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Growing up with my mother, the hoarder, and how I began to heal

Judy Batalion’s memoir, White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between, talks about hoarding, home, the Holocaust and healing.

The following is an excerpt from White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between by Judy Batalion.

When Mom slept, the house could breathe. The walls exhaled, the roof slumped. I climbed into my mom's chair at the kitchen table. It was still warm from the hours she'd spent sitting on it, on the phone to her friends, talking about their problems, winding her fingers around the phone's coiled cord and then pulling it apart, like stretching out a strand of DNA. I marvelled at the doodles she drew in pencil across the increasingly large pile of stained paper towels that covered the table. I traced my hand along her marks, following as the lead pooled in the pores of the Bounty, reminding myself that she'd been an artist, a published poet who'd trailed Leonard Cohen around Greece. I followed these incredible drawings, drawings that would never get seen if I didn't see them, drawings of women's faces, always in profile with dark eyes, high cheek bones and sharp features, draped in cowl necks, staring into the distance, alone and haunted.

"WHAT IS THIS?" I raised my voice the next morning. I couldn't believe what lined my credenza. A row – a full row – of ceramic piglets. One in overalls, one in a pink party dress playing violin, one skipping rope.

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The worst part was, they weren't even cute cartoon piglets with frizzy pigtails doing step aerobics. They were old-school toys, textured so that the ceramic was grooved, accentuating their black porcine locks, making them seem country-house goyish, particularly unkosher.

"For your collection," Mom said, smiling, her yellowing teeth showing above her thin dry lips. Her large frame overflowed in my doorway. She even hoarded calories.

"My collection?" I said aloud, rolling my eyes. I'd just used wet toilet paper to wipe my dusty mattress. Where had she gotten these pig trinkets? How much more would be coming? What was the point in my cleaning up if there was always more stuff? Two full dining room sets plus an extra buffet were now stacked in the living room. The other day, Mom had brought home an entire discount Disney wardrobe, which I had to stuff into my drawers, pushing my special Roots T-shirts into corners, creasing them.

"You mentioned you liked pigs." Her slit eyes twinkled in hope. Above her chins, her face was red and soft like a baby's. She had dozens of albums of me but never let anyone photograph her. She couldn't bear to look at herself, she explained. "You said there was a pig you liked."

It was true. I'd mentioned a pig. A pig candle. One pig candle. I liked candles, not pigs. Besides, that candle was cuddly, like my sassy hero Miss Piggy. And, that was months ago.

I turned to stare out my window. It was afternoon, wintery dark. Over the Christmas holidays, we tobogganed with our neighbours on the mound outside our door. For two weeks, our house was a happy nucleus. But now the black crusty snow just looked like another pile that kept me hidden, that made the world hard to reach.

Mom waited for my reaction. I knew she'd had only one doll as a child, which was why I'd been showered with Barbies – a hundred of them – not to mention three fully furnished dollhouses. Pigs were the last thing I needed.

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I take out a pen and the forms that have been sitting in my drawer. I need to fill in the blanks, and to do it perfectly. For years, I've tried to find ways to get my mother into treatment, secretly speaking to social workers, doctors, therapists, driven by the image of her cured: smiling, laughing like she used to, maybe even leaving her house, coming to mine. I've done more research for this project than for my PhD. Then again, my mother is much more complicated than the Representations of Domestic Space in Contemporary Art. You won't have a good chance at court unless your father participates, they all warned. He's the one who lives with her. Enables her, they meant.

Now, staring at the legal questionnaire and the "patient's history," I'm not sure where to begin. How to narrate the tale of my mother falling apart? The brain that turned in on itself over decades, in little unremarkable steps, like the ascent of the Nazis, I think, and wonder if I should start with the Holocaust. My grandmother's escape from Warsaw to Siberian works camps, my mother's wartime birth in Kirgizia, in transit, her formative years in ravaged Poland, DP camps, born into the fresh smell of a murdered family, a refugee before she knew what home was. Eventually coming to Canada, but never really settling, never committing to a house, a stable structure. The way a few extra piles of books turned into domestic mayhem, mounds of old paper towels, thousands of videocassettes, stale Danishes that formed a barricade across her kitchen, a fortress to protect from the next world war that was always just around the corner, especially in suburban Canada. The slow stewings of a victim complex. The disputes, the real estate battles, tens of thousands spent on lawyers, not to mention the rooms filled with spy devices used to record every meeting, the gradual disjoining from friends, cousins, siblings, her own name. The stacks of research to help her track down "the people who were after her," who – she claims – break into the house, leave her cryptic messages, mess up her papers. The house bolted stiff with locks and alarms, loudly ticking clocks in every room. Cameras. Laptops. Binders. The pill vials. The story of how a person becomes a shadow.

I read the next question on the form. "Is she a danger to herself or to others?" They mean life danger, the social worker explained.

"Yes," I write.

In "family history," I write that her mother suffered from the same thing. The exact same thing.

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"Come in," Jon's mother said.

I held my breath, inched my way inside, looked around me at a real live version of my childhood angst and, for the first time, exploded into laughter.

Jon's family was wealthier than mine, so their hoarding comprised a different class of object. The dining room, bigger than any of my parents' rooms, had antique chairs stacked on their backs, boxes from Sotheby's, collector toasters, and chandeliers salvaged from synagogues across Europe. But what surprised me even more than the extensive Edwardian decanter collection was Jon's attitude. Before we sat down to eat, we wandered through their sprawling four-storey Victorian detached, as he pointed out a full-sized library card catalogue and a population of ceramic tumblers. "Just in case we have 65 guests for dinner," he joked.

As we explored, I barraged Jon with questions. I wondered if his mother's hoarding emerged from her immigrant experience (she had come from Africa to London) and if attaching to objects was easier than to foreign English people … "Your mother is so petite. Is she afraid of losing her husband and being alone in this big space? Is she filling up her house prophylactically?" Jon chuckled at my blunt overanalysis. He didn't know why his mother was a hoarder, but what ultimately stood out to me was that he was okay with it, with exposing his family's craziness, aware and confident that his mother's mess wasn't him. Not even ashamed.

I'm not my mother's house, I remembered. I was here, 30 years old, someone's girlfriend in London. My mother's mess isn't me.

As we walked up the final flight of stairs, I felt amazed at the extraordinary coincidence that two children of hoarders had found each other and could no longer hold myself back. "My mother has stuff, too!" I was panting. "Reams of it. Thumbtacks, onesies, laundry baskets bought on sale. Tupperware, Play-Doh sets, wall calendars from the late 1970s. My childhood bed is currently a warehouse for fax machines. My friends complain that their inheritances are being spent on cruises; mine is being spent on hole punchers. My mother's house," I confessed, pointing all around me, "is even worse."

"Worse?" Jon stopped.

"Worse." Now I worried I'd gone too far, that in coming clean I'd made a mess.

"Wow," he replied after a pause. "I can't wait to see it!"

As he opened an attic freezer filled with ten-year-old kosher turkeys, I suddenly understood: Like me, he had grown up in small pockets of affection surrounded by record players and hotel-shampoo collections. Our forthright rapport countered our worlds of hidden secrets. Being open about our past messes, even joking about them, helped clean them up. His successful detachment from his mother's mishegas could help guide my own. My attraction to Jon was propelled by his ability to face the ugly and the odd, to accept it without judgment or fear.

But most of all, I understood that after three decades, I had finally found someone I could bring home.

From White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between by Judy Batalion, published by New American Library, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Judy Batalion.

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