t be touched. This sofa has a mattress that feels like crushed Mallomars. The metal frame is so arthritic that you need a can of WD-40 to close it in the morning. Since I am not allowed to oil the joints, I get on my knees every morning and push and push until the metal frame snaps into place, like a bite, and scares the heck out of me.
There is a mountain of mail across my bed, about a thousand newspaper circulars, envelopes, and magazines. At the peak, the pile is over a foot high. I’ve been ordered never to touch a single piece of paper. My uncle reminds me nearly every time I go in the bedroom. The one time I tried to move some paper he heard me, even though 18 feet and a wall separated us. Another time I spotted a pair of Pima cotton Brooks Brothers men’s pajamas on the edge of the bed. When I asked if I could have them he replied, “You didn’t move anything did you?” There are other piles of paper all over the apartment.
I’ve whined and begged my uncle to let me clear off the bed, but he won’t give in. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a secret inside the pile. Other times, I am sad because it reminds me that he is a hoarder, and I need to think he is normal. There are too many crazy people in my family already. I want to believe he’s difficult not mentally ill. The truth is my uncle has been obsessive and controlling his whole life, but I could laugh off his eccentricities until the apartment filled with paper.
An apartment full of paper is hard to ignore. To my tidy-girl way of thinking, the mess is unbearable. I can’t allow for anything but my vision of a clean, smooth bed with every bit of paper swept away. Still, a small part of me understands why everything in Uncle Tony’s apartment must stay still. If control is a guiding principle of your life, it’s hard to let go of anything, especially when you’re 85.
I am going to keep compromising with my uncle and sleep on the pull-out sofa. I’m also going to try to be more benevolent and think about the piles of paper differently. What if the circulars on my bed represent opportunity, and the mail is mostly a record of problems solved? The sweaters and pajamas? I am going to stretch and say they represent longevity. Sleeping and waking. Keeping warm.
Once a month Uncle Tony’s housekeeper Mabel comes over for four hours to help him work on the bed. “Make a dent in the pile!” as he says. I’ve watched him carefully examine each envelope inside and out before releasing it to a particular plastic bag, discussing its purpose with Mabel who acts like he’s normal. The essence and size of the pile never changes.
My Uncle Tony’s one-track mind is richer than mine. With his stubborn insistence that the bed remain unchanged, he has amassed a treasure chest of opportunities, accomplishments and comforting reminders. I’ve always called my uncle a hoarder, and technically he is, but it’s a narrow point of view, grim and lacking imagination. There is a sweet story here too. Each month he has an important job to do. With four plastic Stop and Shop bags and Mabel by his side, he can reach over and carefully review his life. He can spend the afternoon sharing stories, big and small. I am pretty sure Mabel has always understood the ritual. If I’d been more flexible, I could have gotten in on it sooner.