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'90s FAMILY : More's the Pity : Clutter, clutter everywhere and not an item can you spare? Better think again. Pack-rat tendencies are not just embarrassing: They can frazzle relationships.

November 29, 1995|ANN SHIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you have 10 pairs of polyester bell-bottoms in the back of your closet and your garage can park only a wheelbarrow, it may be time to act. Especially if your nearest and dearest are not laughing about it anymore.

George and Echo Kukachek of Ventura banter about their problem, just a mild blip in their congenial home. He's the saver; she's the tosser.

"He hangs on to any kind of paper that comes in the mail and saves coupons we never use," she says. Her solution is a clothes basket in the closet where she piles up such items as her husband's petroleum technology magazines. "If he wants to curl up in the clothes basket and read he can."

Iva Grant is the saver, her husband, Jim, the tosser in the Ventura home they share with their two young children. She can't part with baby clothes, egg cartons, coffee cans and meat trays.

"Actually, one time my baby sitter and one of the kids made a caterpillar out of an egg carton," says Iva, laughing. Her humor fades when her husband goes into what she calls his cleaning frenzies and starts to organize everything. "When he starts to clean my office, I go crazy."

Sometimes these disputes over clutter wind up in a therapist's office, as in the case of a couple counseled by Genie Wheeler, a clinical social worker and co-author of "Handbook of Marital Therapy" (Plenum Press, 1980). "They were really fighting over territorial rights, her artwork versus his fishing tackle, golf clubs, sports magazines," Wheeler says. Her creative solution may not work for everyone.

"I referred them to an architect to have another room added to their house for their clutter, and was toasted at their 15th anniversary celebration as the woman who saved their marriage," Wheeler says.

Family disputes over possessions and the space they occupy are fairly common. Sometimes the differences are between husband and wife, sometimes between adult children and aging parents, sometimes between parents and kids. Treasures to one person are junk to another. Conflicts escalate when an invisible line is crossed and the gap widens between what is reasonable and acceptable to all parties.

Ruth Farr of Ventura is inclined to believe that her husband, Bob, has crossed the line when it comes to their garage. "Our whole family has made quite a joke about it. He knows we don't like all this stuff he brings home but we put up with it," Farr says.

The Farr garage hasn't housed a car for years. Instead, it contains dozens of every tool, screw, nut and bolt ever made, plus plungers, hammers, old briefcases, notebooks, paint cans, shoes, gloves. . . .

"He's a building contractor, and if you mention anything you want, he'll bring it home whether it's exactly right or not," Ruth Farr says.

Richard A. Reinhart, chief psychologist at Ventura County Mental Health Services, says adult children often face the problem when having to move the possessions of an elderly parent. "I have yet to meet somebody who is not astounded at the amount of stuff their parents have collected," Reinhart says.

Mary Lou Olson agrees. " Overwhelmed was the operative word here," she says of her experiences in moving both her aging mother and her mother-in-law in the past five years.

"I had to go through every scrap of paper because I found checks my mother hadn't cashed, and every magazine and newspaper where money might be hidden," Olson says.

She uncovered beautiful hand-crocheted and embroidered linens, 10 boxes of table scarves, 50 pairs of gloves and more than 60 pairs of high-heeled shoes. "This is a woman who just broke her hip and walks with a walker, and she tells me not to get rid of her three-inch high-heeled shoes," Olson says.

At the bottom of an old clothes hamper, wrapped in plastic, Olson found a family Bible that belonged to pacifist ancestors who fled Virginia for Ohio in a covered wagon during the Civil War. Family names are recorded in it, so this treasure Olson is keeping.

Overwhelming as it has been, the experience changed the way she views her own possessions. "I realize there will be a day when I'll have to say, 'OK, this goes and this stays.' But, I have several things I'd like to have around me as long as I'm alive," she says.

Mary Parlopino of Arcadia recently helped dismantle the mobile home of her mother-in-law, who was moving across the country to live with her daughter, Marilyn. "When we undid her place, everything was pretty neat, but she had a lot of things. Marilyn and I were determined to go home and clean our own closets so our kids wouldn't have to do this," Parlopino says.

In her own home, Parlopino admits to keeping things past their usefulness, such as a tent the family hasn't pitched for 20 years or the skeet shooting equipment gathering cobwebs.

And, like many other parents whose adult kids have left home, she wishes she could get rid of the things her son, Joe, left behind.

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