Next Avenue: What happened when my 88-year-old mother married a hoarder


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Within two years of my father’s death, my 88-year-old mother began a romance with a religious hoarder she met at synagogue. Together they purchased a condo and signed a 30-year mortgage. For the next 10 years, I observed their blind optimism and uncanny enthusiasm with a mixture of delight and dismay.

“Bill called me “Miss Ph.D.,” an “intruder,” and that’s exactly what I was.”

All the while, I repressed the thought that I was losing my mother. We were told there was nothing that could be done, that neither surgery nor medication could save her at this point. The person who had been my best friend until Bill came along, the one with whom I had shared my darkest secrets, was soon to die. But I had no time to dwell on that loss. I was too busy worrying about how my presence was being perceived. 

I was the czar of order, attempting to change their lives, separating two old lovers from their last stretch of time in each other’s arms. I would be the source of my mother’s loss of autonomy and would be tearing her away from this man she loved. Bill called me “Miss Ph.D.,” an “intruder,” and that’s exactly what I was. Yet I saw no alternative.

My mother’s guest room, our bunker for the night, was another hoarding disaster. For us to get into the bed, I had to move countless papers, objects, small and large jewelry boxes, shirts, lamps without lamp shades and large velvet or plastic bags of costume jewelry aside. We figured we’d stay there until Bill calmed down.

I knew that his rage was not solely about the threat to his objects, but about the reality that he was about to lose my mother. She was dying, and in these final days, she would not be there by his side.

My mother had a bag of potato chips stashed under the bed. “It will calm us down,” she said, and we munched away while watching an old movie on the tiny TV set by the bed: Doris Day was flirting with Dean Martin in “Pillow Talk.”

I thought about how striking it had been to see my mother in a torrid romance in her 90s — her delight in flirting with Bill as he tenderly held her hand or caressed her shoulder. We shared some muffled giggling, thinking Bill was listening at the door as we discussed his hoarding obsession and consequent tantrum. How bizarre the whole situation had become! It was like we were in a bad movie, my mother said, hiding out, trapped in the guest room.

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