Confessions of a Box Hoarder

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Getty Images)

The other day I had to recycle two shoe boxes. They were very nice boxes, and it damn near killed me. Hello. My name is Nancy Mitchell, and I am a box hoarder.

I know we sometimes throw that term around, but if the definition of hoarding is that you’re unable to properly identify which things are valuable and which aren’t, I think it fits my condition, at least when it comes to boxes. I keep boxes far past their usefulness, against reason, and most of all against the fact that I live in a 250 square foot apartment. Every box is valuable. I just really, really love boxes.

I’ve addressed, before, in posts I’ve written for Apartment Therapy, that I was a strangely acquisitive child. Or maybe not strangely at all, considering that most kids love collecting things, and love useless little doo-dads, but strange considering the minimalist bent my current life has taken. I’ve moved too many times, and live in too small of an apartment, to be too enamored of physical things. But if we are talking about containers to put those things in — well, that’s a completely different story. I blame the Berenstain bears. I blame my mother. I blame my zodiac sign, maybe, although I’ve always thought that sort of thing was a little dumb.

(Image credit: Stan and Jan Berenstain in The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room)

That Berenstain Bears book about The Messy Room had such an impact on me that I wrote a whole post about it. The idea is simple: brother and sister bear’s room is a disaster, and, with the urging of mama bear (papa bear is strangely complacent about the mess), they turn things around. Their tools include a toy chest, a pegboard, and a stack of beautifully colored and perfectly sized boxes. In one of the final illustrations, the boxes, pastel colored and clearly labeled, fit neatly into a closet in the kids’ room. That image lodged in my head for a long, long time. It formed my idea of a perfectly organized home: a box for everything, and everything in its box.

I’m a Virgo, and Virgos, among other things, are supposed to be highly organized, an element of my sign that has always brought me great amusement, because I’ve always been a little bit of a mess. But I’ve always loved the idea of being organized, and whether the stars or the bears were most to blame, I also grew up with a much closer example: my own mother.

My mother is a smart and eminently capable woman, and among her skills is something I find almost magical: an organizational genius that enables her to cram as many things as possible into a closet, utilizing every square inch of available space. Among the members of my family there exists a certain reverence for the closets in my parents’ house. We’re all a little afraid to touch anything in them without permission, because we all know that, if were we to remove even one thing from this complicated storage ecosystem, it would create a kind of imbalance that only my mother could set right.

Another sort of genius my mother possesses is in the realm of boxes. She is a pathological box-saver, which, of course, is where I get it from, but in her, at least from my perspective, it’s hard to see it as a drawback, because she is so good at it. Do you need to wrap a gift? Do you need to mail something? My mother will eyeball the item in question and then produce, from some unknown trove, a box that is just the right size. She is almost never wrong.

When I was a little girl my big sister, five years older and impossibly more wise, had some of those Amac boxes, the beautiful, modular acrylic containers whose lids wiggle on with a kind of unspeakable satisfaction. When I was younger everything my oldest sister did had a certain glamour to it, but those boxes especially were an object of fascination. The tiniest of them called my name, even though I had no tiny things to put in them. Someday, I felt sure, a thing would come that fit that box perfectly, and it would rest there as if it was always meant to be.

“An empty box is an outline of possibility: who can imagine what will eventually fill it?”

There is a part of me that has never gotten over that. I save, not just boxes that things can go in, but boxes that things could go in. An empty box is an outline of possibility: who can imagine what will eventually fill it? Were my house large enough I would probably have an entire closet devoted solely to boxes. Unfortunately, I now live in a 250 square foot studio, with no closets at all. That — and the fact that I now seem to be surrounded by even more beautiful boxes than ever — has forced me to come face to face with my box hoarding demons.

There is simply no place in my apartment for empty boxes, so I’ve started throwing them out. Each time I feel a little pang of loss, thinking that someday I’ll find something that would’ve fit perfectly into that box. I love the boxes, yes, but I also love what they represent: the possibility of an ordered closet, of an ordered universe where everything finds a place and everything can be put right.

Some time ago I bought a mirror. It came in a box. Inside the box were two foam inserts, which enabled the mirror to rest perfectly inside the mirror box. Andrew, our Audience Development Manager, knows about the problem I have. I told him about the mirror box. “You’re crazy,” he said. “You have to get rid of that box.” I knew he was right. At this point the box had been sitting on my floor for weeks. I don’t have a lot of floor.

I tried, I really did. I picked up the box and prepared to carry it down the stairs to recycle. But I just couldn’t do it. It just killed me, thinking about those perfectly sized inserts, how no box would ever fit that mirror so well as this box.

The box was only a few inches deep. First I tried shoving it behind the couch. Then I realized that if I moved my desk forward a few inches, I could put it back there, sitting upright behind the legs. It’s just a temporary solution, I told myself. Just to get it off the floor until I can work up the courage to part with it.

It’s still there. I will never get rid of that box.