Dear Hoarder, From A Neat Freak

You and I aren’t that different

Mark Starmach
7 min readApr 4, 2023
Illustrations: Mark Starmach

Dear Hoarder,

I don’t know how you’re able to sleep in your bed at night, knowing full-well that next to your head is a wardrobe heaving with clothes you haven’t worn in years and plastic bags that have gotten brittle and stinky with time.

I don’t know how you can find calm in a room with a coffee table full of yellowing magazines printed in the final days of the USSR.

And I don’t know how you can close off quarters of your home, room by room — a dining table overrun with unopened boxes of dinnerware and cutlery, a bed beneath piles of unworn clothes from Vinnies, a spare room containing soap from the eighties. Rooms never ventured into. Doors always closed. A home shrunk down to the size of a pea.

Because, I find I can’t sleep if even a drawer is slightly open.

I find I can’t think straight if the kettle in my peripheral vision isn’t flush against the splashback.

And I find existential joy in spraying down a surface with Ajax Spray & Wipe.

I don’t think these are superiorities of me over you. I think they’re a different side of the same coin.

The truth is, you and I aren’t that different.

I see you.

I get it.

I get it, because I have both sides in me.

My paternal grandmother was somewhat of a mystery — un-pindownable. She had no birth certificate, born in Russia (or perhaps Poland) in either 1922 or 1925 (even she had forgotten in her later life).

She was the youngest of seven siblings, whose names my father has to now put punctuation around in order to keep possible leads warm.

“Peter/Pietryk”, “Val/Valintina?”, “Barbara?/?erica/Bhsia?”

Her parents had owned a large farm in west Russia that employed a number of workers. When the Bolsheviks came through, her family had to hand it over, because they were the warm-blooded bodies of the ‘bourgeois’ who had been written about in black ink in big books by other people.

Dispossessed, my grandmother’s family relocated 25km north of the Black Sea, and nurtured a flour mill over the course of 10 years. But when the Nazis came through, my grandmother lost everything again.

She lost her home, and this time, she lost her family. Her father was taken to the front lines, her mother, away in a truck. And her siblings were divided up in various ways — some sent to forced labour camps, others to concentration camps. Never seen by each other again.

The fog says she did hard labour in Stuttgart in “horrible black shoes” (one of the only details she felt safe to share with others). At the end of the war, she married a similarly displaced man in Stuttgart, whose name is also now partly punctuation — “Jan/John/Janack?/Johann??”

Here the fog lifts and papers appear.

On the 16th of November 1948, my grandma and grandfather boarded a ship named ‘Protea’, that had been organised as part of the International Refugee Organisation’s Group Resettlement to Australia. It embarked from Genoa Port and, after making a stop in Fremantle Port, arrived in Melbourne on the 22nd of December 1948. An immigration official typed out their names with a typewriter (her husband was documented as an identity-flattening ‘Jan’), their ages (‘26’ and ‘28’), and their occupations (a ‘domestic’ and a ‘shoemaker’).

They worked for a few years and bought a stout brown-brick home on a leafy street in Stanmore, Sydney. Their daughter was born shortly after, and my father after that. The Post-War dream seemed achieved.

Seemed, because over the years as liquor crept in, Jan morphed into an abuser. And while alcohol may have softened his hurt from Stuttgart, it was felt hard by my grandma via his drunken star-stirring slaps on Friday nights — the abuse those hands had first witnessed in labour camps during WW2, retransferred in blows during the era of peace, love, and rock & roll. He was a volcano that erupted weekly, then simmered til the next Friday.

One Friday was different though. One Friday my grandfather, drunk from the week’s knock-off drinks, hit the back of his head on a metal bar behind his seat in a suddenly-accelerating bus. Later that night, haemorrhaging, he fell and died on the pavement while walking home for this week’s eruption. The police found his body in the dark of an early Saturday morning in November 1968.

My grandmother seemed forever after to live a quiet, shrunken life.

She stayed put in that brown-brick home in Stanmore for 42 more years. She grew a garden in the backyard beneath the low-flying planes, and it was thick and weedy and overrun, but also green and alive. A lemon tree grew in the sun along the side of the house. An avocado tree grew from a seed into a monster. Pink hibiscus furled out onto a path trampled through stubby grass to the Hills Hoist. Jackhammered concrete was buried beneath dirt where bygone greyhounds had once eaten cuts of meat from the butcher nearby. Layers of time and memory, heaped on top of each other.

Like her garden, her home too became slowly overrun. Rooms became closed off to her, full of too much tchotchke wrapped in brittling, stinking plastic. Cutlery and dinnerware in unopened boxes. Soap and shampoo from the 1980’s. A fruitcake that expired in 1992, kept in plastic beneath a wooden chair in the corner of an unusable bedroom.

When my father and I cleaned up her house after her passing, my fingers turned black from all the dust on that mouldy, shrink-wrapped fruitcake. I was repulsed to see what her house had become.

Now though, I see it differently.

My grandmother had lived out the wake of what had happened to her — two wars, and a man named Jan.

She had lived a life of others intruding upon her peace. Of people coming in, hurting her, and taking everything away from her. And so her quiet life in Stanmore, her slow accumulation of things, was on one hand a slow reassembly of peace, and on the other, a prolonged response to a fear — the fear of losing everything again. Best to save everything, store everything, keep everything, lest she start from scratch again.

Now when I think about that grimy black dust covering my fingers, I think of it as a strange cosmic coating — a protective veil draped gently over what I may have seen as boxes of bric-a-brac, but what my grandmother saw as blocks of safety and stability after all of her life’s turbulence, cubes as grounding as the Kaaba in Mecca. The blackness only accumulated because the items had been undisturbed for so many years, untouched, unstolen away from her. The blackness was the proof that she was safe. The blackness was the promise it was over.

The Nazis had taken away everything but they hadn’t taken away that fucking fruitcake.

I did not grow up in my grandma’s house. I grew up in a clean house — if anything a house that was “never clean enough”, and “never presentable enough” to have people over.

Because of that, I internalised a disdain for small piles of mess, a discomfort for dust, a sense of shame over stacks of paper, and a belief that untidiness was a sign of personal moral failure.

As we grow, we’re all hopefully stepping in to a kinder understanding of others and ourselves — a knowledge of how we’ve each learnt to grapple with big things, before we knew what we were grappling with. Admittedly, while I’ve had to grapple with a few big things, they’re nowhere near as big as Bolsheviks and Nazis. But this is what I now know:

My fruitcake is the closed drawer.

My 80's-era soap is the un-askew kettle.

My black dust is the white foam from the Ajax Spray & Wipe.

It’s my response to a fear — that I’m “not clean enough”, “not presentable enough”, not good enough, not perfect enough.

And it’s also the way I muffle that fear. How I protect myself from its possibility manifesting.

So, dear Hoarder, dear human — you and I are not too different. And because of that, I think there’s things we can learn from each other.

I’m learning that mess isn’t a reflection of failure, but a reflection that life is messy and complex and that sometimes, being unperturbed by the accumulation of dust-bunnies is a sign of stoicism and at-easedness with life’s endless onslaught. I’ve started to accept that mild disarray in my pantry is perhaps not a floodgate to chaos and self-pity, that the answer is rarely vacuuming, but more often gentleness. I now see a psychic link between people and their possessions (or lack thereof), and what they come to stop seeing in their houses and minds. I’ve even ventured into leaving my drawers slightly open overnight (but only very slightly.)

In other words, I’m learning to loosen the grip my fears have over me.

It’s weird how peace can be found in both a spotlessly clean home, and a home overrun with countless possessions covered in black dust.

But the truer, more lasting peace is found inside us when we start to let go.

Let’s help each other get there.

A Neat Freak