The Cluttered Life: Grey Gardens a Cautionary Tale for the Chronically Disorganized Mom
How a spooky documentary and cleaning out my closet helped me find some balance amongst the chaos.
The other night, as I worked through the horror of discovering I could not access my On Demand feature through Verizon (curse them) and watch another naughty episode of Game of Thrones on HBO, I found myself scrolling through the guide until another show caught my eye.
I clicked “Ok” and found myself engrossed, and slightly repelled, by the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. It’s a cautionary tale of an aging mother and daughter living in abject squalor in a sprawling East Hampton shingled mansion, as their tale of broken dreams, with a side dish of crazy, unspools before the camera.
Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Beale would have served as perfect fodder for TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive or Hoarders on A&E, with their piles of newspapers and cats defecating behind oil portraits lying on the floor.
The couple lived for decades in isolation until East Hampton officials tried to evict them and raze the seaside home because of the state of decay that had set in: a legion of cats prowling the property, raccoons in the attic, a flea infestation, mounds of garbage and lack of running water. They received a last-minute reprieve when Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, cousin and niece to the pair, gave money to stabilize the home and satisfy village codes. A feature story in New York magazine and ensuing documentary seared them for eternity as cultural icons of mad hoarding.
I fell into the film halfway through, but had already heard enough about Grey Gardens—the documentary cum Broadway show cum HBO movie— over the years to quickly assimilate. What especially fascinated me was the amount of time Big Edie seemed to spend in her bed in some state of undress, sporting a floppy beach hat to compliment her disheveled grey hair and horn rimmed glasses. And I say “in” her bed, when it was really kind of “on” an uncovered, heavily stained mattress, draped by a sheet and surrounded with clutter: papers, kitchen utensils, tissue boxes and cats.
Eventually, the documentary came to its sad and haunting end and I made my way upstairs to my own bedroom. As I was pushing aside all the debris littering my bed—papers, books, receipts, iPad, a cat—I thought, “It’s goddamn Grey Gardens around here.”
I have always had a secret little hoarding issue, making piles of books, newspapers and magazines throughout the house. I like to pile the kids' things on the stairs (hoping beyond hope they’ll scoop up the shoes and Pokemon cards as the pass) and have a decorative bowl brimming with backpack notices on the kitchen counter. Now that my office is set up along one side of my bedroom, the detritus from my personal and professional life snakes across my bed and any available surface is piled with bank statements and press releases.
I'm chronically disorganized, which is coupled for a penchant for hanging onto things "just in case" (explaining a drawer full of rubberbands and a coat closet stuffed with shopping bags).
In the past I’ve joked with my hair gal, Lorraine, about my Grey Gardens existence and that I was destined to end up crushed by a stack of books and magazines (clearly mixing the Beales with the Collyer brothers and more trouble with hoarding). So when I told Lorraine that I had taken in a cat last year that my daughters had found in our garage (you don’t even want to know about the mess in there), she burst out laughing and said, “It’s starting!”
Interestingly, since school has let out, my two teenage daughters have been purging their rooms and closets with great zeal and brought that energy into my own room recently—an anti-hoarding campaign. They threw open the door of my small, walk-in closet, which I used to share with my ex-husband, but now find it hard to imagine that he was able to fit even a tie in there with all the reusable bags and flip flops bursting off the hooks and shelves.
As the girls pulled out a maternity dress (my youngest child is eight) and my leather pants from 1995, we decided we’d use the code Grey Gardens to signify what stays and what needs to get the heave-ho. As in: The short-waisted white faux fur jacket from Forever 21? Fabulous in Sasha Fierce kind of way. That sparkly swing maternity dress I wore six-months pregnant for New Year’s Eve 1996? Grey Gardens.
They laughed at me and chastised me for hanging on to outdated items like a Target knock off Burberry pantsuit and long brown suede wrap skirt, while procuring a few youngish or outgrown items for themselves. Soon, the contents of my closet were strewn in piles around my room, alongside the previously mentioned piles, creating what could only be called a Grey Gardens effect.
As I started to get agitated with the mess they were making, I watched my older daughter twirl around in a floor-length snakeskin print dress, while the younger daughter tottered around in hot pink high heels, and I thought better of freaking out. How many more chances would I get to spend a few hours with my girls laughing late into the night?
Unlike the Beales, I realize that there will come a time that all my children will need to move on, and it will be sad, but at least there will be a lot less stuff lying around.
So if it means contending with a mini-Grey Gardens in the meantime, I will make peace with my piles (just no more cats).