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What Breed of Pack Rat Would You Be?

I have to get a copy of the new novel by E.L. Doctorow, which takes its inspiration from the lives of the eccentric Collyer brothers, Langley and Homer, who lived and died in an inherited New York brownstone that, by the end, the pathological pack rats had piled high with everything from old magazines to car parts. The men's hoarding, in fact, was central to their end, when, in 1947, a tunnel of junk collapsed on Langley, suffocating him and trapping poor, blind Homer, who starved to death.

I've always been fascinated by people who compulsively collect things, especially as they grow old. A couple of years ago, my husband's elderly aunt died in the smallish tudor home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in which she had spent basically her entire life--much of it alone after her parents passed away.

When my husband and his sisters went to clean out her belongings, they found the house overflowing with Christmas decorations and kitchen gadgets, many in unopened boxes. Carrot peelers, Santa pillows, garlic graters, miniature trees, egg timers, angel ornaments--you name it, she had it in spades.

I had only a passing acquaintance with this aunt, maintained entirely through letters. But I've been itching to know why she fixed on the items she did. The Christmas paraphernalia I can sort of understand. For many people, the holiday season is all about family and togetherness and sentimentality and nostalgia and magic. I can see how someone, especially someone older who lived alone, might want to surround herself with that feeling.

But why kitchen gadgets? This aunt wasn't known to be much of a cook. And most of the items were unused. But there they were, piled in cabinets, stuffed in drawers, and scattered across counters. Was this simply a case of her ordering whatever appeared on late night infomercials, or was there another element at play? Had she dreamed of being a chef or of having a huge family to cook for? Did she harbor comforting kitchen-based memories from childhood? She had, in reality, been a moderately successful model, mostly in magazine ads, beginning when she was just a child. Maybe at some point she wondered what life would have been like if she had been a big, fat gal with a gift for soul-food cooking.

Am I overanalyzing? Of course. But I also start to wonder: I have certain compulsive tendencies. If I have the good fortune to live into my late 70s, what might I have the urge to amass? I'd like to think it would something useful like Swiss chocolate or French wine. But that never seems to be the way of such impulses. More likely I'll find myself surrounded by headless Barbie dolls and back issues of Bassmaster.

I just pray that I don't wind up suffocted by a pile of old "Palin for President" bumperstickers.