Some of you already know that one of the reasons my husband, our son, and I returned to the Pacific Northwest from our beloved Texas was to attempt to help both of our mothers clear out decades of stuff from their respective homes. My mother lives in Portland, in a house just over 1,000 square feet (which I'm fairly certain doesn't include the semi-finished basement or attic), encompassing 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom, while my husband's mother lives in the suburbs of Tacoma, in a sprawling house of 2,245 square feet (which may or may not include the garage), which has 5 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. My mother has lived in her home 26 years, since my parents were divorced; his mother has lived in her home 34 years, the majority of those with her husband (now deceased), who collected as much stuff as she has. For year, my husband thought his father was the clutterbug, that his parents had so much stuff because he wouldn't let go and kept bringing things into the house. After his death, however, it soon became apparent that my sweet mother-in-law (MIL for the sake of brevity here) has just as many issues with stuff as my father-in-law did. Just, you know, different stuff. While he had a habit of hanging on to decades-old bowling trophies and books and ordering things from infomercials (am I the only person who has actually seen Billy the Singing Bass up close and personal on Christmas morning?) she tends more towards food/kitchen contraptions and shoes. Those are only the main categories for each of them, mind you.
Anyhow, when I took the job in Portland, one of the reasons the boys moved in with my MIL in Tacoma (other than the fact that my husband got a job there) was so my husband could help his mom clear out & do some light remodeling on her house so she can sell it and move down with one of her sons & his wife in Phoenix. Obviously, you can't expect to sell a house when it is crammed full of clutter. But that was 20 months ago, y'all. And while my husband guesstimated it would take a good 2 years to go through everything and get it cleared out, I can tell you that only 2 rooms in the house are ready for sale: our son's bedroom (which was my husband's growing up, aaaaw!) and the main bathroom. My husband's room (which is also my room when I'm in Tacoma, hee hee) was decluttered, but has not yet been painted or had the carpeting replaced. Rooms that haven't been touched? The living room, the kitchen, the dining room, the den, 2 more downstairs bedroom, the large upstairs bedroom (which includes several “attic” closets), the garage, the laundry room, the 2nd bathroom, and a utility room. Oh, did I mention there are also two locked sheds in the backyard, one for her and one for him? My husband once mentioned the last time he saw the inside of either shed was in the mid-80s, and they were both crammed to the rafters. The backyard is also filled with decrepit grills, toys, tools, and various paraphernalia.
So I think I can safely surmise that the decluttering plan has not gone exactly, well, according to plan. So I'm stepping in, gingerly. It's like edging on to a field full of live mines, I swear. While I consider myself an effective organizer in all types of situation, the particular combination of people involved in this clutter (my husband and my MIL, two of my most beloved people in the world) make it very difficult for me to be as ruthless and analytical as I can be with friends, colleagues, and strangers. Common sense and logic hold no sway in this crazy, mixed up, stuffed full world. Forget the 1-year rule; in this house, there's not even a 30-year rule. If you ask my MIL if she would rather have her clutter or the space in her home, she will undoubtedly tell you the stuff. My husband claims it border on pathological. Take, for example, the bedroom that was his father's for the last years of his life. After his death, my husband and 2 of his brothers purged the bedroom ruthlessly, dumping almost everything within days, before the funeral even. They had the stained carpet ripped out, replaced it with easy-to-clean laminate wood, painted the walls and replaced broken fixtures. We returned to Texas feeling confident that at least one room of the house was clean. That was in August. When we returned to visit at Christmas, the room was filled, to the point that you couldn't even walk in. My husband posits that there is an actual fear of space at work here.
I get it, I do. She's a 73-year-old black woman. She was raised in rural Louisiana, the segregated South, and never had enough as a child. She then became a military wife, moving all over the world before her husband retired at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McCord). She raised 4 boys, the fourth of whom (my husband) is nearly 20 years younger than the oldest. Until her husband died several years ago, my MIL had never lived alone. Ever. But I also understand that her stuff owns her. It's keeping her from living the life she says she wants to live (retired in Phoenix with her son & daughter-in-law). It's not healthy. It's not at the point of people feces, like you see on that hoarding show on TV, but as I priced & boxed up some things in preparation for a yard sale today, I found mice droppings. I also worry about my son eating expired/spoiled food. Sigh. Finally, I know that if we don't deal with this situation now, my husband and I will be dealing with it after she dies. It's frustrating, especially since I'm used to being the professional help, but I'm starting to think that we're going to have to bring in some other professional help, someone who isn't related to her. Sigh. Seriously, y'all, help me out. I know what to do when it comes to decluttering and organizing, I just don't know if it's worth it trying to do it in this particular situation or if I should figure out a way to pay someone else to do it. Thoughts?