Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Confession: I Keep Everything

In my latest installment over at The 36-Hour Day, I have a confession to make: I'm a pack rat. Now, this will come as no surprise to those who know me. But, finally, there's some sort of an explaination for the madness:

There's a reason why I don't have a house cleaner. In addition to the fact that I can't afford one, I mean.

The reason is: I'd have to clean my house before the house cleaner came over to clean my house. Really, I would. Hiring help might actually create more work for me in the long run.

I have a tendency to clutter. I can't bear to part with things that might come in handy. I try to practice the three R's -- reduce, reuse, recycle -- but, while I dutifully do the latter and try hard to do the former, most things seem to fall into the "reuse" category. The problem is that not everything can be reused immediately, which is why our kitchen cuboards are overflowing with plastic take-out containers and mismatched lids.

My husband, on the other hand, doesn't need to save things "just in case." I wouldn't call him a neatnik by any stretch of the imagination (and the amount of car paraphernalia he has in the garage boggles the mind) but he can let go of things in a way that I can't. He is OK with getting rid of something and re-purchasing it if he wants it later; it's anathema to me to shell out money for something I used to own but threw away.

I say it's a mindset: If you pinch the pennies you'll save the dollars. But I'll be honest: It's not just the tightwad side of me at work here, I'm sentimental to boot. My journal from 7th grade? It's in a purple plastic bin in the basement. Our 14-year-old daughter recently wrote a letter to her friend on stationary I was given when I was 9. On our toddler's bed is the blanket my mother wrapped around me when she brought me home from the hospital when I was born.

Also: We have five children. That makes for a lot of stuff, even without a packrat in the house, and, of course, I keep all of their things, too. I swear there's a method to my madness -- why throw away clothes that another child will wear in a year or two or five? The baby may be too young for the toys his 9-year-old brother doesn't play with anymore, but hey, they won't go bad.

My husband understands this logic, but he also knows that the more space I have to fill, the more likely it is that I will fill it. (Incidentally, this is why I don't carry a purse; I'd end up hauling around hand luggage instead of a cute Coach clutch.)

I suspect my problem may be genetic -- my parents' pantry has an even-larger cache of plastic containers, and my mother's cooking magazine collection dates back to the late 1970s. At the very least, it's longstanding: My father likes to remind me of how he tried to clean out the attic and give my old stuff to the Salvation Army once when I was very little, only to see me sobbing in the back seat as the bags went down the donation chute.

At any rate, I never intend to keep so much stuff around. It's just that I can't seem to find time to sort through it all. So, my husband takes things into his own hands.

When he thinks I'm not looking, my husband will go around the house with a plastic grocery bag (reuse!), scooping up my stash of whatever is irritating him at the moment (reduce!), and taking it out with the garbage (recycle! Sort of). I watch him out of the corner of my eye and, later, poke through the trash to rescue things I "need" to keep. It's madness. Most couples fight about money; our last fight was about margarine tubs.

Recently, we reached a compromise: Give things away or sell them on Ebay. It softened the blow to think that the stuff lying around the basement could be put to use by someone else. I donated (most of) my 400-plus cassette tapes to Goodwill. Some of my husband's Saab parts sold almost as soon as he listed them online. I gave away bags of kids' clothes that even I understood had to go -- our 14-month-old son will never wear the adorable pink overalls that our 3-year-old daughter outgrew. And the Christmas cards from 1996 went into the recycling bin.

It's enough, for now, but we still have a long way to go. I know that, one day, I'll come home and my decade-old stack of Bon Appetit magazines will be gone. (But I swear, I'll rip out and keep the pages with the most interesting recipes before my husband gets to them. He'll never know.)

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