“Clutter is nothing more than postponed decisions” – Barbara Hemphill

Junk gene. It was a well-known fact when I was growing up that my fathers family was afflicted. Born undoubtedly from Depression-era needs to save and reuse, the junk gene saved us and nearly sunk us many times while I was growing up with my parents.

Hole in his shoe? Dad once took tire tread and repaired his sole. Kitchen sink? We had one in the kitchen with running water and a spare in the garage with sticky cobwebs...but it cleaned up nicely when we needed it. That saved us.

Streetlights my Dad promised my Mom for 30 years to install but never did, since they were so deeply entrenched under other junk that they were nearly impossible to reach? We had those too. The “lost” closet upstairs where supplies went to live and crossed over to Narnia or a black hole or who knows where. Those threatened to sink us into despair, fits of anger, and sheer frustration.

Last week, when I faced the piles of paper and boxes left over from my Dad’s apartment, I thought about the junk gene.  Was I keeping these papers because of a genetic anomaly?


I took a long look at the papers, random files, old keys to unknown doors, and realized I was facing something more powerful than even the junk gene.

In that clutter was fear of grief.

When Dad passed away in January 2017, I grieved. I was distraught. It was a painful period of time, and I did grieve.

But then I tried to stop. I had work to do, places to go, things to see. Don’t get me wrong and think I didn’t still think about my Dad during this time, as I did. But I’m the boxes of files I had stuck in our guest bedroom were more than just tax returns, old bills and recipes clipped from the newspaper. It was a mirror.

This mirror reflected the truth that I still didn’t want to face. I didn’t want to finish with Dad’s files because in those papers and old credit cards and floppy disks there was a final acknowledgment that he was gone, never to return. And there was a reflection waiting for me to face my grief.

But we can’t hide from grief forever. It resides in those clutter piles that we stack in that room where guests aren’t allowed to enter. They can stack to the ceiling just awaiting that day when you must face the junk and address the grief lodged inside like a gas waiting to be fracked.

Last week, I dug through the bills, and sorted, sitting on the floor until my butt was sore. I looked at the old receipts. I cried when I found the file with Dad’s passport application which he mailed a few weeks before he died. Where was he going to go? I wailed when I again unearthed a copy of his favorite poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” 

I walked through the grief that felt like I was dragging my heart through broken glass shards. It was inevitable and unavoidable. I put it off but it would have always been there waiting for me to stare down Fear.

I still do have the junk gene. Antique typewriters, taboggins, and thrift store treasures are on display at my house. But I feel I have a pretty healthy grip on what to keep and what to toss. I know now the clutter was saving me from grief but sinking me into a limbo land where I couldn’t fully heal. I’m healing now.