Cluttered room
Photo: Geof Kern
What would your house look like if you never got rid of anything? Michelle Herman found out the hard way. But with the help of 360 garbage bags, one gigantic Dumpster, and tons of emotional fortitude, she finally reclaimed her home.
I'd like to say it was the mice that pushed me over the edge. It should have been the mice. But I ignored the evidence of their presence just as I ignored the towers of books and papers, the mountains of stuff everywhere.

Housekeeping has never been high on my priority list. By last spring, though, it had been years since I'd so much as glanced that far down the list. Even with the things a person needs to do to keep her family alive and non-naked, I was cutting corners, stopping on my way home from teaching a class to buy more underwear for all of us because that was easier than doing laundry. I had given up keeping house altogether.

Okay, not altogether. I was still making a token effort at tidying—stacking my daughter's schoolwork, my students' papers, my own manuscripts, books, magazines, newspapers, and junk mail, and throwing small items (a watch with a broken strap, a stray battery or key) into one big bowl or basket or another. But the stacks were turning into heaps, the bowls and baskets had begun to multiply, and by last spring, every surface in the house seemed to be covered. The top of the upright piano was piled with leaning towers of sheet music, and next to the towers was a jumble of things I had set down "just for now." To eat dinner, we had to shove aside stacks of papers to make room for plates and elbows on the table. And in my study—once a sacrosanct place, a writer's haven—I had to pick my way through shopping bags that bulged with my 13-year-old daughter's outgrown clothes and multiple baskets of laundry I had managed to wash and dry but not put in drawers. In the closet, there were cardboard boxes full of memorabilia, manuscripts, letters, and Grace's baby things, her schoolwork, artwork, and picture books.

And the closet was just for the things that had to stay clean and dry. Everything else we were saving was in the basement—a room I did my best to avoid. I didn't go down there unless I had to—and when I did, I kept my eyes trained straight ahead. I walked right by my husband's bed from before he moved in with me, and the two sets of rusting darkroom equipment and sagging cardboard boxes full of bottles of seeping darkroom chemicals. I didn't even glance at my daughter's disassembled crib and changing table and high chair, every bike she'd ever owned, two car seats and two booster seats, the plastic potty, the playpen, three broken vacuum cleaners, the motorcycle helmet, the space heater, and two window fans. I ignored the half dozen battered suitcases, some with broken zippers. The old tent. The four glass aquarium tanks. The grass skirt on a hanger, dangling from a pipe. The two shopping bags full of empty baby food jars in which once upon a time I had frozen my breast milk. I could go on, but I'm running out of space.

Later, when I hired someone to help me deal with all of this, she would look around the basement and ask me, genuinely curious, "Have you ever thrown anything out?"

"You mean, other than actual, you know, trash?" I said.

She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. Her eyes were full of pity.

By spring things were so bad, even my husband noticed—and housekeeping isn't even on his priority list. When he finishes a 14-hour day of painting in his studio, he sleeps; when he wakes up, the last thing he wants to do is clean—and who can blame him?

Well, I did, of course. When he'd first moved in with me, he had said he would keep house. It was only fair, he said, if he was going to be painting full-time while I was writing and teaching. I agreed, ignoring the fact that even if he had cared about keeping things tidy, he would have had no idea how to go about it. When he'd first started spending time at my house and I complained that he never put anything away, he said, plaintively, "But where is 'away'?"

It was easier to do it myself. Then it was easier not to do it at all.

Toward what she believed was the end of her life—although she actually lived another 14 years—my grandmother started going through her belongings. You couldn't leave her apartment without being given something to take away—"You always liked this, didn't you? Take it." We felt awful carting off the things she didn't want anymore. But I think we misread her. When she gave me the cookie tin full of buttons I'd played with as a girl, she wasn't saying she didn't want to remember our time together; when she gave me the notebook in which she'd practiced writing English, she wasn't saying she wanted to forget the night-school classes she'd finally taken the year I was 13. By thrusting things into my hands, she was just making sure they got into the right hands, that they weren't discarded after she'd held on to them so long.

When she did die, in her 90s, there was still plenty of stuff in her apartment. I was in Columbus, Ohio, with a newborn baby; it fell to my mother to go to the apartment in Brooklyn and figure out what was worth keeping. She couldn't do it. It was too hard. She couldn't bear to put her hands on everything, to decide what was good, what was trash. She grabbed all the photographs and had my father call the Institute of Jewish Humanities to take the rest.

The woman I ended up hiring to help me get control of my home does a lot of work cleaning out houses after people have died and their children can't deal with the sorting. She says my mother did pretty well—and my grandmother very well indeed. She sometimes goes into people's houses with their children, who look around and after a few minutes say, "Throw everything away." She can't stand that. There are all those photographs everywhere, and she knows that buried in drawers, in cabinets, in boxes, there must be letters, truly meaningful things mixed in with the receipts and grocery lists. But it's too hard for people to separate the meaningful from the meaningless; they'd rather dispense with it all.

That's where I was heading. I didn't want to go there. I just didn't know it yet.

And then something happened.

It wasn't anything dramatic. It was hardly anything.

My daughter and I were in Columbia, Missouri, for a wedding. My husband—who hates parties and hates to travel—was at home with the dog, the bird, the guinea pigs, and the mess. One of my best friends from graduate school lives in Columbia, and she picked up Grace and me at our hotel and brought us to her house. In 20 years, Marly's aesthetic hadn't changed a bit: Her living room was still an explosion of colors and textures. Everything was just better, nicer, than it had been when we were in grad school and didn't have any money.

Standing in her living room, admiring it, I felt something tug at me: despair. My aesthetic hadn't changed over the years, either. But my house was worse, much worse, than the house I'd lived in during grad school.

"I can't believe we live this way," I told my husband when I got home.

"I can," he said.

"You can?"

"I mean, I can believe I live this way. I just can't believe you do."

It was as if a bomb went off in my head.

I called a friend who has lived in Columbus all her life, and whom I can always count on to know "the best" of whatever I'm in need of. The next morning, Terra Marzetti (Terror? Grace asked, alarmed. No, I told her: Terra, the earth) walked through my house with me, not saying a word as I chattered nervously. When she did speak, she was matter-of-fact. "You realize that this house is infested with mice."

Infested? I coughed out a laugh. Not infested. I knew we had a few mice. I'd seen some droppings, I told Terra. I just hadn't gotten around to setting traps. But I would, I promised, right away.

It was too late for traps, Terra said gently. There were too many mice. And then she took me from room to room, moving furniture, moving stacks, opening drawers, showing me the nests—mice made nests?—and all the things the mice had ruined. I had to go out immediately and buy poison, she said.

It took five days for all the mice to die or flee, and by then Terra and I had gotten started. We worked side by side, ten hours a day, and I kept at it even after she left each evening, until I collapsed, past midnight.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.

Terra, who called herself a home space orchestrator, was systematic and patient, working room by room, sorting every single thing she saw into one of three categories: obviously trash, obviously good, and look it over and decide. When I'd sorted the look-it-over piles into one or the other of the first two categories, I hauled out the trash and then contemplated what was left so I could make more decisions: good and keep, or good and give away? I filled bag after bag with clothes and toys and linens to donate to Goodwill. Meanwhile, Terra cleaned.

In my study, a lot of things had been ruined by mice and had to be thrown away, but I still had to go through all the boxes the mice hadn't gotten to. I filled plastic bins (with lids that locked tight—Terra's rule) with the things I wanted to save: the journal, with illustrations, that Grace had kept the year she was 6; notes from my friend Amy, who died; all my letters from my junior high school boyfriend, Howie; the novel I wrote when I was 11; a few drawings of mine that my grandmother had saved and given back to me during those years of her own jettisoning. The notebook in which she practiced her English. The cookie tin full of buttons.

If I didn't do this, I told myself, eventually Grace would have to. Someone would have to. Or no one would—everything would be chucked. That was what kept me going.

By Tuesday night, I had filled 360 fifty-gallon contractor's trash bags—a third for charity, two-thirds with trash. And we hadn't even gotten to the basement yet.

Terra hired a crew to clear out the basement. They came on Wednesday morning with a Dumpster big enough for a construction site. There were a few things that hadn't been ruined by years of storage in the damp—Grace's bikes and stroller, the space heater, an assortment of toys—and before the crew arrived, I hauled those things upstairs and they went into the charity pile or out to the alley, where I was sure someone would drive by and snatch them up (I was right). But the crib that might have been useful to someone was ruined after being in the wet basement for 11 years; the car seats were not only ruined but obsolete. Then there were all the things that should never have been saved to begin with—the broken suitcases, the baby-food jars.

I didn't watch the crew work; I couldn't. I stayed upstairs, going through file cabinets, filling bag after bag with paper to recycle—manuals for electronic devices I no longer owned, manuscripts of stories by people I hadn't talked to in 18 years, AAA TripTiks for trips I'd made in 1986.

When, finally, unable to stand it anymore, I wandered downstairs, outside, the Dumpster was full: A mound rose out of the center of it—a mountain of trash. I watched the men throw things on top; I listened to glass break, to the thud of wood on wood, the clank of metal.

The leader of the little band of men, a great big man named Alan, sweating and breathing hard, came up to me as I stood and watched, and put his hand on my shoulder. "This must be hard," he said softly. I burst into tears.

I still can't say exactly why I was saving all that stuff. Some of it was about a confusion of meaning—what matters and what doesn't—and my reluctance to make that distinction. Some of it was learned behavior: My grandmother, by her example, had taught me to save everything. In their way, my parents had, too. They saved nothing—none of my toys or clothes, not one volume of the Bobbsey Twins or Nancy Drew—and for years, I'd been making up for it.

But a lot of my hoarding was about "just in case": the fear that something would go wrong and I'd find myself in need of an old bed; a sense that it would be courting disaster to give up suitcases with broken zippers. I'd spent years, after deciding to make my way in the world as a writer, eking out a living, just barely getting by. There was a time when "a new pillow" was on my pie-in-the-sky wish list, when I'd dig through the crevices of my sole armchair for enough change to buy groceries with. My husband has been there, too—which is why, when I started to take the space heater to the alley, he balked. "That's a good space heater," he said. But we didn't need it, I pointed out (as much to myself as to him). We had a perfectly adequate furnace. And if the power went off, an electric space heater wouldn't do us any good, would it?

So: a combination of superstition, training, and overcorrection of the past. A recipe for a house stuffed full, and a woman at the center of it, overwhelmed.

I don't suppose I will ever be the sort of person who lives a pared-down life, but I've made a lot of progress. I have put my hands on every single thing in the house—from all the clothes that had to be laundered in the mice's wake to every Playbill, baking pan, and slip of paper—and made a decision about it. I feel as if I have wrestled my possessions, and my house itself, to the ground. As if I have been through therapy—house therapy.

Terra, my house therapist, returns each week to help with cleaning—because I'm not kidding myself, I realize I have neither the time nor the inclination to keep things tidy on my own. Knowing that she's coming helps keep me vigilant: I do triage on everything that comes through the door, and if it's not something we need (now, for real—not maybe someday) or something that deserves to be saved for posterity, it's discarded. I stop before I let myself drop something into a drawer or set it down on the piano. "Where does it belong?" I think. If I don't have a place for it, I make a place.

And it occurs to me that for the first time in years, it feels as if there is a place for me in my house. That I have chosen what surrounds me—that I choose, now, every day. There is a place for everything in my house now, and everything is in its place. And I like it that way. It's what keeps me keeping house.


Next Story