Voices of COHP
Julia St Charles
Sometimes I wish my mother had been one of the overtly mean and hateful hoarders. It would have made certain aspects of my life easier. It’s hard to despise someone who manipulates with tears and sometimes with apparent self-sacrifice and kindness. Perhaps she didn’t even realize that she was being manipulative. What I do know is that her need to control and manipulate changed the course of my life in more ways than I can count. And I did not learn of her ultimate act of control until after her death.
Like most hoarders, my mother succeeded in exacting control over every single item in the hoard as well as the people in her life. She was not overtly mean or vicious, and it took a lot of therapy for me to understand that toxins delivered with either a smile or a fit of tears are nonetheless toxic, that manipulation with guilt counts as emotional abuse just as much as screaming and hateful words, and that the dangerous physical circumstances of a hoarded environment count as physical abuse just as much as being smacked across the face.
I was very young when I noticed that my mother answered for me. If an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, before I could even open my mouth, my mother would say, “She’s going to be a pediatrician,” “she’s going to be a ballerina,” or “she’s going to be Miss America.” In first grade, I had expressed no interest in any of these things, and especially not being a ballerina or Miss America, as I was quite the tomboy. She even decided that, because she loved white chocolate, that I would touch nothing else in the way of chocolate, so I always got a white-chocolate Easter bunny.
As high school approached, elaborate rules were laid down for everything ranging from boys, to what sort of movies I was allowed to see unsupervised, to clothing, to after-school jobs and possible college and career choices. All teenagers balk at most parental restrictions, of course. But the bizarre nature of my mother’s guidelines went far beyond the typical teenager’s woes. Many adult children of hoarders point out that the hoarding parent usually seems to pointedly choose clothing that firmly places their child in the awkward land of “outsider,” and my mother was no exception. While other girls battled their mothers over the tightness of their jeans, my mother wept that “dunagrees” would make me look like a “migrant worker” and thus would “shame the family.” And "what boy would want to date a migrant worker?"
I had long dreamed of college far, far away, preferably with access to mountains. I had fallen deeply in love with the Pacific Northwest, thanks to a too-brief family trip. In addition, two precious weeks one summer in Girl Scouts had made me love the mountains of North Carolina.
I applied to colleges in California, Washington and Oregon, as well as schools on the East Coast and a few other places. I think I applied to about forty different colleges. I also applied to our primary home-state university – which was at least in a different city – but it was not my first choice.
Two things happened almost simultaneously: my father had a serious heart attack, and the letters of acceptance or rejection began to come in. My father adamantly insisted that I go to whichever college I made it into, wanted to attend, and could afford, regardless of where it was. And my mother wept and moaned that if I was “too far away,” she would be “all alone” if “something happened” to my Dad.
I waited, and waited, for responses from colleges in Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Virginia, Maine – responses which never arrived in the mailbox. I fretted over the rudeness of universities not even bothering to send letters of rejection.
I finally decided that the best, and most affordable choice would be to attend our own state university in another city. I had been accepted, and had been awarded a modest partial scholarship. I decided that 75 miles was far enough away to live my own life. Dad’s heart didn’t stop and shatter our lives while I was in college – he would live to be 88.
My mother died in 2016, and, like most children of hoarders, I had to deal with The Hoard. As tempting as it was to just walk away from it all, I had no choice but to search for certain valuables and important papers. One day, while rummaging through the dense mishmash of broken rosaries, old clothes, junk mail and costume jewelry jammed into the deepest recesses of Mom’s bedroom dresser, I found stacks of old envelopes bound with crumbling rubber bands. Expecting to find ancient utility bills, bank statements, or other random mail, I broke the rubber bands apart and flipped through the envelopes.
I found myself staring at mail addressed to me. Mail postmarked in the 1970s. Mail that I had never seen. All of it had been opened. The stack included letters from a classmate who had moved away in seventh grade. Later, at sixteen, she wrote about her forays into dating – whether or not a French kiss was okay after only a couple of dates, and anxiety over how far a boy should go when making out. What do you do if your braces get stuck? It was the most innocent, stumbling adolescent correspondence one could imagine, yet it had been deemed too filthy for my consumption.
I had long thought that my childhood friend had merely lost interest in corresponding. Instead, my mother had intercepted her letters, as well as our friendship.
Still stunned, I continued inspecting the bundles. And I saw envelopes bearing the official seals of colleges and universities.
I felt my gut grow cold. My chest tightened. I held in my hands bundles of letters I didn’t even know existed -- letters from schools I thought had simply ignored me. I felt despair, rage, sorrow, betrayal, and shock wash over me in waves.
I didn’t know how to begin, so I started with a school that hadn’t been one of my top choices. I had been accepted. Enclosed was an application for a partial scholarship that I would probably get if only I chose French as a major.
I opened another envelope – accepted, but no scholarship. Another – accepted, and, because I ran track in high school, would I be interested in trying out for the university track team to earn a partial scholarship? “We look forward to welcoming you into our student community.”
Except for our state university, my mother had only given me the rejection letters.
My eyes filled with tears as I regarded the last few envelopes – my dream schools, the ones I had fantasized about, so far away, in smart, progressive cities and so close to the breathtaking Cascades. The University of Oregon, the University of Washington in Seattle, Portland State University…
I don’t know how long I sat on my mother’s floor with those last few envelopes, staring at the return addresses. Like the others, they had been opened, and re-assembled. The afternoon progressed, and the room got dark. I stood up, shaking, and prepared to go home.
I brought those last few letters home, and put them on my desk overnight. The next day, after work, I could not bear to face my mother’s apartment. I went home, and brought the letters out into the backyard.
I gazed once more at the return addresses: Oregon, Washington, Portland, Seattle.
In my mother’s last years, I had struggled to forgive her for the hoard, for the controlling, for the lack of privacy, for the baffling and complex rituals that had shaped our family’s life. She was very elderly, and ill, I had told myself. Yes, she had been highly controlling and extraordinarily strange. The house had been a nightmare. But she was now old and sick, and she had never been vicious – never overtly mean. She had not beaten me. I should forgive her, shouldn’t I? So, I had.
Then she died. And now, I had found these. I marveled that the need to hoard was so strong that she scrupulously saved evidence –knowing I would find it someday – that she had sabotaged my life and snatched away my choices in an attempt to keep me close enough to home to reel me back into the hoard. Like any other bundle of papers, broken pottery, old magazines, or china ballerina, I was her property. I was part of the hoard. I had to be controlled, no matter how hard I had fought.
There is no way my Dad could have known. The mail always came in the morning, after Dad had gone to work and I had gone to school, but before Mom had to report to her retail job. She would have intercepted the mail, made a decision for me, and squirreled away her prize, something to remind her that she had succeeded in not letting me get too far away.
I reached into my jeans pocket – the stress of dealing with the hoard had caused me to relapse into smoking after years of healthy living. I withdrew a butane lighter.
I lit a cigarette and thought about my life. I had enjoyed college. I made good friends. I met nice people. I landed good jobs. And I couldn’t imagine another life, in another place, without my sweet husband of almost 30 years. But what if…?
I held letters which could have changed the entire course of my life. Dreams fulfilled, or not. Alternate realities.
I burned the letters, without reading them.
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