Opinion » John Rember

Heirlooms / Errorlooms

Reflections on genetic inheritance


My mother and father were children during the Great Depression, and they both grew up in families whose savings had been wiped out. They knew a deep poverty, and both had stories about times when their families farmed them out to relatives or friends because there wasn't enough money.

Later, when they had jobs and income and kids, they saved money compulsively, never bought anything they didn't need and never threw anything away. Toward the end of their lives, they got in the habit of going to garage sales. The bargains they found tipped them over the edge into full-blown hoarding.

I remember a day spent trying to help them clean up their place in Sawtooth Valley. I had devoted the morning to loading their pickup with what I thought was junk. When it came time for them to drive it all to the dump, they piled half of what I had intended to get rid of in the driveway, because to them it wasn't junk. Someone could use it someday. They drove off with the other half, but they found enough treasure at the dump that they came home with the pickup loaded up again. After that I just organized stuff into piles when I attacked the clutter around their place.

My parents, despite their weakness for other people's throwaways, were good, honest, strong, loving people. They provided me with moral guidance and food and clothing--in that order--and a love of hard physical labor and a good education through high school. They were willing to pay for my college but they made it clear that they preferred I take care of that myself.

My paying for college was also a gift, as it forced me to spend summers working for tuition. Probably the deepest lesson I learned during college was when I looked at the check I had received for firefighting in July and August, walked it over to the registrar's office, and watched it all disappear. It made me pay attention in class, because I had spent exhausting overtime hours earning my time there. And although firefighting provided plenty of hard physical labor, I nonetheless wanted a life that didn't include smoke, helicopters, logging boots and a Pulaski.

It worked, but my education also alerted me to my genetic inheritance. Not all of my parents' behavior had been due to early poverty. Psychology classes revealed that hoarding is a heritable mental disorder.

A serious one. Hoarders sometimes die when towers of junk mail, piled high in living rooms, fall down and suffocate them. People end up with 134 cats, or rooms full of National Geographics. They buy clothes they never wear, and pile boxes of quilt-squares to the ceiling. They end up living in attic alcoves, the rest of their houses being too full of stuff to live in.

I began to search back through the generations of my family, finding recluses, suicides, people who didn't raise their kids right and a bunch more hoarders. I remembered my paternal grandmother dragging pieces of old oak furniture home from the Hailey dump, cleaning and repairing them and finding places in her already crowded house for them. I went through old sepia photos, discovering cars and houses and even clothing that outlasted their purchasers, staying in the family until the 1930s melted it all down.

In my own life, I understood that my obsessive high-school hobby--collecting old bottles from abandoned mines west of Hailey--had not been an entirely voluntary activity. I dug bottles, cleaned them, arranged and rearranged them, stayed awake at nights planning to find more of them, and filled the attic of my parents' garage with them. It took care of my adolescent free time for two or three years. It didn't do much for my adolescent social life.

Depending on how psychoanalytic you want to get, you can say that the real reason behind any obsessive-compulsive disorder is that it allows you not to have a social life. In my case, that was a good thing, keeping me off the football team or from knocking up one of my classmates so that I would have had to drop out of high school and work at an auto-body shop until it was time to go to Vietnam. So perhaps there is Darwinian survival value in being born into an OCD family.

As the circular Darwinian formula goes, if you've made it this far, it's adaptive.

These days, I'm mostly obsessed with Julie's cooking. I'll also admit to a fascination with Julie. She tells me that either one is a good thing, after two decades of marriage.

But I no longer collect stuff--even books, except for remainders of ones I've written. I do have too many skis in the garage. And once a year I go on a tear with a chainsaw, trying to collect enough firewood to endure the Ice Age that seems imminent every November.

No doubt these behaviors are embedded deep in my genes. Fortunately, their grasp has loosened enough that I've been able to maintain an illusion of free will.

Right now, free will is directing me toward the dinner table. Later, it will direct me to do the dishes, pack in a couple of loads of wood and bank the fire for the night. I'll turn on the nightlight and, comforted by its pale warmth, go to bed.

It's a life-affirming routine, and a happy one. And if the dark still threatens, I know that down in the crawl space are boxes of old purple bottles, each carefully cleaned and lovingly wrapped in newspaper, each glowing with precious material magic. Somebody's going to need them someday.