Aside from the loveable, frenetic greeting from the German Shepard, Sasha, and the many welcomed hugs from nieces and nephews, one of the first things to greet you at my in-laws’ house is The Pile. Lest anyone think I’m referring to my mother-in-law, I am not. The Pile is far more shy, even reclusive, but it makes its presence known the instant you walk into the kitchen.
There it is: an 18″ high, mountain of unopened bills, payments, checks, letters, magazines, coupon offers, flyers, local newspapers, more bills, more local offers and brochures. It’s impossible to miss–and sometimes it’s impossible to not suffer a broken rib bumping into. The Pile leans and tilts and spills in every direction–often onto burners #5 and #6 of the 6-burner stove. Which isn’t problem unless you accidentally turn on the wrong burner like I did once. And no one dares to touch the pile, except to feed it.
For years we’d go back home, my wife did her best Jason of the Argonauts and took on The Pile. Every time she would go home to visit on business trips, she would tackle it, reducing and whittling it down, only to see it rise again like a volcano rebuilding itself after a cataclysmic eruption. She’s since given up, realizing the futility of her honorable and thoughtful endeavor.
After my sister and brother in-law and their kids moved into my in-laws large house, The Pile had offspring. They popped up all around the house. There was The Pile of Obsolete and No Longer Loved Video Games, The Pile of Unwatched, Unplayable VCR Movies, The Pile of “Broken” Video Game Machines, The Pile of Tschotskes Brought Back from Trips and The Pile of Half-Opened Boxes and Mail. In other rooms, there was The Pile of Romance Novels, The Pile of Unironed Clothing, The Son of Unplayable VCR Movies and The Pile of Smelly Bathroom Powders of Salts and The Pile of Computer Parts.
But lurking far out of view, was (and still is) The Mother of All Piles:The Garage Pile. When I first saw it years ago upon visiting my future in-laws house for the first time, I knew how Ripley felt when she first met the mother alien in “Aliens 2.” I was asked to go into the garage to fetch something and I knew I might never get out alive. The tentacles of The Garage Pile reached out in an incoherent, menacing manner–bags filled with recycling bottles, unused wiring, rusty hardware, bins of papers and more magazines, broken pieces of furniture, rusty and dated sports equipment, posters, and boxes filled with, well, other boxes, and that’s just what you can see. The Garage Pile is musically inclined also, as a full, dusty drum kit sits unbeaten, un-played. In the middle of the garage is the spine of The Garage Pile–two rows of metal file cabinets, at least 6 feet high, filled with papers. The right side? Remember the bomb shelter from the movie “The Road,” filled with canned and dried goods? Imagine that, but only more—and most of it gone bad, even the dry stuff, like the entire shelf of spices. Next to the Wall of Dry Goods Gone Bad, is The Freezer Pile—a freezer engorged with so much frozen pasta sauce it would take the entire Italian population a year to get through it all. (Last Christmas, my brother-in-law, a chef, made 10 gallons of pasta sauce. Why? I have no clue.)
Finally, there’s The Refrigerator Pile next to The Freezer Pile. It’s filled with questionable milk and eggs, outdated beer, various Tupperware containers filled with leftovers from recent meals (how recent is anyone’s guess), wilted and squishy vegetables and, of course, they ever-present pool of mystery goo oozing from underneath refrigerator drawers. To this day, I quietly refuse to eat or drink anything from The Refrigerator Pile that I didn’t personally put in there—yes, even the beer.
Now, should my poor in-laws get wind of this post—and they probably will, and I’m secretly hoping they do—and think that I’m picking on them, they should know this: They’re not alone. My mother has her own Pile Monsters as well. My favorite is the Cupboard of Plastic Containers and Lids Pile. Small or big, round or rectangle, if it comes in plastic and it has a lid, my mother saves it because, by God, she will find a use for it. Whether it’s to hold 1 oz. of sauce, 3 leftover ravioli, uneaten potatoes or a pot of chili, she has a container for it. I’d have an easier matching one side of a Rubik’s Cube than finding a matching lid, though.
Closely related to my mother’s Cupboard of Plastic Containers and Lids, is the Pile of Containers of Unknown Contents located in the refrigerator. They populate every shelf and every rack in the ‘fridge, and only my mother knows what’s in them. I’ve begged and pleaded with her to throw out the 1/5 oz of marmalade or the tablespoon of steak sauce, but to avail. Once, I tried to pour and ounce or two of an unused sauce down the drain while she wasn’t looking. She asked me what happened to the sauce, and I told her her. You’d think i had committed culinary genocide. “I’ could’ve used that sauce! Why did you do that? Damnit…” Never again have I tried to dump even an ounce of sauce. I simply leave the pot and the picking of the right container up to her.
Armchair sociologists will think this penchant for keeping our Piles is a uniquely Western trait and a sign of our greedy capitalist/consumerist society and culture. Know what that is? A Pile of Bunk. Mankind has been doing this for thousands of years. Think The Great Pyramids of Egypt were built as an homage to kings? No, no. They’re actually the world’s first Public Storage units–only they’re filled with King’s Piles of Gold-Laden Goodies. And hieroglyphics? Archeologists think they depict a king’s life. Nope, wrong again. What they really depict is a giant moving party of the King’s Piles into the pyramid—sans free pizza and beer.
The point is we all have our piles, stuff we don’t need or no longer use. Our Piles just sit there doing nothing, helping no one. But we keep our Pile near us anyway, just tucked out-of-the-way–or so we think. We cherish it, even get sentimental over idiotic things like furniture that’s hasn’t been handed down generation to generation but came from Ikea a few years ago. (“Oh, I had this futon in college. Those were such good days. Let’s keep it downstairs. Jimmy might use one day when he goes off to college.”) Truth is, Jimmy doesn’t want your beer and Top Ramen -stained, Marlboro-smelling lumpy crap of a futon, mom. But get it rid of it? Never. People have an easier time quitting smoking than they do parting with their beloved crap. This despite the fact that our friends the pharaohs gave us bumper-sticker adage of “You can’t take it with you” several thousands years ago. Do we heed it? Nope. We still think we can take it with us. So down in the basement goes mom’s futon.
For most, our Piles are fairly innocent, a closet of shoes, a drawer of favorite t-shirts, a collection of baseball cards; for others, the Piles are a real sign of mental sickness, people who are literally and slowly burying themselves to death in their own homes. (Watch the show “Hoarders” some time.)
I believe there’s something deeper at play, however. Our parish priest once gave a homily noting the rise in storage units popping up around the country. He made the observation that, by filling our lives with stuff, we are unconsciously attempting to fill the spiritual void in our lives we have from ignoring God. Though an atheist would disagree, I find a lot of truth to that. At least I think so for now. Maybe as I grow older and closer to my inevitable demise, I’ll get a Pile golf balls or golf towels or sea salts or greeting cards from past birthdays or baseball hats….oh wait, I already do that. Aw, crap. I’m already starting. Quick, I need a garbage bag and the address of the nearest St. Vincent de Paul’s.