Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard Magnificent Obsession: From One Eccentric to Another – Mary Thompson on her Late Mother Lucile Schaaf
For better or worse, the following story for the New Horizons is a reflection of what I do as a writer when allowed the opportunity to tell a story at length. I don’t claim that there’s anything special about my work, but if it is distinguished by anything, it is my interest in tapping into stories of passion and magnificent obsession, which is very much how I think of the subject of this piece – the late Lucile Schaaf. I then take that interest and try to express it to the best of my ability. I always wanted to tell this particular story, that is Lucile’s story. I never met the woman, but I heard tales about her and then I got to know one of her daughters, Mary Thompson, who is quoted extensively in the piece. I earlier profiled Mary in a story you can find on this blog entitled, Extremities. Mary’s mother, Lucile, the profile subject of the story below, was a kind of patron saint of the Old Market, the historic district in Omaha, Neb. that has been transformed from the former wholesale produce center to the cultural hub of the city. To get to the heart of a story like hers requires some space, and New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt is about the only one left around here that accords me the space I need to tell a story like this at the length I believe I need to communicate its layers and nuances. The Old Market was made by people like Lucile, eccentric visionaries who did their own thing and followed their own muse. There are many more Old Market stories I would like to tell. Writing this piece also only confirmed my very intentional niche as a journalist who tells the stories of people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. Like I said at the top, for better or worse it is my brand as a writer and it is what keeps me doing what I do.
My story about Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson, who is much quoted here, can be found on this blog. It’s entitled, “Extremities.”
Lucile looking out a window of her Old Market residence
Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard Magnificent Obsession: From One Eccentric to Another – Mary Thompson on her Late Mother, Lucile Schaaf
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
As once upon a time stories go, the late Lucile Ann Schaaf’s saga is a fractured fairy tale that like the pint-sized woman embodied herself, is made up of quirky twists and turns that leave you scratching your head or smiling.
When she passed away in 2009 at age 91, Schaaf was variously remembered as a mother, grandmother, entrepreneur, collector, preservationist, Christmas fanatic, and someone for whom the color orange was a personal brand.
After her marriage ended in divorce, Lucile, her children grown and flown the coop by then, asserted her independence and curiosity in a series of enterprising and creative adventures. Earlier in life, the former Lucile Duda exhibited an adventurous streak when, fresh out of Central High School, she left home to attend Scripps College, a women’s school in Claremont, Calif, where she studied art and architecture at a time when women pursuing higher education was a rarity.
Given the moxie it took to leave home for the west coast, it’s not surprising that years later she thought nothing of journeying all around the Midwest in search of architectural remnants from buildings and homes under the wrecking ball. Lucile developed a network of contacts in the demolition and salvage field that tipped her off to projects that might contain objects of interest. Whenever she got a lead on something, whether furniture or ornamental design elements, she set out to acquire it. Daughter Mary Thompson often accompanied Lucile on these treasure hunting jaunts.
“Mother became acquainted with a gentleman called Rock the Wrecker. I worked for him for many years driving a pickup and hauling all kinds of stuff. I would go to sites and I would help salvage and bring stuff back for Mother, and Mother and I would go on trips to demolition sites to gather materials. I carried wrecking tools behind the seat in my truck. Mom and I would take off and drive down to Kansas or over in Iowa or up to South Dakota if Rock would call to say, ‘We’ve got something, come get it,” said Thompson.
“We went to Des Moines (Iowa) one time time to get some marble clocks. It was rush hour and there were fire engines all over the place and when we finally got to the building it was on fire, but we got our stuff. Another time we drove to Coffeyville Kansas and we picked up an 18-foot chandelier, put it in the back of my El Camino and drove it back home.”
Then there was the time Lucile got it in her head that she had to have a double decker bus for sale two thousand miles away. This was in January. So, Thompson and her mother flew to High Point, N.C. and the intrepid duo drove the bus back to Omaha in the dead of winter.
“The whole trip was hilarious because we had all kinds of problems and everything else,” Thompson said of the experience as if were a big lark. “It was 20 below zero when we pulled into Omaha, wearing our snow mobile suits.”
But why a double decker bus?
“We used it for tours around the city,” said Thompson. “We’d take ladies groups, school groups. My kids were going to Jackson Elementary School at the time and anytime there was something the school needed to go to everybody from Jackson went in the double decker bus. They thought that was pretty nifty, and it was.”
Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson
The bus and tours were examples of Lucile and Mary, who closely resembles her mother, doing something just for the fun of it, no matter how impractical.
“That’s exactly right,” said Thompson,
Whatever Lucile thought up, her family fell right in line.
“We never questioned her or anything she did,” said Thompson. “It seemed, ‘Well, Mom did it, it must be right.’”
Thompson inherited Lucile’s sense of adventure and compulsion for collecting things. But where Mary’s collected most everything at one time or another, Lucile’s stockpiling was more focused on assembling stores of antique architectural details and Christmas decorations.
Said Thompson, “Her collecting was like anything, once you start, you can’t stop. You find a coin you’re really intrigued with and so you think, I’ll start collecting more coins like this, and pretty soon you’ve got an entire collection. If it’s a gorgeous stained glass window, well there’s another one, and so you get yourself to the point where pretty soon you’ve got a fabulous collection.”
For Lucile it meant acquiring everything from stained glass windows to bannisters to fancy doors to fireplace surrounds to built in wall units, and just about anything in between that caught her eye or captured her fancy.
“It just became more and more and more and more,” said Thompson. “People brought it to her too.”
The operating principle Lucile came to live by, said Thompson, is that “if it’s something that still has some life in it, it’s good, let’s not destroy it, let’s not put in the landfill. So she started acquiring all this stuff and saving it. It just goes back to the old adage that one person’s trash is somebody else’s treasure. That’s the fun of it “
“Work with what you have” was one of Lucile’s favorite sayings.
In this sense, said Thompson, Lucile’s emphasis on recycling things and preservation was well ahead of the curve.
Lucile’s obsessive collecting accumulated so many objects that she turned her passionate hobby into a business. Needing a place to store everything, she bought an abandoned Danish Lutheran church near downtown Omaha and converted it into an antique shop that she called Steeple Studios.
According to Thompson, “At one time Mother had the largest collection of antique architectural details between Chicago and San Francisco and people came from all over the country because they knew she had all this stuff.”
Lucile brought her business acumen and appreciation for history to the Old Market, where she became one of the pioneering merchants and denizens of that then fledgling enclave. In the late 1960s she was one of the early shop owners and one of the few residents in the former wholesale produce district that most city leaders and developers viewed as a wasteland.
Jeff Jorgensen and Joe Montello, whose Tannenbaum Christmas Shop in the Old Market occupies the same bay Lucile did business in at the southwest corner of 10th and Howard, got to know her as a benevolent landlord and neighbor. Montello had worked for her at The Place. They respected her as an Old Market original.
“She was definitely one of the first people who saw the potential of the Old Market,” said Jorgensen, adding that she recognized the area as not only a burgeoning commercial center and cultural-arts oasis but as a historic district in need of preservation. “I think what motivated her was finding new value in old things. It’s what made her such a natural to be an Old Market pioneer.”
Lucile put her money where her mouth was as owner-operator of The Place, a gift shop that expressed her eclectic tastes. She later had the Christmas Shop, a one-stop decorations and collectibles store, and The T Room sandwich shop. Lucile laid the brick walkway in front of her Howard Street bays. She was also active in the Old Market Business Association.
“I always thought she was pleased to see a Christmas shop continue here within her domain,” said Jorgensen. I think the fact that Joe worked for her and was involved here meant a lot to her too.”
She purchased adjoining buildings between the southwest corners of 10th and Howard and 10th and Jackson and converted them into her personal residence. What once housed Frank’e Cafe, the Pickwick Bar, Pioneer Uniform, a flophouse and a whorehouse, among other enterprises, became this lovable eccentric’s home. A walled-in courtyard or secret garden was created in back to offer a tranquil, private sanctuary amidst the Market’s hustle and bustle.
Schaaf was a recognizable figure in the Market or wherever she went because of her penchant for dressing entirely in orange, no matter the occasion. It’s hard to find a color photo of Lucile that doesn’t picture here in her flaming shade of choice.
There is an orange room in the Old Market residence. At one time Lucile had it entirely done over in her favorite color, complete with decorations and clothes, beautiful things, plain things, but in all instances orange things.
Antique dealer Vic Chickinelli hired her once and when he went out one day he came back to find she had painted the walls and shelving a bright orange. If Chickinelli asked her, as many did, Why orange?, her comeback would have probably been what she always said when people questioned her about it:
“Is there any other color?”
“She decided that that was the color of her life,” is how Thompson explains it.
So identified was Lucile with the color that she came to be known affectionally as the Orange Lady. At her Old Market shops she not only greeted you in full orange regalia, from head to foot, but took to wearing a clock around her waist set to ten minutes to four, or tea time, a reference to the tea party in Alice in Wonderland, a story she loved. She also loved throwing tea parties.
All in all, she fit right in with the other free spirits, artists and bohemians populating the Old Market.
“It was a good place for her,” said fellow Old Market pioneer Roger Durand, a designer and architect who opened a head shop there. “She was a real character, she was a real original, and she was a very colorful personality. Back in the early days it really took an adventuresome spirit to try and establish anything down there. It was an uphill struggle.”
For 30-some years Lucile’s 10th and Howard building was as much a warehouse for her collection of salvaged architectural remnants as it was a residence. Her dream was to incorporate these myriad details into the decor.
Working with an old-school master craftsman, Walt the Carpenter, the project made progress but then Walt took a bad fall, breaking his leg, and then her arthritis began slowing her down. However, she remained active enough to teach a water aerobics class at the YMCA.
Another daughter, the late Stephanie Schaaf, took it upon herself to fulfill Lucile’s dream. She hired a team of craftsmen to install, in some cases repurposing, hundreds of items — ranging from chandeliers to doors to stained glass windows to wrought iron gates — throughout the 7,300 square foot structure.
A kindred spirit of Lucile’s, Omaha architectural recycler Frank Horejsi, also described as an “urban miner,” said he liked what Lucile was doing with the place and he assisted Stefanie with getting the project done.
“If they had problems, I was kind of a go-to guy. It’s neat to see that old historic stuff incorporated. It’s a neat place.”
The result is a mosaic of a home of mixed and matched elements:
• Griffons from the original First National Bank Building adorn the exterior sides of Lucile’s place facing 10th Street and Jackson Street
• Crown molding from the old Cornhusker Hotel gilds the foyer
• Skylights from the Packers National Bank bathe the foyer in natural light
• Mahogany walls and stained glass cabinets from the City National Bank appoint the dining room
• Murphy bed doors from the Morris Hotel serve as ceiling panels above the dining room
• The great room, where receptions or dinner parties are held today, utilizes office doors from the City National Bank as wall panels, some with the names of the executives who toiled away behind them
• Telephone booth walls from the City National cover the ceiling
• The solid oak fireplace and leaded glass window in the sunroom hail from the Wilcox house in Council Bluffs
• Massive cabinets come from a physician’s home in Norfolk, Neb.
• French doors come from an opera house in Carroll, Iowa
And so it goes, on and on.
Roger Durand said the home is an expression of “the architectural odds and ends she found unusual uses for, and in aggregate they create sort of a world of Lucile.”
“What people sometimes don’t comprehend is that there was nothing here, it was a blank canvas, and it was my mom’s vision in putting things together and making it a whole unit that brought it to life,” Thompson said with admiration.
Almost everything in Lucile’s Old Market retreat originated elsewhere, salvaged off-site and brought there, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Only Lucile knew how they were supposed to fit together.
“She could find things and just know exactly where she was going to put the pieces in,” said granddaughter Amy Waskel, whose mother, Stefanie, became Lucile’s caregiver and legacy keeper.
Not everything Lucile collected at the Old Market place was used. There was so much inventory left over that an estate sale was held over two weekends.
The Old Market residence was not Lucile’s first salvage project. Thompson said her mother built a cabin near Merritt’s Beach using almost entirely recycled materials. There was apparently a recycle streak in the family’s DNA because Thompson said her grandparents built a farmhouse out of reclaimed materials long before that.
“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” is how Thompson puts it. “Mom had the ability to visualize something not for what it was but for what it could be, and I feel I’m blessed with that also because if you look at my house you see how I intertwined everything into it.”
Mary’s Little Italy area home and another she owns next door overbrim with the surplus of her own collecting habit. Her affliction for acquiring and holding onto things was portrayed earlier this year on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” reality television series.
There is a like-mother-like daughter pattern at play in the family. Other ways Mary takes after her mother is with a flair for entertaining and a wardrobe fixation, not with a certain color per se, but with hats. Mary’s fondness for hats grew to a collection of hundreds. So identified is Mary with her crowns of glory that she’s known as the Hat Lady. Until “Hoarding” she was perhaps best known as the Tax Lady for all the returns she filed for people as an IRS agent and AARP volunteer.
Mary doesn’t mind being known as a hoarder now that she’s taken steps to declutter her life with the help of professionals, friends and family, including a “Stuff” sale at the Bancroft Street Market in September.
For a long time, said Mary, her mother’s Old Market residence was overrun with artifacts that sat unboxed and uncovered, subject to the effects of not just dust but of the many critters, mostly cats and dogs, she kept. Mary’s also a cat lover.
“Stuff had been heaped in piles for so long,” Thompson said of her mother’s place.
Lucile was renowned for how elaborately she decorated her previous home in the Gold Coast neighborhood, but for the longest time the Old Market residence was more a storage and work space then a living space — more potential than realization, awaiting the day when Lucile’s vision for it would be complete.
“It wasn’t a pretty house like she was used to,” said Waskel. “Moving in here she just got down and dirty. That’s why finishing it was so important and that’s why it’s fun showing it off now and why it’s going to be fun decorating it for the holidays.”
Even though Lucile’s gone now, Waskel said she and other family members feel her presence watching over them, noting their every move. “She knows we’re not going to do it as well as she did. The joke within the family is that she’s going to be sitting there going, ‘You should do this.’ She was a perfectionist.”
Despite never decorating the place for Christmas, Lucile’s main floor bedroom was trussed up for the holidays once she became bed-ridden in 2004, and even then she liked calling the shots.
“We would decorate her room for her,” said Waskel. “We would put up a little Christmas tree for her and she enjoyed that because she enjoyed telling people how to do it and it never being right — well, not to her standards.”
An incongruity about Lucile was that she could be a stickler about everything being just so, yet she could live like an Old Mother Hubbard surrounded by artifacts strewn loosely everywhere. Her Gold Coast home was impressive, said Mary, yet Lucile shared the place with her cats and even a pet rooster. Things only got more unkempt in the Old Market.
Waskel said Nebraska Educational Television did a story on her grandmother as an example of “how not to save your antiques — like this is what you don’t do. We have a lot of damage to wood. Some of the stuff is just so far gone. The whole back area was just full of wood and dust and dirt. A lot of it was junk.”
She said it took countless man hours to clean up the mess.
“We had to finish everything,” said Waskel, who helped Stefanie in completing Lucile’s dream. “And we’re still working on it.”
Waskel, who as event coordinator at what is now called Lucile’s Old Market is tasked with booking events there and maintaining the cavernous space, has a new appreciation for all that her grandmother and mother did.
“I’m here everyday and there’s not nearly the work to do that my mom did or that my grandmother did and I still feel overwhelmed and go, How the hell did they do it?”
Lucile’s is still in the family, only now as a singular rental showplace that hosts weddings, dinners and all manner of private parties and receptions. Tours are available by appointment. Old Market Gallery Walks generally include a stop there. And it’s a featured spot on the December 11 Holiday Lights Tour
The woman for whom the building is named never saw the project completed as her eyesight declined severely in old age. Due to her diminished vision she became somewhat reclusive near the end of her life. For a long time though she was a public figure whose passions grew into magnificent obsessions enjoyed by thousands.
First, there was her fixation with Christmas displays. For the first half of her life she contented herself with the usual yuletide garnishes. But when she moved into the big home at 38th and Dewey Avenue it’s like a switch went on and she felt inspired to trim the multi-story edifice from top to bottom, complete with fully dressed trees, wreaths, garland, candy canes, stockings, Santas and lights.
It all started with a Christmas tea organized by Lucile.
Mary Thompson remembers how what began as a small, semi-private affair for mothers and daughters grew into a public extravaganza:
“My older sister’s class was invited and we made little cut-out white bread finger sandwiches with butter and powdered sugar over them, and Mom had us stand in a receiving line to meet everybody. It became a Christmas tradition. Every year a little more was added. Pretty soon it got so that during the month of December Mom had the house decorated from top to bottom, and every year it got bigger and better.
“We invited people from church and school. Others heard about it and came. We would all dress up. The last Christmas tea we had became an open house and we probably had about a thousand people. People came from all around.”
The Christmas House became a destination stop, complete with tours.
By the time Lucile stopped putting on the Christmas tea in the 1970s, she and her soiree and decorations had become so well known, said Thompson, that “people that wanted to get a hold of Mother would address mail to the ‘Christmas House, Omaha, Neb.‘ and it actually came to the house.”
Lucile didn’t stop at decorating her home. She also took charge of decorating the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church and the big Xmas tree at the old Union Station (Durham Museum). Then there was the Christmas Shop. It’s why Lucile was known as the Christmas Lady.
“The whole situation became such a passion for Mom,” said Thompson. “This was her outlet.”
Whether people knew her as the Orange Lady or the Christmas Lady, Jeff Jorgensen said “she enjoyed both of those roles very much. She made an impression on lots of people she came into contact with. She really wasn’t eccentric at all but if you thought she was I think that probably made her very happy.” On reflection, Jorgensen added, “Maybe she was a little.” Or as Joe Montello once described her: “She wasn’t afraid to be unique in her own way.”
The phrase “let your freak flag fly” refers to the uninhibited Luciles of the world.
The decorum at the fancy tea parties was sometimes shattered by a silly or peculiar happening, like the time Lucile’s pet rooster, Lucky, turned party crasher.
“One time this woman was sitting on the couch with her coffee and cake and there comes Lucky out of the kitchen. It looks around and comes over and takes that cake right off the lady’s plate,” said Thompson.
Another time, a visitor got more than she bargained for on a tour.
“When my two kids and I were living at Mother’s home our rooms were up on the third floor, and since the bedrooms were all decorated we slept in the 7-by-12 walk-in closets,” said Thompson. “This one time I put the kids to bed and Mother phoned from downstairs that these people were on their way up. So I stepped into my closet, closed the door and sat on a chair waiting for the tour to come through. I’m sitting in there when this woman opens the door — and the look on her face was priceless. I just said, ‘Hello,’ and she stepped backward, closing the door behind her. I could hardly wait for them to leave so I could run downstairs and tell Mother.”
They had a good laugh over that one.
Faux pause aside, Thompson said Lucile had a lot of Martha Stewart in her.
“She was a gracious, grand hostess, and she set a beautiful table. She was a fabulous cook. My sister and I learned all these culinary skills from our mother. These are things we did automatically and we didn’t even think about it.”
Lucile never got to play grand hostess at her Old Market residence, but she approved of opening it up to parties and took vicarious pleasure in the first events held there a few years ago. And even though by the end she couldn’t see much besides light, she helped guide her daughter Stefanie and her granddaughter Amy in finishing out the place. All concerned are satisfied the interior is a close approximation of what Lucile intended.
Until opened as a rental space, the building’s street-level windows were boarded up, peaking the curiosity of passersby, who could only make out tantalizing tidbits. Some peepers climbed the gates for a glimpse inside a second floor window.
Thompson said some naturally mistook the residence for an antique shop. Only family, friends and area merchants and residents knew the truth. Now that it’s a much-in-demand rental space, the reputation and history behind it, and the story of the woman who made it possible, Lucile Schaaf, are becoming more widely known. Yet Amy Waskel said most first-time visitors remark “we had no idea this was here.”
“The whole thing just started with, ‘I’ve got these things, I’ve got this place, I’ve got this box, I’ve got all these things inside it, let’s put it together. It was thinking outside the box,” said Thompson, “and look at what she’s got, she’s got a box of fabulous things and wonderful memories. I’m hoping one day it’s a museum. I think more people could enjoy it if we could do more with it. But it’s an old building and it needs a lot of things done to it.”
Old and imperfect as it is, Jorgensen said, “it’s perfect for the Old Market. I mean, it’s adaptive reuse, it’s work-with-what-you-have, it’s an example of finding new faces for old places. That’s what she did. She found new life for a building and an area that needed a new reason to exist. Lucile had that vision for what it could be.”
The Mercer family of Omaha, headed by Samuel Mercer, led early efforts in transforming the former City Market into the Old Market. Mercer Management, which Sam’s son, Mark, heads, is still the primary property owner and developer there. Mark said his father felt that he and Lucile “shared a desire to see the Old Market buildings restored and reanimated by local individual businesses. He always had a cordial and friendly relation with her.”
Artist and arts administrator Ree Kaneko, who first got to know Lucile during the Old Market’s emergence in the late ’60s-early ’70s, said, “the Lady in Orange was a wonderful soul.”
Jorgensen said not having Lucile around is “a major loss.” But her world lives on at Lucile’s Old Market, 510 South 10th Street. To book an event or arrange a tour, call 341-3100 or visit http://www.lucilesoldmarket.com.
- Gary Kastrick’s Project OMAHA Loses its Home Base (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Passion for Fashion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Long and Winding Saga of the Great Plains Black History Museum Takes a New Turn (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Olde Good Things Store Profile (apartmenttherapy.com)
- A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley (guardian.co.uk)
- Not Built to Last: China’s Overused Wrecking Ball (time.com)
Extremities: As Seen on TLC’s ‘Hoarding: Buried Alive’ – Hoarder Mary Thompson Takes Her Life Back One Piece at a Time
UPDATE: My friend Mary Thompson’s hoarding got her featured on TLC and since the story I wrote about her last year she’s made steady progress decluttering her home and her life. So much so that she’s been able to reclaim the furniture she had to move out to make room for her stuff and she’s thrown off the shackles of her old job for a new one. She proves one is really never too old to change.
The first time I went to Mary Thompson’s home to get my taxes done I knew I’d walked into a story. She is a hoarder with a compulsion to collect a seemingly endless number of things and an inability to throw anything away. For years neither she nor I made any comment about the condition of her place. But the mass of stuff everywhere, the difficulty moving around in her home, the fact that even the staircase was littered with things, plus the ever-present cats, all amounted to the 800-pound gorilla in the room that even though never acknowledged always weighed heavy on our meetings.
As Mary and I got to know each other better, and I shared some of my own eccentric, even addictive tendencies, we began to talk a bit more openly about ourselves. Then one day I flat out asked if I could profile her for an Omaha publication, making sure she understood that meant discussing her affliction with hoarding. She agreed. Nothing came of it until late 2009 when she called to tell me she was going to be profiled on a cable TV reality series about hoarders. So we chose that as the hook to hang my story about her on, as my editors might put it. The resulting piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and I am pleased to report that Mary liked what I did with it, neither overdramatizing her story nor avoiding its extremities, the word I chose for the title or headline. Mary is much more yet than what I portray in the piece, but given the space limitations I had to work with I think I captured enough of her to satisfy both of us.
My story about Mary’s late mother, the equally eccentric Lucile Schaaf, can be found on this blog as well. It’s entitled. “Lucile’s Old Market Mother Hubbard Magnificent Obsession.”
Extremities: As Seen on TLC’s ‘Hoarding: Buried Alive’ - Hoarder Mary Thompson Takes Her Life Back One Piece at a Time
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The front door to this Old Mother Hubbard house opens to reveal a small, vibrant woman who gingerly ushers you inside. The caution is a concession to the bursting-at-the-seams interior, where there’s but inches to spare in any direction due to a staggering assortment of things splayed out before you. Wherever you look, a pastiche of shapes, colors and masses catches your eye. A sprawling assemblage of grab-bag miscellany.
If this were a department store warehouse, the sheer volume of goods heaped about in piles, columns, stacks and bundles would rightfully be called inventory. Only this is retired IRS agent Mary Thompson’s home. All three floors over-brim this way. As do the basement and storage spaces under eaves and stairs.
So what does that make this snarl of odds and ends? Junk? Not unless you count Fifth Avenue designer hats junk. Not everything is so swank. But hoarders like Mary have strong emotional attachments to everything they own. Nothing is inconsequential to them.
Her affliction is profiled Sunday at 9 p.m. in the TLC series, Hoarding: Buried Alive. A crew twice visited her Little Italy home to chart her journey of surrender.
In a recent interview at her place, she said, “It’s become easier for me to disown things, to give up ownership.” A daughter, Becca, helps her sort through the maze for recycling or Goodwill donation. She said her mother’s tendency to ritualize the sorting draws out the process.
Yet, a second-floor den previously inaccessible is now an oasis or sanctuary amid the chaos. A spot where Mary can relax alone or entertain guests.
“I love it — the feeling that I get from having an empty place where I can come in, sit down, have a glass of wine, and visit,” she said. “I have a place that’s clear. I walk through this empty space and it feels so good.”
The rest of her home however is so constricted she barely has room to sleep on the floor. Her main furniture is “visiting” other homes for lack of anywhere to put it in her own. What’s there is buried under mounds of mishmash. The organized clutter represents her eclectic interests and fixations on display: hats and cashmere sweaters (hundreds each), dresses, costume jewelry, luggage, thousands of books, board games, silverware sets, catering equipment, tools, office supplies…
It’s not that she’s so possessive she won’t give anything away. Her daughter-in-law, Christy, said, “she’ill give you the shirt off her back. She’s very kind.” For all her generosity though, Christie said her mother-in-law can’t stand to part with anything if she doesn’t know what’s going to happen with it.
Suggest her possessions must represent a lifetime’s collecting and Mary says, “No, this accumulation is just from 1986.” The bungalow next door is hers, too — the basement stuffed; the garage between the two dwellings completely filled as well.
Then there’s the cats. Feral ones outside and domesticated ones indoors.
Big house items are packaged, bagged, boxed, loose. Mirrors and paintings adorn walls. Vases line mantels. Even the staircase is a makeshift storage conveyor.
“I’ve been collecting stuff forever,” said Mary, whose late mother, Lucille Schaaf, was an eccentric known for her acquisition of all things Christmas and of architectural remnants. Lucille was dubbed the Christmas Lady for the elaborate Xmas displays she mounted and the Lady in Orange for her penchant of dressing in orange from head to foot. She became one of the original Old Market denizens.
Mary, who does not argue she is an eccentric herself, is variously known as the Hat Lady, the Tax Lady and the Tax Witch.
“I’m what a lot of people refer to as a collector’s collector,” she said, “because if they’re looking for something specific they can call me, and if I don’t have it I know where I can find it. I probably use that to justify my junk shopping.”
Since the TLC shoot she said she’s only been to a thrift or pawn shop once. “In a sense it’s like withdrawal,” she said of dropping her old habit.
Her children long pestered her to clean house. It’s not like she was oblivious to its disarray. She acquired self-help books with the titles Simply Your Life, Organize from Within and Let It Go. “I’ve been trying,” she said. “That’s hard.” She appreciates the disconnect between intent and reality.
She’s paid a price for her home’s over-run condition, saying her children “didn’t even want my grandkids to come over because they feared for their safety. What does it take to admit you have a problem and you need some help?” In her case, she said, it took committing to the TLC program before admitting “I should probably do something about it.” She found TLC’s call for hoarders on Craig’s List and responded, never imagining she’d be selected.
“When she made the first step I knew she was going to make it work,” said Christy, whom producers flew in for the taping. “Others tried helping before but she wasn’t ready to do it. She’s come a long way.” “We’re really proud of her,” said Becca.
The show stipulated Mary work with a psychologist and professional organizer. Her family agreed to lend support. and Mary agreed to accept it. She said her family’s been “super” pitching in with the purge that proceeds ever so slowly.
When the crew arrived the first time in December, she said, “I had accepted it and I was ready for it.” She said the experience turned out to be “one of the funnest things I ever signed up for.” Her only worry was the crew “breaking something.” She said “they were gentle up to a point.” Only a couple mishaps, The consensus of the family is the crew were sensitive to Mary’s situation, not exploitive.
Producer Krys Kornmeier said, “I feel my job is to tell these people’s stories as honestly and genuinely as I can.” She said she hopes viewers come away aware there is no “quick-fix” for compulsive hoarding. “It’s an ongoing issue that needs ongoing support and I think Mary’s got a great family that’s supportive.”
Christy said Mary went through highs and lows during the filming but handled the intrusion and transparency well. “They were long days, but she was a trouper.”
Kornmeier added, “Mary was gracious and funny. She went along with it, but I’m sure she had moments. It’s really hard to ask for help when you’re as independent and competent as she is.” As for comparisons, she said some subjects “have less stuff, some have more stuff, but what they all have is too much stuff, and they’re all overwhelmed in some form or another by their stuff. Mary’s included in that.”
She said what Mary did to go from “goat trails” to clearing out a salon-like sitting room marked real progress. “She was as excited as I was to see it.”
Weeks after the shoot, hints of denial persist. For example, Mary said when she watches other hoarders on TLC she concludes, “I don’t think I’m as bad as a lot of them.” What she calls “my multitasking” and “hints of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)” interfere with her progress. “I sometimes get easily distracted,” she said. The incessant phone calls she takes from folks seeking tax advice interrupt the clean-up. She runs the local AARP office’s tax assistance program, one of many activities that keep her on the go.
“It’s frustrating, but I’m the one who has offered myself to everybody. I sometimes find I don’t understand the word or the concept no.”
Still, with the help of Becca and a handyman named Stanley, Mary’s feeling a sense of relief and hope she can reach her goal of having enough cleared away by her July 5 birthday to move her furniture back in. Others aren’t so optimistic but they note that at least she’s visualizing action steps.
“People say there’s even a difference in me, that I seem much lighter and freer, that I’m excited talking about getting this done,” said Mary. “Well, I am, I really am. I don’t regret it. It’s one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever embarked on.”
If nothing else, she said, “I realize I’m not alone in this.”
As for having her story out there, she said, “when it’s going to be on television it’s not going to be pretty.” She expects people “might be embarrassed” for her. Some are sure to be shocked she lives like this. “I’ll get over it,” she said. “Everybody’s got some of those tendencies — what’s wrong with being truthful?”
The task ahead is daunting as she’s barely scratched the surface of what’s a multi-year project. The removal of an object or a bin-full can take days or weeks. as she must convince herself she can let it go. Becca said, “It’s baby steps. She recognizes that and we recognize that. If we were to get in there and really push and not have any respect for her emotions then we would lose her immediately. She has to make those decisions. I’m not going to deny her that.”
Mary’s self-aware enough to know she’s not there yet.
“I’m still working on it. It’s a work in progress. I’ve got a long way to go. But I made up my mind, I’m going to get it done, I am going to get it done, I will have it done.”
- In a Hoarder’s Home, Going All Out to Find the Floor (nytimes.com)
- Drowning in junk: Hoarding called a public health issue (cnn.com)
- Hoarding disorder can consume households (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Under the Clutter: The Psychology Behind Hoarding (foxnews.com)
- Hoarding: How Collecting Stuff Can Destroy Your Life (time.com)