Five years ago I moved my mother from the home she lived in for over 50 years in California to a lovely senior residency in Colorado where I live. While she was not a true hoarder, the house was full of junk. There were piles of random papers and over a year’s worth of mail stashed in corners. She was seduced by late night TV ads, so there were bottles of herbs and facial products stacked on shelves. Money was hidden in drawers, as were old shoulder pads and unused tissue paper. Every closet had clothing that she no longer wore hanging next to clothes that still had tags on them.
I spent months flying in and out of LA, while working fulltime, to prepare the house for the move. We sold the three bedroom house for a great price, and I had to empty it and pack it. My mother did give a few things away, but this still left most of her belongings. So I sorted and tossed and donated and packed and finally oversaw the move itself, fighting her desire keep everything.
The first moving truck was half packed with another families belongings, so I had to arrange for a second truck. It took two days, but finally her things were on the move. My husband drove my mom and her dog to Colorado while I worked with the movers and then flew home. That’s when things got really crazy.
One of the trucks went off the road in the middle of the desert, rolling twice, which popped open the back door. The driver was injured but walked away. That cannot be said for everything in the truck, which was strewn across the desert landscape, tattered, shattered, and in some cases, not harmed. Three weeks later I received enough boxes and furniture to fill a large storage unit and spent hot summer days sorting my mother’s life from that of another family’s. Jumbled boxes of photo albums coated in sand, clothes tangled in barbed wire, mismatched chair seats and legs next to a dinged up but functional dresser, and a couch that I was sure had been invaded by scorpions. Most of the china did not make it, but some of the plates did. Somehow my mother’s collection of miniature tea pots was unharmed. And of course there were boxes of paperwork from both family’s that had to be sorted.
The story, of course, continues for months with insurance company claims. While I dealt with everything, my mother was comfortably adapting to her lovely new life, with all the items from the second truck, which filled her much smaller new cottage. She honestly did not know what she did not have, and was able to shop for anything she wanted. She could not even tell that we recreated two of her favorite art pieces. That, however, was not her story.
Through the several month process friends and family asked how I was helping my mother through the trauma. Even though she never saw the storage unit or the damaged items, she recounted her painful experience and all the drama to anyone and everyone. My experiences became her story while I sheltered her from all the actual work. I was joking about a coyote sitting in a worn out chair, wearing an outdated hat and outfit, reading random romance novels, while my mother was wrapping herself in grief.
What was the gift? I realized that my mother found comfort in hoarding painful memories, and often turned my story into hers. She lived vicariously through my laughter and adventures while collecting painful pieces to harbor and share. My wild life had always been categorized and disseminated to others in dangerous and difficult bits. But I choose to collect and share the light of laughter and joy and love, leaving pain in abandoned places for coyotes to enjoy.
Dr. Elisa Robyn, a modern-day Renaissance educator and leader, is the author of The Way of the Well, a spiritual romance, and Pirate Wisdom, lessons in leadership. Her eclectic career positions include geologist, Dean of Arts and Sciences, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Futurist, and Innovative Mojo Coach. Currently, Elisa is an executive director at Regis University. She holds a Masters degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her most current writings can be found at: