That might come in handy one day…

Posted by Kathryn Fox on March 21, 2014


We inherit our parents’ genes, and in some ways suffer the childhoods they experienced. Our children will be affected by how we were raised and what we learned from our parents. How much we were loved, criticized, praised and treated.

There’s nothing we can do about genes or how we were parented, but we can choose to break the cycle. That involves understanding how our parents’ beliefs and views came about.

My father, for example, was a child in the 1930s. He was never allowed to forget that he was ‘an accident’ the family could ill afford. From what I can gather, his mother never experienced love and family unity as a child. Marrying a good provider was her only priority.

Unfortunately, the world fell into depression and money was especially tight for Dad’s family. His father would wear out his soles walking to work, to save the penny for the train. He still talks of his father going to the docks in the hope of earning a days’ wages. With thousands of men competing for a handful of jobs, foremen took to throwing metal rings into the crowds of hopefuls. Fights often broke out and for those who gained work, many were injured or killed on the job. Health and safety weren’t concerns back then, it was about surviving however anyone could.

What did my Dad’s childhood teach him?

As a child of the depression, he learned that nothing could be wasted and everything has more than one use. He kept every sliver of paper, broken utensils, balls with the stuffing falling out, rusted nails, you name it. His catch phrase was, “that could come in handy some day.”

And his childhood behavior continued into adult life. He helped form one of the first credit unions in the country, to ensure workers could borrow money to secure homes. That makes complete sense given his upbringing.

But the ‘collecting’ as he liked to call it, continued in a less productive way. At first I thought our house was just messy most of the time. And he did always have spare batteries if anyone needed them. Come to think of it, there were spare everythings – just in case.

Attempts to tidy up or throw out rubbish were met with intense resistance and our mother eventually gave up the fight. After retirement, the hoarding became even more obsessive. It quickly filled the house, and rendered rooms including the bathroom, unable to be used for their original purposes.

I can’t claim to understand hoarding to that extent, but it does make sense in light of Dad’s childhood. Back then, without money, possessions became important. Objects became a form of currency – things to barter. If one person couldn’t see the value, another definitely would. And they represented security, and to an extent, hope.

“That might come in handy one day” became, “I might learn how to play that, or visit that place on the rescued map,” or “these things will be worth money in time.”

Another of my family members is an even more pathological hoarder, but for different reasons. She hoards new, shiny things. I guess she didn’t like having second hand things around the house throughout her childhood. She hasn’t slept in a bed for years because of the accumulation of bags on every surface in her home. It’s sad, but she refused help and interventions have been unsuccessful.

It’s easy to judge hoarders as seeing possessions meaning more to them than people, but understanding why they feel the compulsion to keep everything is the key to beginning to understand the devastating affliction.

It’s also about their indecision. Not sure what to do with something? Put it aside and decide later. Later never comes.

The hoarding gene might be dominant, and the childhood message of keeping everything ‘in case you need it again’ was incessant.

But I have a choice.

I still hoard documents… although only electronically after scanning them. And I try not to bring something into the house unless it has a specific place or I give something else away first.

My parents’ childhoods have indirectly taught me that it’s far better to pass things on and make way for the new.

Never ask what they're thinking again...