Grandpa in the House: Asperger’s Personality Drives a Collector’s Desire

There’s a Museum in My Mailbox

Mail management becomes a challenge when the collector goes on-line and clicks!

Last weekend was one of those not so fun weekends, the kind taken up by household chores. Or specifically, one household chore: installing our new mailbox. This mailbox is not any old correspondence receptacle. It is the largest approved by the US Postal Service. Its purchase required visits to two big box home improvement stores, hours brainstorming and installing it onto a post it was too big for, and hours digging in the wet dirt on the side of a road. The digging part was my son’s favorite. It was a tad less fun for my husband.

We’d been asking my dad to buy a new mailbox for months. I even sent him a link to it online – twice. My husband assured him that he would install it. I explained that our small town post office was rarely open when I was driving by. My husband reminded him that it would be a huge help to me if he would buy the larger box. He never bought it. So we did.

My husband became tired of hiding the notice cards for me. I asked him to do this to prevent my dad’s constant reminders that I needed to pick up his online auction purchases. As we live on a private dirt road, the post office does not deliver to our door. Our mailbox is a quarter of a mile from our house. Anything too large to fit in a mailbox needs to be picked up in person. This is a typical small town chore and I once enjoyed the occasional trip to the post office. Then my dad moved in. Monthly visits became daily. I would return from the post office to find another notice card that same afternoon. I became convinced the handwriting on some of the notice cards was annoyed. “Second attempt” was scrawled hastily next to the circled number “5”, meaning five items were now awaiting pick up. Ignoring the notices, my passive aggressive attempt to get my dad to buy a larger mailbox, was now annoying the postal workers as well as my husband.

My father receives about five items a week, roughly one large “Do Not Bend” envelope for every weekday. His collection is photographs, the kind being deaccessioned from newspaper archives that no longer need hard copies in today’s digital age. Every photo seen in a newspaper during the 20th century had a physical copy filed away for future reference or reuse. These photos are now in wide circulation on online auction venues and via other vintage ephemera dealers. When the packages are not photos, they are acid free storage sleeves and binders, to be piled on the floor of our tiny guest room, filled with the hundreds of photos he already owns.

I admit, the history nerd in me thinks this is cool. As a museum professional I have a deep appreciation for the collecting spirit and preservation. Collectors are why museums and special archives exist, why the public has access to many of the objects, papers, and historic buildings that might otherwise have been lost to time or locked away in an oligarch’s bunker.

Most of the museums in existence today either began as private collections or largely consist of a few collectors’ prize objects. An example is my former workplace, the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, MA. Smith lived a short walk from his museum, leading tours in an antique Chinese silk robe. His and his wife’s ashes are interred in the wall. I often imagined him silently watching and judging my tours, surely not happy with my 21st century conversational style or the countless children raised on instant gratification trying to touch his stuff.

The Gardner Museum- an ode to collectors everywhere! Minus the mail notices from the post office!

Two of my other favorite museums, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA, and the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, were once the actual homes of their collectors. Gardner had her home built specifically as a museum and lived in an apartment onsite. Henry Francis du Pont renovated his ancestral country estate into a museum to house historic furnishings, converting a once imposing yet lovely home into an even more imposing warehouse of rooms – a tasteful warehouse but there can now be no mistaking it for a home, even on the scale of mansions. And the most intense, perhaps even grotesque, example of a home collection is Hearst Castle in California. William Randolph Hearst’s need to collect can truly be defined as obsessive. A visit to his showplace leaves one feeling depleted and sad for the man who inspired the movie line Rosebud.

Of course, I do not think my father’s collection is ever going to be near in value to any of these. He has had many collections over the years and this is simply his newest interest, a pastime, not an investment. But they are in their essence the same beast. They are a targeted and habitual accumulation of items following a common theme. The need to add to the collection does not stop. Every new item is seen as the “perfect” addition and must be had. Just as living with my father’s hobby is somewhat frustrating for my family I am quite sure I would never have wanted to live with du Pont, Gardner, or Smith. Though, they presumably had servants handling their deliveries.

Collecting is often a part of the Asperger’s personality. A narrow interest in one specific topic and an obsessive approach to a collection are often cited as identifying characteristics in an Asperger’s diagnosis. I am curious how many prominent collectors had Asperger’s. Perhaps they were politely referred to as “eccentric.” Maybe eccentric is simply what they were, while still socially skilled enough to earn their fortune or work within the society of their class and times. But it is hard for me to imagine that some of them were not Aspies – perhaps they were the ones who inherited their wealth and did not need to finesse the world of business and parties.

So, next time you admire a display case of dozens of shining silver tea pots or embalmed animal specimens floating in solution, consider who put that collection together. Read the museum label and the line “from the collection of.” You might have an Aspie to thank.

 [Photo credit: (cc) Donovan Beeson; Penny Camberville]

Save the date to donate to Hilltown Families: Dec 10!

Valley Gives Day is December 10 this year and this is the first year with Hilltown Families participating. I know that I turn to Hilltown Families a few times a week to plan my son’s schedule and keep myself connected to my community. Please consider supporting this invaluable local resource. Want more info on the mission behind Hilltown Families? Check out the Tedx Talk, Supporting Education Through Education, which shares the story behind the vision and mission. More info on Valley Gives Day is at


Wendy Somes

Wendy is an educator and history geek who lives in a century old summer cottage in Goshen with her family, dog, and two cats.  She recently left her work in museum education to become a full time stay at home caregiver to her young son and elderly father. Her column touches on the juggle of the sandwich generation and issues surrounding elders on the Autism spectrum.  When not playing, cleaning, cooking, or chauffeuring, she reads local history, mommy blogs, and celebrity gossip – but she will never admit to that last one.

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