No more applesauce for you!


Grandma’s groceries after my organizing frenzy. Note the zombie apocalypse supply of applesauce.

My grandparents were always hoarders. They had empty boxes everywhere. Used cat litter pans. Yarn. I never really thought much about it until my Grandma’s hoarding spiraled out of control. It turns out there’s actually a name for what she’s been doing: Diogenes Syndrome. I honestly had no idea there was such a thing.

Grandma quit going to the store with us about two years ago. We take her yogurt and bananas every few days, then do bigger shops maybe twice a month. Her list is predictable: Spam, canned fruit and vegetables, cookies, applesauce, cat treats … It’s always the same list in the same scratchy handwriting, whether she needs what’s on it or not. Her living space is large, but it’s no warehouse. This spring things reached critical mass.

When we realized Grandma and her dwelling needed no-holds-barred cleaning, the groceries seemed like a logical starting place. Once that dawned on me, I didn’t even plan what I was going to do next. I got in the car and headed for Target, where I bought the biggest shelving unit I could dump in the cart by myself. Once I got home I unloaded my car and dragged the awkward box downstairs, channeling some inner she-rah.

By the time I yanked all the parts and pieces out of the box I was already overheated. I like temperatures in the 60s and low 70s; Grandma isn’t comfortable if it’s more than a hair under 85. Her electric heater was humming, and I was pretty sure my eyes were sweating. But there was no stopping now.

I wish I had a before picture, because I can’t do the scene justice with words. There was food crammed in every available space. A lot of it never made it out of the grocery bags, and they weren’t the fancy reusable kind. I found graham crackers behind the TV. Cans of fruit and vegetables mixed together in sideways boxes held up with empty paper towel rolls. How could I let it get this out of hand? I picked up every kind of canned meat imaginable. And applesauce. Sacks and stacks and piles of applesauce.

I cleared space with determination, Grandma hovering around like a nervous bird. “Good lord, Grandma, why do you have all this applesauce?” I asked in my most exasperated voice. “I like applesauce,” she said, as if it were perfectly normal to have enough to feed a summer camp full of kids on hand.

Before she could finish her sentence I grabbed the next armful and stomped back to the shelves, organizing the cans and containers as I went. I tried to keep everything within reach; made sure I stored the heaviest stuff on the bottom. I didn’t think she would pull the whole thing over on herself, but something in my head said don’t tempt fate. Sometimes I checked expiration dates, other times I didn’t. Mostly I just wanted to finish the job and get out of that basement. The heat was sapping my will to live.

When I’d finally snatched up the last can I could find and put it in place, I stopped long enough to inspect my work. Despite my lack of planning, the shelves were full but not overcrowded. And the next time Grandma handed us her shopping list, we could eyeball the pyramid of tissue boxes and instantly know she didn’t need another three.

I felt good knowing I’d taken the first step toward improving her situation. Even if some of my determination was powered by the hint of guilt I felt for not doing something sooner, the torn-up packing box and empty bags proved I was trying to make up for lost time.

My cleaning craze only happened a few weeks ago, and I’ve already re-straightened rows and cleared empty bags off the shiny new shelves. I’m typically not an anal person. But whether Grandma likes it or not, one of us is going to keep her closet-slash-pantry-slash-cabinet organized.

On my way home from work today I picked up some drug samples for Grandma at the doctor’s office, which I took out of the plastic bag before handing them over. I also interrogated her about a missing bag of cat treats until she shuffled over and pulled them out of the filing cabinet she’d stashed them in. “It’s not her fault,” I reminded myself. But I still made her promise to put them back.

Baby steps.


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