--2 Mother Tongue: Room & Hoard
Aug. 22, 2017
Syliva's hidden midden
Lauren Whitehurst

Mother Tongue: Room & Hoard

Using stuff for good

November 15, 2014, 4:00 pm
By Lauren Whitehurst

Hide-and-seek is called cache-cache in France. Back here in New Mexico, it’s spot-on terminology for one of my 4-year-old daughter Sylvia’s special activities. Cache comes from old French and Latin verbs for hiding/storing up/constraining/collecting. Sylvia’s cache-cache is true to its etymological roots, with her distinctive addition of “utterly random shit.”

It began with assemblages she’d squirrel away in bed, and still does. Whereas her older brother, Theo, is devoted to a plush donkey and a lanky stuffed monkey named Murphy, Sylvia generally favors a rotating inventory of hard objects and sharp-cornered books. This goes back to when she’d climb out of her crib for midnight hunting expeditions and then climb back in with her spoils.

It continues. Some nights, she goes to bed with her hard-edged cuddle buddies. Other times, she falls asleep with a doll, and, when I straighten her blankets in the morning, I find she’s actually slept with two spoons, a ball-point pen, a tissue box filled with tissues once extracted and then restuffed, an empty Gatorade bottle, Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library and a pair of tap shoes full of sand.

Sand in the sheets aside, it’s funny to lift up her pillow and find, instead of pajamas, a couple handfuls of Band-Aids, three vintage My Little Ponies and the 2-inch thick Food Lover’s Companion comprehensive dictionary of culinary terms. It doesn’t end here, though. She’s extended cache-cache beyond her bed for a good year.

Like a pack rat, she creates nest chambers around our house and fills them with treasures: ballet slippers, naked baby dolls and kitchen utensils; sticks, rocks, spent geraniums and crumbling leaves; the contents of a dresser drawer, highlighting swimsuits and underwear. Zoologists study debris piles, or middens, of pack rats for habitat and climate-change clues. Sylvia’s longest surviving middens date from early 2014, when she packed small collections of sippy-cup parts, Lego bricks, doll clothes and barrettes beneath various cushions at my parents’ house. My parents occasionally still find her caches and mail them to us in ziplock baggies.

Sylvia’s behavior is maddening when I, say, try to pick up the house or come across the 40 stamps I just bought all stuck on top of each other in the dollhouse staircase. It’s annoying to discover a board game’s entire scoresheet pad ripped up and stuffed in a teakettle. But I’ve assumed her hidden piles are just a childhood oddity. When I Googled “preschooler stockpiling stuff,” however, I get search results like, “Is Hoarding a Problem for Your Child?”, “My 5-Year-Old is Hoarding!!!!”, “Strange Hoarding Play Method in 3.5 Year Old,” and “Hoarding Disorder in Toddlers.” Yikes.

I have wondered if her sneaky swiping of business cards and art postcards—for storing in her middens and various handbags—indicate a penchant for thievery. But it didn’t occur to me that her stashing behavior might be a psychiatric condition, a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder or a coping response to a troubled past life.

It’s not all that different from our dog, Sophie, who steals socks—only socks, and mostly only the nice pairs—and buries them around the backyard. Come to think of it, it’s not all that different from me. I am a nest builder. My desk is a veritable midden! When I went to college in Massachusetts, I packed Colorado rocks, and then I moved them with me to Seattle with even more special rocks and some New England birch bark. A couple jars of West Coast sea glass expanded these treasures when I moved back to Southwest via Wyoming.

Currently, we are remodeling our utility room, which means that we’ve been living for two months in a tunnely, towery den of things we’ve acquired over the years—relics of my husband’s and my previous and current lives that we can’t part with and that are torturing us until we can re-stow them on new shelves. That our piles are more neatly categorized than Sylvia’s doesn’t necessarily give us the high ground.

The first time Sylvia’s stockpiling made sense to me was when I put her and Theo in the same bedroom without properly preparing her, or her space. I moved her kiddie fold-out couch into Theo’s room so she could just try it out. In short order, she was back and forth between her room and his with selected piles of stuff—a water bottle, a stack of books, clothes, a couple dolls and stuffed animals, about 30 Post-It Notes and cowboy boots. She arranged these all around her couch-bed. It was obvious, in a sweet, heartrending sort of way: She needed her things around her to make her feel more comfortable; she needed to create her own space within Theo’s.

It’s not that far a jump to think she’s taking comfortable bits of home with her when she leaves the house with a purse and shopping bag filled with skirts, receipts, scuba goggles and tiny notebooks. The fact that she’s trailing a crown, a doll and some carnival tickets across the sidewalk is immaterial; she feels prepared and ready for anything. I leave the house in much the same way.

We colonize our own pocket spaces whether we’re 4 or 40—in our homes, our offices, library cubicles and the front seats of family cars. I think even minimalists must do this. We deem things especially “ours,” reflective of our styles and predilections, our reading habits, our family histories. We fill cabinets with items recalling particular places, people and times. Things are, in the end, just things, but we cannot simply disregard their value. For Sylvia, the bizarre little piles that make her feel a sense of ownership, a sense of power and sense of self are, perhaps, invaluable. And, if I start to worry about them as harbingers of pathological adult hoarding, I now know that there’s plenty of online support for that.


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