Voices of COHP
When I was a very young child, my mother was a fastidious housekeeper, so much so that she would Lysol the front steps. After finding out about an infidelity of my father’s, she started hoarding.
First, it was newspapers and books and being particular about how we recycled paper. It was still possible to have people over after a quick “tidy up.” The odd pile of newspaper might be on the floor next to my father’s chair or there might be too many clothes stuffed into a closet, but it wasn’t unmanageable.
We didn’t often have company. We were isolated and did not fit in with our neighborhood. My parents were very religious and my siblings and I rarely had a chance to play unsupervised. There was no expectation of privacy, and we weren’t the most popular kids at school.
As we got older, we only got less likely to interact with other children. And our house only got worse. I often felt as if I was the only one who minded. My father worked a lot and spent a lot of time at his church. My mother chauffeured us around and volunteered in the school and at our church. My sister was a packrat and drove me to distraction in the room we shared.
My sister was also super smart, quiet, thin, and better liked by teachers. I was just a horrible ogre for complaining about her mess. My little brother was a pain who could pretty much do what he wanted, or so it seemed to me at the time. I was annoyed that he didn’t have to share a room with someone who collected butter packets and other random stuff that encroached on my personal space.
I was big for my age, 5’3” at age 10, and liked “boy stuff” like Star Wars, soccer, and airplanes. I wanted to be a firefighter or a fighter pilot when I grew up. I was a girl and nearsighted so neither was likely. At 13, I was told by my ballet teacher I was too fat to dance so I quit, thus reinforcing the tomboy image and further contributing to my social isolation. I promptly went on a diet and never grew any taller.
I was able to leave at 14 to live with my grandparents and go to high school in a city an hour away. I still didn’t have much of a social life, but at least I was able to do school plays and have some interaction with other teens. I no longer lived in the mess, but I didn't know how to make friends.
I feel like I missed the 80s. I had to move back to my parents’ for senior year, after my grandmother died. I would drive my sister to school so I could use the car and was rarely at home except to study and sleep. I managed to do well enough in school to get into one university (I still hear about how expensive it was) and I never lived at home after that.
I know my brother and sister resent that I didn’t have to listen to my mother complain about my father’s infidelities night after night, but they went to better high schools and colleges than I did.
While I may have escaped the mess, I am the scapegoat for many family problems. My sister was bullied in school because I didn’t want her to be skipped into my class. The teachers thought my brother was “backward” because I used to dress him instead of letting him dress himself when he was two. It is my fault they both ended up having drinking problems because I knew but didn’t tell my mother about it until it was too late!
I came home once to clean in the early 90s so my fiancé could visit. I was not allowed to discard anything. It all went to the basement for my mother to sort later. The house is a mess today, because I put everything in plastic bags 20 some years ago.
After I got married and had children of my own, we would stay in a hotel when we visited my parents or they would come to our house. The one time my kids did see the place, my son said, “It’s not so bad, Granny. I’ve seen worse on that show Hoarders.”
My parents are not horrible people. They may live in squalor, but you would never know it if you met them in public. They are clean. They don’t smell bad. They live simply. They give generously to charity. My mother volunteers in the community. They have supported me and my children in more ways than I can count after a difficult divorce and I will be forever grateful for that.
As isolated as we were as children, and as much anger as I have about that time, I wish my parents could be safe and comfortable as they age. My brother and I tried to clear a room the day after Thanksgiving last year. In March, my 22-year-old daughter volunteered to help and we made it through half the kitchen and half the living room. The day ended in tears and a month-long lecture about why we shouldn’t have thrown out the expired cans of sardines my mother was saving to feed to the birds at the riverfront.
I have given up. My parents have chosen to live in a house with a kitchen sink that only has cold water, a shower that trickles from the showerhead and dumps the rest of the water at your feet, that has black mold in nearly every room, and is filled with clothing nobody has worn in 40 years.
Lots of people save books and family heirlooms. I do not understand keeping every greeting card from every charity or every crocheted whatsit from the local convent jumble sale. My father has checked out and sits at the computer all day (another excuse why the house is a mess: “No one helps”) and more and more stuff comes in every day than goes out.
My children promise they will never let my house get that way and they cheer me on enthusiastically during my semi-annual clear out of books, legal documents, clothing, and their own memorabilia. The hoarding tendency runs deep in our family. I have it, my brother has it, and I am pretty sure my sister has it. Although I haven’t been to her house lately, our old room in my parents’ house is still full of her stuff.
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