When Your Mother is a Hoarder: On the Pain of Loosening My Grip on a Family Secret
Emi Nietfeld Recalls the Difficult First Meeting Between Her Fiancé’s Family and Her Mother
One week before my fiancé’s parents met my mom, I paced across my living room, figuring out what to tell them. “Do I have to say anything?” I asked Annette, my mentor from high school, over the phone. I prayed that my mom would show up showered and park far enough away that they wouldn’t see the trash piled to the ceiling of her minivan. Maybe then they’d see the parent I loved, who’d snuck me to figure drawing classes while I was in foster care, who’d taken me to the library to study after the residential treatment counselors confiscated my books, who’d driven me from Minneapolis to Washington, DC, just for a photo exhibition.
“What have you told them?” Annette asked.
I bit my lip and stared out at the ginkgo trees outside my apartment in New York’s West Village. “I said I went to boarding school. That’s what I always say.”
“Emi, you’re getting married in a month.”
“Seven weeks.” Even this seemed too soon; I’d hoped the families would introduce themselves at the rehearsal dinner, pose for a picture after the ceremony, and then never see each other again. I wanted my future in-laws to believe that I’d always been destined for an elite university and a New York Times wedding announcement, not the truth: that I’d slept in my car while writing my college applications. Perhaps Byron’s parents had sensed my deception—they’d bought themselves plane tickets to my hometown the same week we’d be there finalizing details.
“And they never asked about your family, how you grew up, anything like that?” Disapproval leached out of my mentor’s voice. I imagined her stern face, pale skin harsh against her dark hair. I felt like a teenager all over again.
But what did Annette think I would have told them? When I vented about my mom’s hoarding and about how she’d had me medicated, letting the doctors believe I was dramatic and delusional rather than admitting her own problems, Annette would say, “She’s sick, Emi.” For years, the idea of having a normal adulthood—let alone the intellectual life I’d craved—had seemed absurd. Yet Annette chided, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Of course I hadn’t told my future in-laws anything.
“I think maybe they should just meet her,” I offered. “Make their own first impression.”
“No. You absolutely cannot do that. You need to call Byron’s mother right away. You have to give them time to prepare.”
Annette was probably right. What would my in-laws think if they expected someone normal, of modest means, and then met my mom?
Still, once we hung up, I sat on my Moroccan rug and searched for any excuse not to call. Saying anything felt like a betrayal. When I was growing up in Minnesota, my mom was the smartest person I knew, besides a few doctors. It was us against the provincial idiots. When I talked about my family, I described my brilliant half brother who never went to college and my mom who almost got into Stanford, whose life would have been so different if she had. She was the one person who had always believed in me and my Ivy League ambitions, even when that faith seemed untethered from reality. Didn’t my in-laws deserve to see that version of my mom?
Did they really need to know that because of her, I knew what it meant to be desperate? I wanted to forget all the places I’d slept, no one knowing where I was, always one step away from tragedy. All I’d wanted growing up was to read books and study, but instead I learned how few acceptable ways there were to need help. You had to be perfect, deserving, hurt in just the right way—even then, adults were so constrained in what they could offer. Everyone who dealt with disadvantaged kids, from therapists to college admissions officers, treated us as if we could overcome any abuse or neglect with sheer force of will. In the present tense, I was sick of pretending to be so “resilient,” so I preferred to keep my mouth shut.
But I rarely said no to Annette, the woman who’d signed up to help out a struggling girl a decade ago. Even though I was twenty-five now, not fifteen, I still felt like my survival depended on keeping all the adults happy.
“Hello?” My mother-in-law-to-be’s crisp enunciation scared the shit out of me.
“Hi, Christine.” I put on the voice I learned in college and made small talk. We talked about her latest run, that weekend’s chamber music concert, our upcoming date at the Met Opera.
“I wanted to, um, share some information with you before you meet my mom.” I read what Annette told me to say from a Post-it note: “My mom is a compulsive shopper and hoarder. It’s put a lot of strain on our relationship. I last lived at home when I was fourteen.”
Once I’d said it, I felt crazy that I’d been with her son for four years. Four Thanksgivings, four Christmases skiing in Aspen, four New Year’s Eve tins of caviar, and they didn’t even have this stripped-down version. But then again, my college friends didn’t know. My colleagues assumed I grew up rich, next to a lake. Even Byron, with whom I planned to spend my life, had only the outline.
I’d done everything I could to distance myself from that old world: moved to Manhattan, landed a fancy job, applied Retin-A fastidiously to remove the worry lines etched into my face, and shot my cheeks with Botox to soften my jaw, thickened from clenching. I worked out twice a day until my abs popped and woke up early even on the weekends. I basked in my apparent health and productivity, but I’d organized my life so that I never had more than fifteen minutes free for everything I’d overcome to come back to haunt me.
One week later, in Minneapolis, forty-five minutes after we’d told my mom to meet us, I saw her and gripped Byron’s hand. “Hi, honey!” she said, eyes brightening. She’d cleaned herself up—her greasy hair still had comb marks through it. A billfold bulged out of her pocket, making her slacks stretch across her stomach and then sag over the wrinkled black leather of her men’s tennis shoes. When she leaned in to hug me, must filled my nose. “I have some things for you in the car.”
Byron’s parents appeared outside the restaurant moments later, fifteen minutes early. His mom wore pearl stud earrings, lipstick, and a blouse, eager to make a good impression. After I’d told her about my mom’s issues, she’d quizzed me on her hobbies and interests. I felt grateful to be marrying into such a considerate family.
My mom stuck her hand out to shake theirs. I sighed in relief; if they didn’t hug her, they might not smell her. As we took our seats, I wasn’t sure what worried me more: that my mom would disgust them or that she’d charm them, as she charmed the doctors when I was young.
Once we’d ordered, my mom pushed her glasses up on her nose. “So what do you do?” she asked Byron’s father.
“I’m a software engineer,” he said, smiling, explaining that his wife and two sons—everyone—were also engineers.
My mom nodded approvingly. “Wow. Smart family. Good genes.” She took a sip of water. “I was a crime scene photographer for thirty-one years. People always think it’s upsetting, but you get used to it very quickly. Dead people basically all look the same.”
When the food came, my mom was explaining her system of shopping for care packages for kids overseas. “Last year, we filled seven hundred shoeboxes, plus had three SUVs’ worth of stuff left over!” Byron’s parents smiled politely before their eyes drifted to the wall. Operation Christmas Child was a charity meant to teach American children about generosity and compassion, but my mom had turned it into a factory operation. She detailed how much she paid, item by item. Even with her “incredible bargains”—“fifty cents for a pair of scissors!”—these hauls surely ate up most of her pension and Social Security. I clenched Byron’s hand until he shook it away.
“Oh, wow, that’s amazing!” my fiancé interjected. He kept talking until my mom had lost her train of thought and took a tiny bite.
Once Byron paused to eat, my mom leapt into her favorite topic besides shopping. “I have an amazing memory. Almost photographic,” she explained as the waiter boxed up her burger. “Emi’s brilliant, too, as I’m sure you noticed. But sometimes she messes things up. She got her birth weight wrong in her college application essay!” My hand flopped under the table, searching for Byron’s fingers, something to grip.
I wanted to yell at her, but I knew that wouldn’t impress my future in-laws. My mom would probably just think I was premenstrual. Instead I just smiled, my lips tight. “Does that really matter?”
She turned to Byron’s parents. “Ask your old mother! I know. I was there.”
It was a familiar argument: these outsiders should trust her, not me. But I couldn’t say anything more to defend myself. It would be so easy for my mom to sabotage me. She would never do it maliciously; it would be an accident: my beleaguered mother sharing the story of her daughter’s troubled teenage years. Her need for validation as a parent would once again trump my need for privacy, my perspective on the facts. It was up to me to keep the peace by saying nothing.The détente came at such a high cost. No matter what I achieved, it never got any easier.
After we said goodbye, Byron and I walked my mom back to her car. I kept looking over my shoulder to check that his parents weren’t spying. My mom complained to Byron that the police were out to get her because she couldn’t see through the back windshield. “That’s what rearview mirrors are for!” She opened the door and the stench of rotting bananas drifted out.
“I’m surprised you’re getting married in Minneapolis,” my mom said as she dug through plastic shopping bags, orphaned shoes, and pet toys that she thought would amuse children in war-torn countries. “Why not the Harvard Club? Byron, isn’t your grandfather a member there?”
“He is,” Byron said. My fists clenched. He whispered into my ear, “Just take whatever she gives you. We’ll throw it away later.”
But the stuff wasn’t the problem: it was my whole life. How many times had I stood outside my mom’s car, waiting for her to clean out the passenger seat, to pick me up from some place that was supposed to take care of me because she couldn’t? Each time, she offered me something—seven Mitchum deodorant sticks, four palettes of watercolors, a case of crumpled SlimFast bars—as if it compensated for the fact that the only space we shared was a vehicle loaded with trash.
“We really have to go,” I said. “Wedding stuff.” She ignored me.
When Byron said we had to leave, my mom turned around, eyes glowing, wet. “I’m so proud of you,” she said to me.
I had to get away before I cried or screamed.
I ran back to our rental car. I was supposed to feel relieved: Our parents had met. My wedding was still on. I’d made it through another visit with my mom without a confrontation. The next day, I’d fly back to New York and resume the life I couldn’t even fathom ten years prior.
But the détente came at such a high cost. No matter what I achieved, it never got any easier.
Excerpted from Acceptance by Emi Nietfeld, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Emi Nietfeld.