This is not an easy post to write for many reasons. Mainly because I would never want to tarnish the memory of my magnificent cousin Maris Lee DiGiovanni, who passed on to her eternal reward on December 23, 2011, to the shock of my entire family.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this story needed to be told, in the hope it may be of help to someone who is either dealing with a hoarder in their life or struggling with this difficult mental disorder themselves.
Although Maris had always been a vital part of my life — a mother figure, a big sister, a best friend — I never knew she harbored a deep, dark secret, one that compelled her to “ban” my entire family from entering the two-story, four-bedroom colonial she shared with her husband Al for nearly 30 years. In fact, until about a month ago the last time I’d set foot in their home was Christmas Week, 1983 when I was still a young teenager and Maris had invited us all for dinner.
Move the calendar ahead to a summer day in 2003. I was visiting from Florida and had plans to check out the new Constitution Center in Philadelphia with Mom, Maris and my sister Carolyn, whom we were meeting downtown. At the time, Maris didn’t have a car so Mom and I picked her up at her place. Not surprisingly, she was waiting for us in the driveway when we arrived, but my mother threw her a curveball when she politely requested to use the bathroom.
“Oh no! You’re not setting foot inside my house, you’ll have a heart attack!” Maris frantically responded.
“But Mar, I take a diuretic, I need to go!” my mother pleaded.
“I will direct you to the nearest restaurant,” my cousin offered.
We ended up driving to a diner so my mom could use the facilities.
As crazy as it sounds, even though all of these things should have tipped us off to the severity of the problem, we never gave it much thought since Maris and Al would always travel to wherever the latest family gathering was taking place. At best, we’d chalk it up to the embarrassment of messy housekeeping, owing to the fact that the childless couple each worked and had an active social life.
As long as they delighted us with the pleasure of their company, who cared where we were?
Furthermore Maris, a former model, always presented an impeccable appearance — from her perfect make-up application to her designer shoes to her stylish outfits adorned with just the right accents. Accompanied by a gregarious personality that lit up a room, a gorgeous smile that took your breath away and a melodious laugh that never failed to brighten your spirits, it was no wonder we never fully grasped the emotional turmoil that was bubbling beneath the surface.
But in the aftermath of her shocking death, we’d soon be slapped with that cold, hard reality.
My mother, sister and sister-in-law were the first to enter the home that had tragically transformed from a welcoming haven to a little house of horrors in the years we’d been banned. Knowing it was probably tormenting her spirit that her secret was about to revealed, the three women offered a solemn “Hail Mary” on the porch before entering the doorway. Their goal was simply to find an appropriate gown, jewelry and shoes for her to wear at her viewing.
It took them three hours to accomplish the task.
And though they’d described the scene in great detail, from the boxes piled high to the ceiling, to the clutter devouring just about every space in each room to the clothes hanging from every bedroom doorway and thus blocking access, it was hard to completely visualize and comprehend. While I understood that none of these women was prone to hyperbole, I just couldn’t fathom the deplorable conditions they described.
That is, until I finally set foot inside the house in the days following Maris’ funeral.
Upon entering, my jaw literally dropped to the floor. I stood in the foyer, surrounded by columns of stuff ranging from storage boxes to department store shopping bags to unopened purchases (dishes, flatware, coffee pots, etc). When I looked to the living room on the left side, the only open space I could see was the three inches between the pile-up of clutter and the ceiling.
Proceeding straight into the kitchen was a nearly treacherous feat, as there was junk everywhere, including the floor. The kitchen island, table, countertops and every flat surface were all stacked high with things my cousin just couldn’t part with — even trash in the form of old peanut-butter crackers, candy and other food items.
Upstairs, it was a claustrophobia sufferer’s nightmare. Once you managed to follow the narrow pathway up the cluttered stairway, a deliberately shrunken hallway awaited — suffocated by columns of seemingly endless shoe boxes. I could barely stand it for more than a few minutes after determining that my family’s description of the doorways and bedrooms had been tragically accurate.
For several days, my mother and I diligently worked at the house, trying to make a dent in a task that seemed increasingly insurmountable. Each time I would enter, I’d be overcome with a sense of overwhelming despair. Only by forcing myself to focus on a narrow portion of the job and assigning myself a specific goal (e.g. “Today I am going to forge a path from the foyer to the coffee table in the living room”) could I keep going.
As I plowed through a room like a human bulldozer I took delight in throwing away garbage, an act that for most of us is a normal part of our daily routine. Amid the ruins, I must’ve rescued 50 shopping bags filled with unopened purchases dating as far back as the 90s in addition to unopened purchases like table cloths, Mikasa wine glasses and a variety of Lenox (dishes, salt & pepper shakers, bowls, etc) . I helped my cousin Al donate truckloads to a local church thrift store and brought carloads of good items back to my parents’ home, where they were distributed to family members.
And that was just from the living room and dining room.
Each day when I’d return to my parents’ home after working hours in Maris and Al’s I’d immediately throw my dusty clothes in the laundry and take a long, hot shower to wash off the dirt and dust. If only it was as easy to eradicate the palpable pain, sorrow and anguish emanating from every square inch of that four-bedroom colonial — from the basement to the attic and from the garage to the living spaces. Nothing I’d ever seen on ghost hunter shows was as disturbing as what I experienced there. As the physical manifestation of a tortured heart, mind and soul that house shocked me into the reality that beneath the exuberant persona of a loving, generous, accomplished and fun-loving woman lurked a lonely little girl who’d never come to terms with the losses in her life.
As an only child, her parents’ deaths had hit Maris even harder, and Al traces the origins of her compulsion back to that time period 30 years ago. For most of my life, I’d taken the gift of four siblings for granted; seeing Maris’ house reminded me of the blessings of having three brothers and a sister, other human beings with whom I share a family history. As horrific as the inevitable day will be when we will have to endure the same loss, at least we’ll still have each other (at least I hope that’s the plan since we never know when we’ll pass away). I only wish I’d known Maris had been hurting so badly while she was still alive; I may not have been able to get her over her compulsion but at least I could have been more sensitive to her trauma.
Funny, I’d never even heard of the A&E program Hoarders until I’d started sharing this experience with other people. And after watching a few episodes, I could easily relate to the frustration of the family members and the desperation of those afflicted with this mental disorder. To call it a difficult challenge is an understatement, and there’s no guarantee that even if Maris had been willing to get help it would have been successful in ridding her of this complicated problem.
Still, it makes me sad she refused to try — even at her frustrated husband’s urging. Consequently, for most of their marriage, their lifestyle entailed being out of the house as long as possible every single day. Instead of being a haven to escape to after a long day at work, it became a prison from which to flee each morning. The normal activities we take for granted — eating dinner at the kitchen table, sitting on the couch to read or watch TV, inviting friends over for coffee — were simple pleasures unavailable to Maris and Al. That this was a prison of Maris’ own making only underscores the severity of the problem. As I said, even if she had sought professional help, there’s no guarantee it would have worked.
If you have a loved one who’s a hoarder or are struggling with the compulsion yourself, there are no easy answers. In the aftermath of Maris’ unexpected passing, my eyes have certainly been opened to the prevalence of the problem and its detrimental and oftentimes devastating effect on human relationships. I continue to pray and help my cousin Al as he works through the arduous process of decluttering and cleansing his home, comforted by the fact that Maris is in a better place, emancipated from the jail of negative emotion and reunited with those she loved in this lifetime. Rest in peace, Maris.
Do you have a hoarder story to share? I welcome you to post them in the comments.