When my 78-mother-in-law, DeAnne Mack, died suddenly in 2018, the chore of cleaning out the Omaha, Neb. house she’d lived in for over 50 years fell to my husband and me. We weren’t looking forward to it. DeAnne, we knew, had been hoarding for decades.
For my husband, the task of sifting through piles of his mother’s possessions — at first sight, mostly dime store junk and trash — unearthed long-held feelings of shame, embarrassment and anger. DeAnne’s hoarding had been a constant battle between the two of them for years. There was begging, threats and finally, punishment when my husband and his sister stopped visiting the home they’d grown up in.
DeAnne fell somewhere north of a “Level 2” hoarder: a few rooms unusable; piles stacked on furniture; overflowing trash cans; rotting food; mild odors; evidence of insect infestation. And the stage of grief we experienced after her death mimicked her hoarding level. We were firmly stuck in Stage 2 — anger (laced with guilt).
While we knew DeAnne had belonged to several local quilt groups, we had brushed off her hobby as just another avenue for her hoarding.
In the back of our minds, we always knew one day we’d be left to clean up the house. But we’d hoped DeAnne might miraculously change before that day came. We didn’t understand that this just wasn’t possible.
The Remarkable Surprises Inside Her House
The first few days after the funeral, the family sifted through layers upon layers of trash, filling a large dumpster but barely making a dent in the house.
Then, something incredible happened.
A friend of my mother-in-law’s offered to bring in an estate sale team she volunteered for through the local Kiwanis chapter. Once we had the worst of the trash out, they began the slow task of sorting the salvageable possessions from the mountains of junk. As they worked, though, they began discovering handmade quilts in various stages, a few complete, most half-done.
First one, then two, then four, and soon, a dozen. The bedspread-size quilts DeAnne had started lay unfinished in piles on floors. First-place ribbons from local quilt shows were pinned on many, tiny labels, “Handmade by DeAnne,” carefully sewn into back corners.
And then, it turned out, there were more than just quilts.
Many of DeAnne’s intricately detailed fiber art wall hangings lay buried on couches. They featured Asian geishas, Amish farm scenes, city skylines and hens and chicks.
A Hidden, Enormous Collection of Quilts and Paintings
While we knew DeAnne had belonged to several local quilt groups, we had brushed off her hobby as just another avenue for her hoarding. For Christmases and birthdays, she would often gift family with potholders, pincushions, table runners and other hand-made knickknacks, but the enormity of her “collection” was kept hidden. My husband felt with these “gifts,” his mother was just trying to move her junk into our house as hers overflowed.
As the estate-sale team tediously worked their way through the house, framed watercolor and oil-acrylic paintings by DeAnne were also unearthed from the garage and basement. Portraits of weathered barns and barbed wire fences, windmills on open prairies and snow-covered landscapes soon filled an entire room. Faded business cards saying “DeAnne’s Art,” some with prices handwritten in the corners, were found among the paintings.
When we saw the art, my husband said his mother painted in his youth, but had long since laid down her brush and taken up quilting as a new outlet for her obsessive spending and compulsive stockpiling.
Turns out, DeAnne’s talent as a multi-faceted artist had been buried for years — literally.
Turning Our Anger Into Sorrow
The more we uncovered, the more our anger toward my mother-in-law softened, evolving into sorrow, as we came to appreciate the colossal talent her hoarding had long overshadowed. We knew we wanted to see her work completed, and shared.
As we collected the remnants of DeAnne’s artistic life, we slowly began the task of getting the unfinished quilts finished, hiring a quilter from one of her local groups to complete some and traded material to a church group to finish another.
We also got many of her paintings framed.
Then, we invited extended family in to take one of DeAnne’s paintings or quilted pieces as a keepsake. And by summer, we had the first of two estate sales, billed as a “quilter’s paradise.”
DeAnne had amassed enough material to fill two fabric stores. Some quilts filled one bedroom — floor to ceiling; larger pieces took up the two front rooms. The image of 200 pairs of scissors graced the Facebook estate sale page. We laughed that DeAnne must have bought a new pair of scissors when one became lost under the piles of fabric. Finally, we could laugh.
The Quilt Walk in Her Memory
The summer after my mother-in-law’s death, we displayed a few of her traditional quilts and fiber art wall hangings in a local quilt walk, with a sign, “In Loving Memory~DeAnne Mack” on each quilt. We had failed during my mother-in-law’s lifetime to appreciate her talents and hoped that by displaying her work, others would recognize them.
On the day of the quilt walk, we strolled the gardens where DeAnne’s quilts hung on display, as admirers with white-gloved hands talked of her faux piped binding, intricate corners and appliquéd tops.
This summer, we hope to have our own public quilt walk that will include her watercolor and oil paintings.
Through this process, the complicated feelings of shame and anger my husband grew up with have transformed into acceptance and even pride as friends and strangers have recognized his mother’s immense artistic gifts. Her hoarding disorder was what she had, not who she was.
Her heirlooms serve as a reminder that underneath it all lay a gifted artist, even perhaps, a creative genius.
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
- The Creative Art of Quilting
- Intergenerational Quilters Connect a Community
- 6 Tips for Dealing With the Aftermath of a Family Hoarder
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