A few weeks ago, while skimming through my Facebook page, I came across a link a friend shared that directed me to a blog post originally published about three years ago entitled: “We Can’t Be Friends.”
I’ll wait while you click on the link and give it a read. (La, la, ladee da).
Are you back? Great!
What did you think?
After I read it, I had some immediate thoughts of my own….and then I read through a chunk of the comments.
Many people liked the piece and agreed with the writer….I felt the same. I thought the post was meant to highlight the importance of looking beyond the surface in order to get to know someone.
But, I also agreed with those who were a bit taken aback and frustrated by what it also seemed to imply….that women who present a clean and organized home aren’t genuine. That these women are looking to impress people by creating an image of themselves and their family that isn’t real.
If that’s the case, then I would be one of those women….but I would argue that the neatness of my home is very much a real part of who I am.
When I was a young kid, my family lived in a home my parents bought and renovated from top to bottom with their own sweat equity. Our home was neat and organized and impeccably decorated. My mother took pride in what she presented to the outside world and we looked like a picture perfect family.
Behind the scenes though, my mother was an abusive alcoholic with an acid tongue and a solid backhand. She was erratic and hard to predict. Occasionally, she would come into mine or my brother’s room with a handful of trash bags having concluded that our rooms were “shit holes.”
As punishment, she would take away all of our things and put them into the attic or garage until she felt we’d earned them back. I never understood what was acceptably messy for a five, six, seven year-old and what constituted a “shit hole.”
All I knew was that in a span of ten minutes, I could go from happily playing with Barbie and the gang, to being dragged across my bedroom floor by my hair while my mother screamed obscenities at me.
I was eight when my parents divorced, and around eleven or twelve when my mother remarried. Her new husband came with two children of his own. Together, they had two more, my youngest brothers, making us an incredibly dysfunctional family of eight.
The two fought constantly and violently….on both sides. In the aftermath of their fights it wasn’t unusual to find coffee cups and other solid objects lodged into the walls and our house in total disarray as though it had been ransacked by a herd of wild animals.
Anything that could be hurled was used as a weapon….books, toys, coffee pots (full or empty), shoes, knick-knakc’s, etc. My brother and I would often assume stealth positions behind furniture in order to throw things like metal matchbox cars at our step-father. We didn’t particularly care for our mother either, but she was still our mother and it seemed right to choose sides.
When the fight was over, we tended to retrieve the items that had been tossed out onto the front lawn….mostly because the cops made us….but otherwise, whatever had been broken or damaged, just stayed that way.
I was a teenager when they mercifully divorced. Shortly after that, my biological brother went to live with our dad and my step-father decided he was no longer interested in being a dad to any of his children and he bailed.
I was a sophomore in high school by then and my mother had concluded that there was really no reason I couldn’t and shouldn’t take on the responsibilty of caring for my youngest siblings full time.
At 15, I was expected to take care of my brothers….from their meals to their bedtime routines….go to school, do my homework and also do all the laundry and keep every room in the house spotlessly clean….which was no small chore given that my mother had become a complete slob.
She left heaping piles of clothes and shoes everywhere. Used maxi-pads, still stuck to the crotch of her underwear, were abandoned on the bathroom floor. Dirty dishes littered both the interior and exterior of the house. Whatever she spilled on the countertops or the floor, stayed there.
Even the car was filthy. Layers upon layers of spills, along with dirty coffee cups and discarded food littered the inside.
My mother fancied herself some kind of champion for animals and was constantly “rescuing” a new pet from the pound. I’m not sure what she thought she was rescuing these animals from, however, because the conditions at the pound were far better than at our house.
With no one around to let them out during the day, our dogs began using the basement as their toilet, where mounds of our dirty clothes also resided and so became saturated with animal urine and feces. When our pets couldn’t gain access to the basement, they just went wherever.
Eventually, the condition of the house would cause my mother to snap. If I was at school when this happened, she would call the office and pull me out mid-day.
When she picked me up, she would wait until we were out of eyesight of anyone who might see, before connecting her backhand with my face….repeatedly….while screaming at me about how selfish and self-centered I was. She called me a bitch, a whore, a pig, she told me she wished I’d never been born and that she wished I would die. Sometimes, I wished for those things too.
When we got home, the hitting, the screaming and the name calling would continue for hours while she directed me through chores until the house was satisfactory again.
Then, the cycle would start over.
After I’d left home for good, the state of my mother’s house didn’t improve. I once went into the bathroom and found that mushrooms were growing along the base of the tub. With each visit, the condition of the house seemed to get progressively worse. I was saddened to see that several pieces of beautiful wood furniture that had once been prized possessions of my grandmother, had been damaged by unidentifiable stains and layers of filth.
The few times I confronted my mother about the state of her home, she would rant on and on about how it wasn’t her fault. The blame belonged to my brothers and my new step-father. They were the lazy pigs now. Same old script, new cast of characters.
Years later, after I’d cut off all communication with my mother, I reached out to request my music box collection. It had been started for me the day I was born when an uncle gifted me one in the hospital.
From there, a tradition began. Over the years, my grandmothers, my parents and various other family members gave me a music box for every birthday and holiday. I’d cherished each one.
I didn’t take them with me when I moved out. I was still a bit of a nomad, rarely staying in one apartment for more than a year. I didn’t have a safe place for them yet and I’d foolishly assumed they would be safe at my mother’s where they were stored in a china cabinet.
After dragging her feet on the request, she finally sent me a small, poorly packaged box with only four of them inside. Including my first, the one my uncle had given me.
I’d never been close to this particular uncle. He was a number of years older than my mother and we rarely saw him when I was growing up. But, the exact week I was diagnosed with cancer, he died of cancer and just a few days after he was diagnosed. I don’t know what that means in the grand scheme of the universe, maybe nothing, but I do have some theories.
Anyway, when I opened the box, I knew right away that at least some of them were broken. Whether it was due to poor packaging, or they’d been broken before they were sent, I could feel the pieces as I unwrapped them and I immediately began to cry….not just cry, but sob, especially when I found it was my uncles gift among the broken.
It was like I was holding my whole childhood in my hands at that moment….one big broken mess from day one.
As I continued to unwrap them, it only got worse. One of them was completely covered in green mold. There was nothing sacred in that box anymore and I never asked for the rest. I rewrapped them in bubble wrap, placed them into a new box and stored them away. Then I took a look at my house.
My home, I’ll admit it, is obsessively, compulsively, clean and organized. My spice rack is alphabetized, the towels in the bathroom closet are all neatly folded the exact same way. Extra bed sheets are folded and stored in the plastic packaging they came in. I have labeled bins for select greeting cards we keep. My holiday decorations are stored in labeled bins and organized in the attic in the order of the holiday’s.
DVD’s are stored alphabetically. Our books, alphabetically by paperback and hardback. In short, I have an organizational/storage system for everything.
It might sound strange, but I don’t mind the work of tidying up. The quiet, mindlessness of it is a stress reliever for me when I’m feeling overly anxious or restless. I figure, there are a lot of ways I could battle my demons. I choose to do it with a label maker and a magic eraser.
I don’t do all this to impress anyone. Nor do I think it makes me better than anyone else. I do it, because I need it this way. Because constant clutter and mess in my living space makes me feel like I’m suffocating. It reminds too much of a time in my life when everything was chaotic and messy and dirty.
You might think all this means I spend the majority of my time fussing over the state of my house at the expense of my family, but I really don’t. There’s a method to my madness.
Of course, my house still get’s messy. I have a five-year-old son and two teenaged step-children who have free-reign to wreak creative havoc, but they are also expected to clean it up when they are done….and I’m always willing to help.
As for my friends, both current and potential….I don’t want you to feel compelled to clean before I visit. Maybe there’s a story in the mess you want to talk about….and maybe the mess is just a mess….but either way, I’m glad to be spending time with you.
And if you come to my house and it’s clean….I promise I didn’t do it for you. If you want to crack a joke about the category system I’ve established for my can goods, please do! Laughter is the best medicine and trust me….no one laughs harder at me than me.