Bella English

For reformed pack rat, less is better

Beanie Babies were popular toys in the late 1990s.
Globe File/1999
Beanie Babies were popular toys in the late 1990s.

I was recently on the ferry to Provincetown and noticed that most people had small roll-ons or shoulder bags containing their belongings. But one couple had waist-high suitcases straining at the zippers. Those bags would have held all of the clothes that my husband owns, with room to spare.

But my husband’s spartan vibe doesn’t run in his family. Last week, my sister-in-law and her husband flew into Boston en route to a Bermuda cruise. Her suitcase weighed 48 pounds; his, 40. Nancy also had a “small” (read: regular-sized) roll-on, plus a couple of large Vera Bradley handbags filled with God-knows-what.

Having been on a cruise, I know that the cabins are about the size of their suitcases. What on earth could they be filled with?


“It’s my shoes,” Nancy said when her husband teased her about her suitcase weighing more than his.

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To me, any vacation — a weekend or a month — requires only three pairs of shoes: flip flops or sandals, sneakers, and a decent pair for a night out. If I’d been braver — or ruder — I would have asked Nancy how many pairs of shoes she packed.

My personal rule for baggage is to always carry it on. That way, you don’t have to wait for it or worry that it won’t arrive. Rule 2: Never take a bag too heavy for you to lift.

My husband doesn’t like stuff or clutter. When we first met, I thought his apartment was unfurnished; he thought mine was a fire hazard.

I can speak as an expert on too much stuff, because I am a reformed pack rat who never met a bargain I didn’t love. I still love a deal, but the older I get, the less I want and need, and the more I want to foist my stuff off on someone else.


I’ve donated a boatload of books to the library, and am now going room-by-room ditching, or rather, delegating stuff to unsuspecting loved ones. In my home office, I have a truly ugly “Joey and Chandler” chair that someone palmed off on us. It’s two of those hideous recliners, hooked together with a little table in between. But whenever my son pops in, he loves to sit there.

Unfortunately, my husband won’t let me touch his recliner, which squats in our living room like some evil gnome.

My friend Dennis is the one with the serious gnome problem. “We have hundreds of them in the attic,” says Dennis, who lives in Quincy. There are a few in his yard, too.

I tell him to call an exterminator, but it’s not quite that easy. His wife collects gnomes. In fact, there’s such a thing as a “limited edition” gnome. I’m not kidding. An artist named Tom Clark has an entire line of the “woodspirits,” as he calls them, and an original can sell for $250. Each is named, and comes with a card telling its “history.”

I was voted the most gullible girl in my seventh-grade class, but even I am not laying out a cent for a gnome.


Not even for one named Bella. Yes, Dennis sent me a photo of the Bella gnome — his wife owns it, of course — and an uglier gnome never frolicked the forest. She’s an ancient hag, drying a pot.

Dennis’s wife has collected gnomes for a long time, and Dennis is after her to sell them. But to whom? Many of those listed on eBay are “reduced,” and one priced at $6 had zero bids, last I checked.

Dennis’s wife also collects dolls. She has the whole line of Marie Osmond Dolls. Apparently, Marie turned “her lifelong love of doll collecting into her very own line of one-of-a-kind collectibles. Her dolls have been a hit on QVC since 1991.” That’s what QVC says.

QVC, of course, has been the downfall of many an armchair shopper. There’s something about an adult paying big money for a doll — some of Marie’s dolls go for nearly $200 — that just isn’t right.

I looked up the dolls and don’t think I could sleep with them in my house, even stashed in the attic. They’re not the evil killer dolls like Chucky, but they do look somewhat possessed.

And who can forget Beanie Babies? Not Dennis, as hard as he may try. His wife and sister-in-law once stood in a line for hours at a Cracker Barrel restaurant trying to snag the latest plush animal, but by the time they got inside, the Beanie baby had sold out.

He estimates that his wife has 200 Beanie Babies — in the attic. “They were going to be worth thousands, thousands!” Dennis exclaims. “Where are they all now?”

He already knows the answer: In people’s attics, collecting dust.

If it makes him feel any better, he’s hardly alone. The UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families found that three-quarters of the families they studied couldn’t park their cars in the garage because they were so packed with stuff. There are clutter experts who tell us how to declare “clutter-free” rooms in our house. And a whole industry has grown up around “organizing” your stuff.

There’s a difference, perhaps thin, between hoarding and collecting. According to the Mayo Clinic, hoarding is the “excessive collection of items with an inability to discard them.” Symptoms include “moving items from one pile to another without discarding anything” and “acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items.”

Dennis can relate. His wife hasn’t yet agreed to get rid of the stuff in the attic. So he’s resigned himself. “I’m waiting for gnomes to make a comeback,” he says.

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at