My Mother and Me: A Clothes Hoarder’s Tale

I’ve been thinking a lot about clothes recently. Who am I kidding? I’m always thinking about clothes – wearing them, storing them, buying them.  I have low impulse control, a love of sales and too much room for my own good. The result is Clothesaggedon. I’m what wakes Marie Kondo up at night screaming. Absolutely everything I can get into gives me joy.

My mother also had low impulse control etc. It was clear to me she had a problem. Obviously she was a compulsive shopper and hoarder, poor thing. I mean what kind of  shopper buys the same thing in every colour? What sort of person has shoes in three or four different sizes? Who can’t bear to throw away so much as a sock? Me, That’s who!

When she died last year, her husband invited us round to take a few keepsakes. In our heads we were thinking, perhaps, of a nice piece of jewellery, a watch, a locket, that kind of thing. This was not what he was thinking. He really wanted to get rid of her clothes and he hoped we would take them away for ourselves. I can imagine a situation where a newly bereaved widow might want help sorting out what to bin, what to send to charity shops. I can also imagine a situation where I would be fighting to get into a clothes-mad 80 year old’s wardrobe – if that 80 year old was, say, Vivienne Westwood or Iris Apfel. But twenty years worth of barely worn, size 12-14, Per Una, chosen by a woman with a weakness for sequinned appliqué?  I don’t think so.

Mind you. I don’t blame him for being hopeful. Sorting out the accumulation of ‘it’s a bargain’s’, ‘I could do with that’s’ and ‘I have to have it’s’ was a daunting task. The entire upstairs of the house was like TK Maxx, Aslamabad branch, post missile attack. Clothes, some still with tags on, hung out of drawers and cupboards. Black bin bags, spilling over onto the floor, marked thwarted, earlier attempts to get some of the stuff out of the house. The number of pairs of shoes tipped into the thousands. One room was crammed with clothes racks. There were wardrobes just for coats.

In the later stages of her dementia, before she was hospitalised, Mum spent all day, every day, ‘sorting’ things out. She would get odd shoes out of their boxes; drag clothes around the house. Sometimes she would wear several outfits all at the same time. I had been worried about her when she lost interest in shopping. But when she stopped fussing around her clothes, I knew the tide had turned. The Mum we knew was not coming back.

But oh, that house and those clothes! It was a fabric Hell and one, I fear, I’m busy creating for myself.

Mum wasn’t always that way. Back in the 70’s, when no one had the number of clothes they do now, our family had even fewer: money was always tight. Our clothes were often home-made (Mum was a dab hand with a Singer sewing machine, a remnant of crimplene and a bit of ric-rac). Occasionally they came on the never-never, via Grattan’s, Universal Stores or Kay’s from Dorothy up the road. Other kids listened to music, or drew pictures, or day dreamed. I loved the mindless diversion of the catalogue, walking the galleries of high street style in the comfort of the understairs cupboard. I suppose it was a rehearsal for surreptitious internet shopping but, mercifully, less immediate.

Everything changed when Mum remarried 40 odd years ago. From then on, she only had two pastimes: working and clothes shopping. At first it was a delicious novelty. Her new husband seemed to like to splash his cash and although not particularly generous (he took her salary off her and awarded her weekly pocket money), he loved to treat her. Looking back, that was the glue that kept their marriage together. Relieved of any financial responsibility – or control – Mum haunted the outlet stores of the North West. At first she was as excited a child being taken out to buy a new party dress. That enthusiasm was infectious, particularly in someone already carrying the “I have absolutely nothing to wear” gene.  When Mum and I had ‘girl time’ together we tramped around all the stores of Preston, fuelled on Thornton’s brazil nut toffee and excitement. My kids thought she worked at TK Maxx, we spent so much time there. It seemed a harmless enough pleasure: a pretty top never hurt anybody, after all. But the seeds of that addiction to the new and shiny were throwing up shoots. Even now, I never feel better than when I’m wearing something fresh out of the store.

But back to that afternoon spent with my sisters, picking through Mum’s things. It was not cheering. “But you’ve taken hardly anything” our host complained. Truth is, there was nothing we wanted. Other than our Mum, back when she got excited by a chunky tan leather heel or a colourful jacket.

My mum’s husband died very soon after her. We didn’t realise that our visit was the last contact we would have with her possessions. In a Victorian novel style twist, at about the time he invited us round, he also altered his will. His estranged kids were now the chief beneficiaries and my siblings were completely disinherited. My mother would have been rolling in her grave if she hadn’t been cremated and sitting in a jar in her own garage. The lesson here, dear readers, is to be sure you make your wishes 100% official. Dammit, make a Will!

Hey ho. The son texted me a few months ago to tell me that the emptying of the house was now complete and he had identified six boxes of possessions which belonged to us, or to our mother, he thought we would want. Could one of us, i.e. me, collect them as soon as possible?

There was a certain amount of excitement in the idea of these six boxes. Put it down to optimism or my curiosity, but I could barely stop thinking about those “Six Boxes”! What could be in them? Mum threw nothing away. But what would someone who barely knew her – or us – deem important?  As the weeks passed I convinced myself that everything I’d ever misplaced must be in those magical six boxes. I don’t know what I was hoping for. My college gown? My childhood charm bracelet? My David Cassidy poster collection? My faith in human nature?

But when I arrived to collect the goodies, the bathos of six, small, damp boxes, one clearly from a wholesale batch of Quavers, made my heart sink. A cursory rummage revealed: a couple of decorations from a long eaten wedding cake from some long forgotten wedding; my Mum’s Pitman shorthand certificates; a notebook with most of the pages removed; my grandmother’s wedding coffee set, heavily chipped and wrapped in a dirty sheet at the bottom; photograph albums. Any of the jewellery her husband had bought her, we discovered, had already been sent to his estranged daughter in Tasmania. For someone who loved stuff so much, Mum left a pathetically small amount behind.

This has, of course, given me pause. Currently my own legacy will be a back-catalogue of & Other Stories tops and an epic collection of gym leggings. (Why, oh why, did I not spend that money on an Umbrian farmhouse or a houseboat?) I need to mend my ways. I can’t be constantly emptying my wardrobe post some shopping extravaganza and then ‘rescuing’ old favourites before I’ve even stepped through the door of the charity shop, let alone waiting on the doorstep of the charity shop, next day, to buy something back. I have a clear case of clothes separation anxiety.

So, here’s the plan. From July 1 I am going to steal an idea from an old colleague of mine. She now lives in Portland and is a brilliantly flamboyant, vintage dresser and is just about old enough to enter the fabulous ranks of the Muttonati – her Instagram is bonkers in the best way: @luinluland. 

She gave up shopping for a whole year because she realised that she didn’t need yet another pair of silver shoes. Instead she dressed in a different outfit from her wardrobe every day for a year. (Coincidentally, I tried going shopping cold turkey a year or so before her. I even kept a blog about it “StopShop”. I made it to May, then plunged off the wagon in a Lululemon store in New York. I know. Gym leggings again! WHY?).

A year makes me come out in sweats. And sweating may well send me back into the leggings aisle. I can’t take that risk. But maybe I can manage it for a month. That won’t be too hard.  Or will it? I know myself well enough to know how persuasive I can be with myself when there’s a sale on.

So watch this space. I’ll post photos of my attempts to truly shop my wardrobe. Who knows? It might be the start of something new. After all, if I am going to leave only six boxes to my kids, I’d like them to be really fabulous ones.


7 Responses to “My Mother and Me: A Clothes Hoarder’s Tale”

  1. Sue

    Hello, I’ve not commented before, but I really enjoy your posts.I think we must be of a similar age and northern background. Your references ring true. My mum died a couple of months ago, and we have also had to deal with clearing an ungodly amount of displacement activity shopping finds from the house so that my dad can actually live there comfortably. But, as you say, a shopping pattern that can feel horribly familiar when I look around my own house…thank goodness for ebay and charity bags. I found the whole going through someone else’s possessions unexpectedly distressing.

    • Deborah Mills

      It is grim on so many levels. Love to you and yours – it’s a difficult time, I know

  2. Adele Geras

    This is a tremendously moving post. I buy too much as well but try and have a clear out every so often. Many condolences on the death of your mother. As for her husband….. no words for his behaviour.

  3. GabLLb

    I found very hard to go through my mother’s belongings after her death. In the last two decades of her life most of her clothes were made to measure partly because of her size and partly because she liked good quality , stylish clothing. She was a conservative dresser and she was proud when was able to purchase the ultimate status symbol for her ; a black Persian Lamb coat with a grey mink collar. Her larger than life personality always filled whatever she wore with a kind of magic, and without her they just looked pieces of material albeit good quality. My sister, my sister-in law and even our lawyer kept some of her clothing. I kept her last pair of glows, hair brushes and favourite handbag thinking they captured her natural body odour, something material of her. I also put aside two of her dresses and blouses the fabric of which we bought together during our travels. Now, over two decades after her death, I know that the most important things of her, her love of me, her moral campus and passable wisdom live inside me forever. Your most cherished memories of your mother will live in you/with you forever. The husband and his children …. not worth the comments. Warm regards GabLLb

  4. juliet brown

    What a sweet post – I am sorry for the loss of your mum. My mother is 90yrs old and has been happily dying for at least 40 years, she loves a good death does mother and is ever hopeful. To that end she is the complete opposite – 3 things in the frig (milk, eggs and 1 other) are her max and she likes to get rid of things with giant conflagrations in her garden (my 7yr old self had to witness all my toys burnt in the interests of hygeine…). She likes to wash her second best pants and socks out every night and hang them to dry in case anyone finds her dead in the morning, and is always getting rid. Mothers – if we’d had “normal” we’d have nothing funny/endearing to say about them.

    • Deborah Mills

      I love those stories of your Mum, especially her bonfires (of the vanities??). We do love our Mums, quirks and all.


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