Love, Life Stories

My family has a serious hoarding problem

It doesn’t exactly look like something out of an episode of Hoarders, which is perhaps why I let it go for so long.

It doesn’t exactly look like something out of an episode of Hoarders, which is perhaps why I let it go for so long. As the unofficially appointed home organizer and family historian for my house, my biggest challenge has been finding the line between heirlooms and junk.

My five siblings and I grew up in this Southern California house that I still share with my parents and sister, Farhat, a beautiful soul with severe physical limitations. Our family unit over the years has been a mix of the typical American nuclear family, plus the extended family networks my parents were accustomed to in India and Pakistan. Grandparents lived with us for years at a time. Aunts, uncles, and cousins who emigrated from Pakistan have launched their American lives by passing through our doors. A few of them stuck around for months, and others: years. My older brother, Khalid, called our house a hotel.

So it’s no wonder we reached this level of near-hoardism.

Between all these layers of family, it’s been a challenge to develop effective home management strategies. Those we’ve landed on were discovered through trial and much error along the way.

Home organization was always natural for me. I somehow took on the role of managing the family’s belongings since I was an early teen, and the fanfare has reached far and wide. I was flattered when an auntie visiting from Pakistan said, “Saeeda ki safai mashoor hai” – Urdu for “Saeeda’s cleaning skills are famous.”

I’ve become the go-to person for sugar, hammers, safety pins, scarves and everything in between.

With my soft spot for preserving family history, my role as organizer and historian turned out to be a potent – and dangerous – combination for making a mess without even realizing it. It’s easier to ignore the excessive relics when it’s all neatly organized, preserving a crazy sort of family history museum in our drawers, closets and garage.

Over time, though, it started to hit me that this museum did need to be dismantled. Things of daily life – of the present – were getting sidelined by holding onto things of the past. Safety pins were getting to be hard to find.

There was some purging over the years, every time these realizations struck me. But the real transformation began only five years ago when my cousin and her children moved in with us.

It was spring of 2010, just before Valentine’s Day. What started as a weekend visit turned into months when it became obvious that her then-husband had no plans to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. I urged her to ‘check in’ to our hotel.

The garage was dimly lit that Monday evening, but we could see clearly. In our ample three-car garage, we couldn’t find space for a triple stroller, a few boxes of formula and diapers, and the rest of their personal belongings. The space was packed with storage containers my mother had been accumulating from holiday clearance sales: red Christmas-themed boxes with green lids, the gigantic black Halloween-themed ones with orange lids. My younger brother, Tariq, was using a few clear boxes to store his own memorabilia, too.

They were all so neatly stacked, I had never bothered to take a look inside. And so the decades rolled on.

“What’s in those containers?” my cousin asked as we stood in the garage.

A few minutes later, she asked, “Why do you have so many magazines? You know this is all online, right?”

She began combing through another box. “You’re saving your nieces’ and nephews’ baby clothes?” she said, stunned. “Why?”

“It’s better to pass things on to people who can use them,” she pointed out as we peered into the glum stacks of containers. “If you want to save the memories, you can take pictures without keeping all this clutter.”

Thoughts that had been gently nudging at me finally hit me hard. Memorabilia had to be let go.

Drawer upon drawer, closet upon closet, and shelf upon shelf dissected – memories rekindled, emotions stirred, my gut navigating the way. Figuring out the distinction between junk and heirlooms has been tough, not without some pain and regrets. There have been countless drop-offs to clothing drives and rehabilitation centers.

Salvation Army pickups have been so helpful for large items. The thrift store at our local Muslim community center helped streamline my Pakistani wardrobe. A Quran, camera and vinyl records were among the heirlooms passed down to nieces and nephews, and fabric scraps collected in case a shirt or placemat ever needed mending were converted into art projects for my cousins’ kids. Yogurt containers for storing leftovers – despite owning an abundance of the kind actually designated for food storage – incrementally made their way to our city-provided recycling bin. Lengha skirts were transformed into curtains and torn up jeans into pillows.

All but the clear containers in the garage are gone. The chrome of my bicycle sparkles in the wide open space, now a playground for my cousin’s children when they visit.   

There’s a palpable lightness around the house and I can hear my own thoughts more clearly. Guests are wowed by the changes.

My mother and father, now 75 and 84, are basking in our home’s newfound efficiencies. But they have their own complaints. “You waste unnecessary time organizing the house,” my father told me. Maybe he’s right. I’ve reminded myself time and time again to pull away, too.

That’s not to say the purging is finished. I don’t think it ever will be – after all, I live with a conservationist mother who also calls the shots. Today I spotted a yogurt container storing spiced potatoes.

Unbeknownst to her, that container will soon be making its way to the recycling bin.