For 60 years, Pa. woman kept everything, filling house now it's all for sale

September 29, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MEDIA, Pa. -- If there was one thing the Depression taught Emily May Edwards, it was how to save.

The Media resident was 31 when the stock market crashed. She had been saving for 60 years when she died in December. Not money -- the Depression had shown her how unreliable that could be -- but things, reassuring by their very presence and quantity.

Take a moment and try to imagine 60 years' worth of things. The broken toaster, the wobbly chair, the too-small clothes, the worn shoes, the scratchy records, the odd salt shaker -- all the things you've tossed over the years.

Imagine that every last one of them is back in your home. After conjuring that huge heap, realize that you would still have a way to go to top Emily Edwards.

By the time she died, the decades' worth of accumulated possessions were piled to within a foot of the ceilings in the old brick house.

Narrow pathways wound between the stacks. In her bedroom, the open space accommodated only the swing of the door. When her relatives started sorting through her belongings, at first they just opened the windows and threw things out to make enough space to work in.

"You get the feeling," said her niece, Elaine Saunders, "that she was expecting the millennium."

Everything will be sold at auction on three Fridays, starting this Friday, by auctioneer Robert Briggs of Booth's Corner, Pa.

What does one have to save to pack a room -- six rooms, actually, plus the attic, the basement and two garages -- to the ceiling? Just about everything that won't decompose.

Plastic foam meat trays, carefully washed, stacked, wrapped in waxed paper and tied in string. Jars full of the cardboard discs that topped milk bottles, when milk came in bottles. The bottles themselves. Four dining- room tables. In the three smallish bedrooms upstairs, 48 chairs. An organ. A player piano. Sets and sets of dishes, for a woman who never entertained. Sets and sets of pots and pans, for a woman who rarely cooked. Hundreds of glasses. Twenty-two pairs of hedge clippers. Dozens of shovels. More than 50 picks. Four stuffed squirrels.

Mrs. Saunders and her husband, Jim, spent weekends from December to July cleaning out the house. It took them until May to reduce the stacks to waist height. By then, they had unearthed the old Victrola, and Elaine Saunders could crank it up and listen to a warbly recording of "Over There" while she worked.

Along with the Victrola, they found wooden bowling balls, Model-T parts, homemade "feed-bag" dresses and a chair with a frame made entirely of steer horns.

"In a sense, it's been like Christmas. Every time I came out, I found something new and exotic," Mrs. Saunders said.

Emily Edwards -- a well-dressed woman with a booming voice -- (( was very much a product of an earlier era, Mrs. Saunders said.

She turned down her "one true love's" marriage proposal to take care of her parents and partially deaf brother in the house her father built. (The true love returned in 1988 after his wife died, only to be spurned because Miss Edwards felt that, after 70 years, they had grown apart.)

It wasn't until 1947, after her parents and brother had died, that she was free to get a job -- and the paycheck that gave her the wherewithal to buy things.

"Once she began working in Woolworth's [in Media] in the 1940s, she'd walk up and down the streets and get to know the women in the shops. They'd have sales, and she'd feel obligated buy," Mrs. Saunders said.

So Miss Edwards bought dresses. There were 700 in the house when she died. And hats -- 250. Shoes, too -- 200 pairs, size 7 triple-A, most of them barely worn. "Imelda Marcos had nothing on this lady," said Mrs. Saunders.

Despite her acquisitiveness, there was nothing selfish about her aunt, Mrs. Saunders said. "It's just that every time she bought my mother a set of dishes, she bought the same set for herself, too."

Many tools were found in the shop shared by Miss Edwards' father and her brother, George. "We figure he [George] had so much stuff that he'd buy something, sit it down, then it would get covered up and he'd go out and buy another," said Jim Saunders, who said he had brought home nearly 1,200 tools from Miss Edwards' house.

Fortunately, Mrs. Saunders said, no one else in the family seems to share Aunt Emily and Uncle George's predilection. Her father, Morris Edwards -- Emily's brother -- is a bit of a pack rat, "but he's countered by my mother, who's a throw-away type," she said.

Today, people who accumulate possessions as Miss Edwards did are recognized as having obsessive-compulsive disorder, said Michael Kozak, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Pennsylvania's Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.

"Hoarders" like Miss Edwards make up only a small percentage of people with the disorder -- less than 20 percent, he said. "Often that pattern involves a concern with getting rid of something that could be of use, or even important . . . so the resolution is not to throw stuff away," he said.

Though hoarding doesn't physically hurt anyone, "there's a certain amount of suffering that goes along with the anxiety. The reason people hoard is because of fear," he said.

Therapists treat the condition with drugs or behavior therapy -- say, gradually helping a hoarder become accustomed to throwing things away, he said.

Mrs. Saunders theorized that her aunt's hoarding had everything to do with the fact that most of her young adult years were spent unemployed. "You keep all of this stuff because you never know -- if the Depression comes back, you're ready.

"It was a good feeling for her, to have plenty. . . . Filling up her house was filling up her life."

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