McHenry County Opinion

Oliver: Urge to declutter one’s possession might be tied to the reality of fleeting time

Clutter seems to be part of my DNA. Or maybe it’s a learned behavior that I picked up before I was aware of it.

My childhood bedroom was small, but it looked even smaller because I had stuff crammed along every bit of the wall space. The closet was also full, but half of it was taken up by my mother’s clothes.

My mother had clothes in every one of our closets. How she knew where anything was a mystery, although I didn’t think too much about it. It just meant that I had to cram my own things around hers.

Every so often, I would try to rearrange the chaos into some semblance of order. I might have been a packrat, but my need for organization also seems to be innate.

It wasn’t until I moved out for college that I started to be aware that too much stuff was, well … too much. Still, I wasn’t in a minimalist state of mind, either.

When I was starting out, I acquired items in a willy-nilly way. If someone was discarding a wicker trunk, I’d offer to take it. If they had an old sofa, I’d be all over that.

My decorating style could be described as necessity with a hint of desperation. It was anything but cohesive.

The other trait I seem to have picked up from my mother was the reluctance to get rid of anything. My mother grew up in the years right after the Great Depression, and no doubt she learned this from her own parents. Maybe you might need that item later, and you wouldn’t want to have to buy it again, or so the thinking goes.

I didn’t quite go as far with this as my mother, who thought nothing of having items covered in duct tape to hold them together. If something is broken beyond a reasonable repair, out it goes.

After marrying Tony, we embarked on setting up a household together. More thought went into the furniture purchases. But we’ve also been in the same place for almost 30 years. Stuff just accumulates over time, no doubt because we’re sure we’ll get to decluttering someday.

My desire to declutter came in earnest when my mother came to live with us in 2014. Our house has two bedrooms and the one that we used as a study became my mother’s room.

That meant that everything in that room had to go somewhere else. I knew Mom wouldn’t be with us forever, and I wasn’t about to get rid of all my stuff. Of course, that didn’t help the clutter situation.

After Mom died, I had to deal with her stuff and reevaluate ours. That second bedroom now is a hybrid office/guest room, and not everything went back into it.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was in the middle of a major decluttering project. Once a month I would stop by a donation site with a box or bag of items. I was making progress.

Once we all were trapped in our homes during the lockdown, the rest of the planet got the same idea. The only thing is, I lost all my motivation.

The past few months have found me getting back into the decluttering swing. Maybe it’s because I’m starting to hear an internal clock ticking.

At 55, there’s no longer a biological clock telling me that I’d better have a kid before I run out of time. No, it’s more of a clock reminding me that I’m not getting any younger. The longer I wait, the harder it will be to get rid of all those things. Those steps to the basement are steep, and there’s no telling how long my balky hips and knees are going to want to make that trip.

Also, the reality of living with someone with Alzheimer’s disease is that I don’t know how long Tony will be able to live with me. A day may come when he will have to live in a facility that’s better able to care for him. I just don’t want to be making decisions about household items through the grief I no doubt will feel after that move.

So, I’m dutifully going through everything now. And I laugh at myself when I find a Marshall Field’s sale flyer from 1997. Or an unopened pack of loose-leaf notebook paper that was bought at a Venture store.

Little by little, I’m getting it done, and the sense of relief and accomplishment is palpable.

Of course, I’ve always worked well under a deadline. Happily, though, the time’s not up yet.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.