I’ve always been single-minded, pooling all my energy into one goal. It’s a strategy that helped me attend a favorite college and land a dream 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 of cigarettes 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 be a little more flexible and a little less single-minded. I’m 59 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 too flexible? It’s probably when you agree to make your uncle happy by sleeping on his crippled, 53-year-old pullout sofa instead of your bed. Said bed has a ten-year-old pile of mail on it that mustn’t be touched.
The pull-out sofa has a mattress that feels like crushed Mallomars. A rectangular pond of lumps. Its metal frame is so arthritic that you need a can of WD-40 to close the sofa smoothly. Since I am not allowed to oil the joints, I get on my knees and push with little success until suddenly the metal frame snaps into place, like a crocodile’s mouth, and scares the heck out of me. Happens every time.
There is a mountain of mail across my former bed, hundreds of newspaper circulars, envelopes, and magazines. At the peak, the pile is a foot high. I’ve been ordered never to touch it, not a single piece of paper. My uncle barks this warning nearly every time I breech the bedroom threshold. If I do lift an envelope, he hears the soundless touch even though 18 feet and a pre-war wall separate us. “Did you move anything?” There are similar piles of paper in the dining room, and Brooks Brothers shopping bags stuffed with old bills, photos and memorabilia that I’ve hidden behind chairs and next to sofas because he can’t bear to let any of it go, and I can’t bear to see it.
He went to the hospital briefly a few years ago. The superintendent of his apartment building lent me one of those huge plastic bins. I joyfully, gleefully tossed and tossed paper into the cavern barely reading the mail. Found a crate packed with “board minutes” that was over forty years old. Then I found my grandfather’s Knights of Malta medal, and the program from the night he received the medal, under a couch. On the way to the hospital my uncle warned me not to touch anything. “I’ll have a heart attack if you move things around!” He survived. In fact, he barely mentioned missing half his stash when he came home.
I’ve whined and begged my uncle to let me clear off my bed, but he won’t give in. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a secret inside the pile. Other times, I’m sad because it reminds me that he is a hoarder, and I need to think he is normal. We have so much mental illness in our family that all I can do to cope is look for silver linings. The truth is my uncle has been obsessive and controlling his whole life. I laughed off his eccentricities until the apartment filled with paper. Now, his OCD is pretty hard to overlook.
To my complete 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. My uncle and I are essentially the same person in this regard. We both insist on our environments being a certain way; I went for no visual distractions of any kind. All I have to do is lean 45 degrees toward my kitchen countertop to see the hidden crumbs, at which point I whip out the Meyer’s lavender countertop spray and make my world right again. Uncle Tony makes sure his piles of paper are angled, just so, on the dining table. Don’t move them an inch.
I understand 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 89. 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 records problems solved? The sweaters and pajamas at the edge of the bed? I am going to stretch and say they represent longevity since he’s had them for decades. 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.