Monday, September 6, 2010
My father can always be counted on for one thing, and that is to let me down. It has been that way all my life. He's been a no-show, no-help, no-interest kind of dad ever since I can remember.
So why did I forget?
Maybe it's because I don't live with my parents anymore. After graduating from college, I moved into my own tiny place, not much more than an attic, but clean and clutter-free, the way I've always wanted to live. I'm lucky that my job isn't far from my new home, but I don't have a car, so it feels farther than it actually is. Public transportation isn't available where I live, so I find myself commuting by bicycle in all kinds of weather. I'm in great shape and a friend of the environment... and I hate it.
I really want a car. But first I need my driver's license, something I've never had the time or money to get before. Now that I'm out of school and working full time, I save and save until at last I can afford to pay for driver's education. Most of my fellow classmates, of course, are still in high school; I feel like the kid who stayed back too many times: old and not very bright.
The classes seem to take forever, but at last I'm done, and ready to go for my license. If I use the driver education car for my road test, the instructor must be present, and it will be very expensive. so I reluctantly ask my father if he will drive me to the motor vehicle department instead. To my great surprise, not only does he agree, but a few days before the appointment, he drops off the car we will take together to the test. It's a Buick Century, and it comes from the collection of cars littering my father's front lawn, all in various degrees of disrepair and driveability. He assures me, however, that this one runs quite well. It's a big boat of a vehicle, far larger than anything I've driven in my classes. It also has power steering, which my driver's ed car does not. My father has hinted that he may even let me borrow the car for a while, provided I get my license, of course, until I have something else to drive. It is so rare to receive any kind of help from my father, I jump at his offer.
The big day finally arrives. My appointment is at one; my father, however, has been told that it is at eleven. He is chronically late; over the years, we kids have learned to resort to lies and trickery to ensure our punctuality. The very latest my father and I can leave my apartment and still reach the motor vehicle department is twelve-thirty. My white lie has given me what I hope is a nice security blanket of time.
When ten-thirty comes and goes with no sign of my father, I am not surprised. But when eleven, eleven-thirty and twelve do the same, I begin to get nervous. I call my parents' house; no answer. I pace the floor, looking out the window, mentally kicking myself for believing that, just this once, my father would be there for me. I even try to arrange for another ride, but it's too late. None of my neighbors are home. My friends are either working or live too far to reach my apartment on time. So, when twelve-thirty arrives and my father does not, I have no choice but to take matters into my own hands: I hop in my borrowed Buick and drive my unlicensed self to my appointment.
The powering steering takes some getting used to, and my first few corners are quite dramatic. But I manage, despite the size and unfamiliarity of the vehicle, to make it to the motor vehicle department without running anyone over or getting stopped by the police. I slowly, carefully, pull my monster of a car into the largest space I can find. An elderly woman is watching me from a window of the building; when I get inside, I find out she is the person with whom I have to fill out the paperwork for my license.
She hands me the forms I need to complete. "Didn't I just see you outside parking a car?"
I avoid her gaze, concentrating intently on the papers in front of me. "Maybe."
Her voice is shrill and stern. "You're not supposed to DRIVE here without a license!"
I look up, my eyes purposely innocent, my hands spread wide. "Well then, how was I supposed to get here?"
My question surprises her; she doesn't know quite how to answer.
"Well, you're here now," she grumbles. "All I can say is you'd better pass."
The examiner appears, ready to take me for my road test. A swarthy, surly man, he slumps into the passenger seat of the Buick with his clipboard and check-off list. I bite my lip, and nervously back The Boat out of its parking spot. Perfectly.
It is the last perfect thing I do.
Because of my issue with the power steering, I take turns too wide, too fast. I forget to come to a full stop at the stop sign. My 3-point turn is lousy. I can't parallel park to save my life.
The examiner's face is grim. He is wordless, except when he barks, "Watch out!!" The rest of the time he spends jabbing at his check-off list with his pencil, his mouth twisted with annoyance.
I am flunking my road test.
I cast a quick, sidelong glance at the examiner, and my eyes happen to fall on his name tag.
Suddenly, an idea occurs to me, one born of sheer desperation. The next time he yells, "Watch out!" I ask, in what I hope sounds like a casual, conversational tone:
"Is that a Spanish accent I detect?"
Rodriguez looks at me like I have lost my mind.
"Why?" he growls.
I immediately launch into rapid Spanish, sharing with him the sad story of my life. I leave out the parts about my no-show father and his hoarding, of course, but I tell him other things: how I grew up poor and worked hard to put myself through school, how I've had to wait until this late age to get my license because there was never enough money to do so, how I studied Spanish for eight years, both in high school and college, and that I use it now in my work with the disabled. How I love my job, but it is kind of far from where I live and I'm tired of riding there on my bicycle, especially in the rain.
Rodriguez continues to look at me without speaking. I wrap up my tale of woe just as we return to the motor vehicle department. He gets out of the car, but before he closes the door, he leans in and says curtly, "You pass," adding in Spanish: "Some people have all the luck."
There has probably never been a more relieved person leaving the parking lot of this particular motor vehicle office. I start driving carefully, but legally, back to my apartment. About halfway there, I notice a strange smell which seems to be coming from the back of the Buick. I turn around cautiously to find out what it might be. What I see there causes me to pull over immediately and fling myself out of the car.
The entire back seat of the vehicle loaned to me by my unreliable father, the one he has assured me runs just fine, has burst into flames.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
copyright Barbara Allen 2010
My father refuses to fill out any of my financial aide forms for college. With his teacher's salary, my non-working mother and six kids, I'd surely qualify for some kind of assistance, but he will not even consider applying. The forms are too intrusive, he says, require too much personal information. "They want to know every pot you have to piss in," he tells me, by way of explanation; and he's not about to share his private business with strangers.
That's what he says, but I know the real story, the true reason for his refusal: several years of unfiled tax returns are buried in a pile somewhere in our house, and he isn't about to get in trouble with the IRS over something like my college education. He isn't paying for any part of my schooling anyway; he's made that abundantly clear, not a cent. So, why should he care, really, if I receive no financial assistance?
But college is my escape route to a new life, and I am determined to go, no matter what obstacles are put in my way. A state school seems to be my most inexpensive option; I apply to the one located the farthest from my parents' house. I am accepted and, by some miracle, I even luck into a bit of financial aide that doesn't require my father's imput.
I can't wait to go, but I'm nervous, too. There are so many things that I don't know, so many things that "regular" people take for granted. Like how often do you wear a shirt or jeans before you put them in the laundry? How do you DO the laundry? How do you make a bed? How often do "regular" people change their sheets?
The way I've been living all these years seems so different, so removed from normal, that I imagine the farthest extreme: sheets, for example, must get changed everyday by the rest of the world. I wonder, with considerable anxiety, how I will learn all these new things; most importantly, how I will ever keep up and blend in.
Then I find out that my best friend Rose has decided to attend the same college, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Rose is my anchor, my link to normalcy. She knows my story, but despite everything, still wants to be my friend. She is the only person I trust enough to ask these important, how-to-live-a-regular-life questions.
I ask her about the sheets, mentioning in an off-hand way what I suspect is the norm.
"Every day?" she exclaims. "You can't be serious! Changing them once a week or even every other week is just fine!"
Once a week! Every other week! I feel my anxiety melting away. I can manage that! Maybe, just maybe, with Rose by my side, coaching me, I might be able fake my new life well enough to keep my old life secret.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
I won't be posting any more from the actual book, but I hope readers have enjoyed what I've shared so far("enjoy" probably isn't the right word; rather, I hope they were meaningful or helpful to someone ).
I would like to continue sharing some stories from my experience as a child of a hoarder. The next series of postings will be from the period of time after "Nice Children Stolen from Car," when
I leave the hoard that is my home, and start the journey toward a normal life.
I should have the first one from that series posted in a day or two.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Pull the Happy Out
copyright Barbara Allen 2009
It's hard living the way we do. That's why, no matter how bad each day is, I try to find at least one good thing about it. I call this “pulling the happy out.” Other people might think of it as “looking on the bright side,” but our life doesn't often seem to have much of a bright side. Sometimes the happy might be a meal that our mother finally doesn't burn or a morning when our father doesn't yell too much. There are other times when the only happy the day holds is the way the sun is shining. But whatever the happy is, I find it, pull it out, and hold onto it for dear life, trying to make it through just one more day until I am finally old enough to move out and leave this place forever.
As the days go by, it gets harder and harder to pull the happy out. I worry that maybe I won't make it, maybe before I turn eighteen I will die in that fire that Cindy always talks about, the one she fears will start in all this clutter. Or perhaps I will develop a serious illness and the symptoms will go unobserved by our mother, too absorbed in her soap operas to notice. Or our father will use my head next time, instead of the cat's.
The hardest time to pull the happy out is during one of our regular flea infestations. We have dogs and cats and dirt, so of course, we have fleas, sometimes worse than others. I hate a lot about the way we live, but the fleas are what I hate most. I can't stand the way they cluster on my socks and cling to the hems of my pants. Even though I carefully brush off my clothes before I leave the house, sometimes I even see a flea on myself at school, hopping cheerfully onto my bare arm during class. I pluck it off quickly, before anyone else notices, and ruthlessly pinch it to death between my fingernails.
The fleas seem to be everywhere. I find them floating in my milk and in my weekly bath water. I even hear them at night, snapping and popping as they leap with abandon through the piles scattered everywhere in our house.
Despite the fleas, I still struggle to pull the happy out: I get a good grade on a paper at school, Cindy and I share a funny joke at the bus stop, we have spaghetti instead of shepherd’s pie one week.
Then, one morning, I can’t do it. It is the day of our school spring concert and students are supposed to wear their nicest clothes for the performance. Most of my clothes aren’t very nice, but I find a dress that will probably be okay and a pair of pantyhose without any runs; it’s a midweek concert, so I am hoping my hair doesn’t look too bad yet. I am about to leave the house for the bus stop, when I happen to glance down at my legs. They are completely covered with fleas.
That’s when it happens. I flip out. I start hitting my legs, slapping the fleas, shrieking in a voice I don’t even recognize as my own:
“They’re all over me! They’re all over me!”
I can’t stop. My slapping gets faster and crazier, my voice gets higher and louder. For the first time in my life, I realize that I have been holding on, holding on by just a thread, and now I am in danger, real danger, of letting go. I am not going to die in a fire, or be killed by my father; I am going to lose my mind instead. I am going to go crazy before I can ever leave this stupid house.
“Stop it!” My mother’s voice cuts through my flailing and screeching. “Stop it!” she says again. “What’s wrong with you?”
What’s wrong with me? Her words work like the slap that cures hysterical people in the movies. I am standing here, covered with fleas, and she wants to know what’s wrong with me?
My agitation subsides as a righteous anger flares up in its place. I stop hitting my legs, stop shrieking, and with a shaky breath, pull myself together. I pick up my books, which have been flung aside during my assault on the fleas, and leave the house, slamming the door behind me.
There is nothing wrong with me.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
copyright Barbara Allen 2009
Our father likes to call himself the “King of His Castle.” Whenever he says this, Cindy and I look at the stacks of stuff piled high around us and roll our eyes at each other behind his back. We don’t dare say out loud what we really think: Some castle.
It is a castle often in disrepair, for not only is our father the King of Clutter, he is also the King of Cheap. When broken plumbing makes the kitchen sink unusable, it is months before he has it fixed. In the meantime, we kids haul pans of water needed for washing dishes or cooking from the utility sink in the basement.
Our father, who does none of the hauling, and all of the supervising, seems to view the whole experience as some kind of adventure into the past.
“Just like the pioneer days!” he chortles gleefully, as we splash up the stairs with our pots and pans.
Pioneer days? Cindy and I do more eye-rolling behind his back. Does he really think trudging back and forth through piles of trash to a broken sink bears any resemblance to “Little House on the Prairie?”
The only thing which goes back to the pioneer days, in our opinion, is his rule about bathing and hair washing: no one in the family is allowed to take a bath or wash their hair more than once a week. Cindy and I aren’t sure if his regulation about water usage has more to do with being cheap or with his need to save everything in sight, including the water. Whatever it is, we hate it. We know from our health classes that proper hygiene is important, but our mother doesn’t seem to remember those lessons; she wears the same old dirty clothes for days on end, and only bathes before going to the doctor. Our brother, Stevie, hasn’t discovered girls yet, so whether he bathes or doesn’t bathe is no big deal to him. The younger kids are still at the bath-avoidance age, and don’t seem to mind, either.
Cindy and I get around the once-weekly bathing rule by sneaking sponge baths in the basement utility sink between our allotted tub soaks. The limitations on hair washing affect us more. We both have baby fine hair that looks unclean after even one day of non-washing; by the end of the week, our hair is so greasy and limp we are embarrassed to go to school. Unlike the sponge baths, (we secretly scrub ourselves behind the closed basement door with quiet speed while our mother is busy with her soap operas), there is no easy way to sneak a shampoo without detection. Our wet hair or the sound of the blow dryer gives us away. If we try to wash our hair while our parents are out, one of the younger kids is sure to tell on us. We are forced to come up with creative ways to improve the look of our hair without using water.
After considerable research, Cindy and I learn about two water-free alternatives to hair washing: baby powder and “dry” shampoo.
We read about the use of baby powder in a woman’s magazine, which claims it works as a quick de-greaser. Cindy and I are delighted; maybe this will be just what we need to add life to our limp strands! We try it mid-week, taking turns applying just the right amount of baby powder to the top of our heads and brushing it through our hair, as the magazine article had directed.
The result is disappointing. Our hair does indeed look less oily, but instead of our usual dark blond color, it is now an unappealing shade of gray. Slightly better than before, but not exactly what we had in mind. We decide to try our next alternative, the “dry” shampoo.
This product is actually designed for use by people with no easy access to a sink, usually because they are hospitalized or bedridden, not because their father is counting every droplet that falls from the faucet.
Unlike the baby powder, which we already have at our house, we have to buy the “dry” shampoo from the drugstore. At school, we go without milk at lunchtime, saving the money for our purchase, and search the playground and the road for whatever coins we can find to put toward the price. We don’t mind, for we are sure that the end result will be well worth the sacrifice!
It’s not. The “dry” shampoo isn’t really “dry” at all; it leaves a gluey residue in our hair, which causes the strands to clump together, but doesn’t make them any less greasy. We have been taken in by false advertising and wasted our money on a product that has failed us in our hour of need.
The loss of our money is still on my mind during the weeks just before Christmas, a holiday when we sometimes receive modest cash gifts from relatives, which will hopefully reimburse us for the dry shampoo experiment. Thinking back to our hair fiasco, it suddenly occurs to me how to use my father’s cheapness to work for my benefit. It’s an idea so ingenious I don’t even share it with Cindy. For Christmas, instead of real gifts, I ask him for only one thing. It’s something that doesn’t have to be purchased and therefore should be impossible for him to refuse, especially since it’s the only gift I request: permission to wash my hair more than once a week.
Christmas morning arrives and I am almost smug with anticipation. I have beat the King of Cheap at his own game! I can already picture myself heading back to school, tossing my head; my hair, freshly washed, gleaming, tumbling across my shoulders. Just like a shampoo commercial.
Under the tree, however, is a package addressed to me. I’m confused; I really shouldn’t have any tangible gifts. I slowly unwrap the Christmas paper and find inside a bottle of shampoo… for oily hair. My father sees my puzzled expression and explains: If my hair is that greasy after one week of non-washing, there must be something wrong with me. The oily hair shampoo, he says, should be just what I need. When I try to explain that my hair, when washed regularly, isn’t the least bit oily, he completely dismisses that possibility. The once-weekly rule stands.
The King has the upper hand once again. Looks like it’s back to the baby powder.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
copyright Barbara Allen 2009
On Sunday afternoons during the fall, our father watches football. At least that's what he calls it. Immediately after church, he puts on the game, settles into his recliner -which, with all the clutter, has barely enough room to recline- and closes his eyes. To us kids, it looks like he’s sleeping; harsh sounds, which we mistake for snoring, come from his nose or mouth. But when one of us accidentally steps in front of the television, temporarily blocking the screen, his eyes flare open and we realize that we’ve been fooled by his appearance.
“Hey! You make a better door than a window!”
We quickly move out of his line of vision.
On Sunday afternoons during the rest of the year, our father substitutes a real nap for “football watching.” His important deacon duties require him to wake up early, and he needs a nap to recover. He always says that he’s just going to rest his eyes for a few minutes, but those minutes usually stretch into an hour or more.
We don’t mind, though. Really, we wouldn’t mind if he slept for days. Sometimes, when he does finally wake up, he’s even in a pretty good mood. That’s when he likes to take the family on a Sunday drive.
It’s a drive with no plan or set destination. The six of us kids and our mother are crammed into the car and off we go. During the drive, our father makes random stops at the homes of relatives, friends and church acquaintances, with no invitation, no phone call of warning, and often right at dinner time.
Cindy and I are not quite sure how we feel about the Sunday drive. We want to get away from the disorder of our house, but riding around aimlessly in the car with our parents and other siblings feels more like traveling with chaos than escaping it. The drive itself is misery. The car is too hot, too crowded, and we kids have forgotten our good church behavior. We push, we pinch, we argue. We complain in loud voices: we feel car sick, we’re hungry, we have to go to the bathroom. Where are we going and when are we going to get there?
Our father finally stops for an unannounced visit. By this time, we’re like unruly puppies, squirming and tumbling over each other in our desperation to get out of the car. But first we have to wait for our father to go through his visitation ritual. He gets out of the car alone, goes to the door of our unsuspecting friend and rings the doorbell. Sometimes he has to ring it several times before anyone answers. Then, after a brief conversation with the potential drop-in recipient, he heads back to the car.
This is it, the moment we find out whether we’ll be staying to visit or moving on to surprise someone else. If we’re continuing on, our father will simply open the driver’s side door and get in without a word. If we’re staying, he’ll open the back door instead and say, “All right.”
All right! When this is the answer, we kids pour out of the car, swarm down the sidewalk and into the house of our on-the-spot host. Often, however, the person we are visiting will immediately shoo all of us back outside “to play.” This is a disappointment; we prefer to be inside, where the snacks are.
During our visit, our father drops a lot of strong hints about how we would love to stay for dinner. Sometimes we’re invited. Other times, it’s the person we’re visiting who is dropping the hints, saying things like: nice to have you so unexpectedly stop by, but now I have to get dinner on the table for my own family, or it was great seeing all of you, let me walk you to your car.
Every now and then, one of the random homes our father has chosen as a possible candidate for visitation fools us by its appearance. There are cars in the driveway and all the lights are on, but no matter how long our father rings the doorbell, no one ever comes. Just in case their doorbell might be broken, he walks all around the outside of the house, looking in the windows and knocking on the side or back doors.
Eventually, he returns to the car.
“All those lights on and nobody home,” he grumbles, shaking his head as we drive away.
“Must be nice not to have to worry about your electric bill.”
Thursday, February 11, 2010
copyright Barbara Allen 2009
Living with my mother and father is like living on another planet or in a foreign country ruled by a very strange king. The ways of the world outside our house are a mystery to me. I want to fit in, but I need some guidelines to tell me what is normal and what is not.
That's one of the reasons I like to read. Reading gives me clues about the lives of what I call “regular people,” provides me with details I might not otherwise ever learn: information about hygiene and grooming, about chores, responsibilities, good manners, about families who have fun together.
Our family isn't much fun. Cindy and I have met people who think, because we come from a big family, that it must be so great, nothing but a party all the time. These people have obviously watched too much TV. That's what we tell them, actually. When someone starts carrying on about how lucky we are to come from a big family and how much fun it must be, we tell them: “It isn't like the Waltons, you know.” Not much fun, mostly just crowded.
That's another reason I like to read. Reading lets me become part of those other families; the ones who do have fun. Families where the father is brave and wise, not someone who yells all the time and saves every bit of random garbage imaginable. Families where the mother gets off the couch once in a while, and not just to get another pack of cigarettes.
Besides reading, I also use observation to figure out the ways of the outside world. I spend a lot of time watching other people and putting what I see into a mental storage box labeled: Building a Normal Life. I take note of how chores are done, and how often, especially those related to cleaning. I try to remember how the table is set at a friend's home. I observe how other parents treat their children. When we travel in the car at night, I stare into the windows of homes with the lights on and the shades still up, paying attention to the arrangement of the furniture, the colors of the walls, how the rooms are decorated.
When my mother catches me doing this, she gives me a stern reprimand.
“That's rude and nosy, staring into people's windows like that,” she says. I shrug, ignoring her. She happens to be telling me this at the tail end of one of our Sunday drives, where we have just dropped in, uninvited, right at dinner time, at the home of someone we barely know. Looking in the windows from the car as we pass seems far less rude, in my opinion. It's also an important part of my on-going research, one that I can't afford to abandon if I'm going to fit into the “regular world” one day.
That's what I hope, anyway. If I can gather just enough of the right information into that mental storage box of mine, maybe I can do it. Maybe, someday, I can build myself a normal life.
And if I'm lucky enough, maybe I'll even be able to help Cindy and the other kids build one, too.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Like many other Children of Hoarders, my siblings and I were never allowed to have friends over, and very few people ever saw the inside of our house.
My best friend Rose, however, changed that. In this excerpt from Nice Children Stolen From Car, you'll see why I call her:
Friend for Life
copyright Barbara Allen 2009
No one is allowed inside our house; that's our father's rule. Some exceptions are made, of course, for grandparents and a few close family members, but anyone else who shows up at the door is out of luck. They have to wait on the front walk until whoever they are visiting comes outside to greet them.
There are a lot of rules at our house that we kids would like to break, but this isn't one of them. We are desperately afraid if the few friends we have find out how we really live, if they see the towering piles of clutter and dirt, it won't be long before we have no friends at all. Our father's ban on visitors prevents this from happening, so we are more than happy to go along with it.
My best friend Rose, however, is not a fan of the front walk waiting policy. She is also not the type of girl to put up with anything she doesn't like for very long. So one day, when she comes to our house, she not only doesn't wait on the walk, she doesn't even ring the doorbell; she simply opens the front door and walks right in.
My mother and I are in the disaster we call a living room when Rose makes her unexpected entrance. No one has ever just come into our house before, and we are so surprised by her presence that, for a few seconds, we stand paralyzed and speechless. I glance nervously at my mother, wondering what she will do, but she seems uncertain and confused by this turn of events.
“Hello,” Rose says cheerfully. She is looking with great interest at the mountains of debris all around her. I want to run up and cover her eyes before she can see anything else.
“Hello,” my mother answers, and then, something weird happens. It's as if a spell has been broken or some kind of barrier has been crossed. Rose is inside our house and there is nothing we can do about it. My mother shrugs. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Sure,” Rose says, and my mother turns to lead the way into the kitchen.
The kitchen! Oh, God, not the kitchen! I feel a surge of panic; of all the rooms in our house, the kitchen is the worst. That's where our three unhousebroken dogs live; a large piece of plywood propped in front of the kitchen entrance keeps them from escaping and possibly messing up my father's junk piles. My mother now casually slides this board aside, as if it is perfectly normal, something everyone has blocking their kitchen, so we can enter.
I turn to Rose. “Don't we have to be somewhere? Like right away?”
“No,” she says, carefully sidestepping a puddle of dog urine as she follows my mother into the kitchen. She sits down at the table, pushing aside several dirty dishes and empty cereal boxes to make room for the coffee cup my mother is filling for her. A dog nuzzles her ankle.
My mother reaches across me to hand Rose her coffee. To my dismay, I notice a small island of grease floating on the surface of the liquid; I see Rose hesitate briefly before she puts the cup to her lips. She looks at me, then smiles and takes a brave sip.
I watch in disbelief as Rose finishes her coffee. My mother offers her another cup, but she declines politely, saying that she and I have to get going. We say our good byes and, to my great relief, we leave.
“Whew,” says Rose, looking back at the house once we are outside. “That was really something.”
But I don't want to talk about the house.
“You drank it,” I say, admiringly. She probably doesn't realize it, but this simple act has made her my friend for life. “You drank the coffee.”
“Well,” she admits, “I had a little problem when I saw that floating scum. But then I reminded myself that you drink stuff like that everyday.”
She smiles at me. “And you aren't dead yet.”
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Soap Opera Diva
copyright Barbara Allen 2009
Shepherd’s pie doesn’t seem like a difficult meal to make. It doesn’t have many ingredients, at least not the way our mother makes it: a layer of hamburger followed by a layer of corn, topped with mashed potatoes. She makes it often, once or twice a week, so she really should have the recipe memorized by now. Why then, Cindy and I wonder, does it sometimes taste so different, in a not-so-good way? Why is the hamburger, so moist and delicious one time, so dry and rubbery another? Why are the mashed potatoes sometimes so fluffy and golden-brown but other times burnt as black as charcoal? It takes us a while to figure it out, but at last we make the connection: the quality of our meal is directly related to the level of our mother’s distraction by television soap operas.
We are in school, of course, so it isn’t until the summer or holidays that we are able to see how the programs, which she fondly refers to as, “her stories,” consume her day. Hours before she can tune in, our mother is on the phone with friends and fellow watchers. With them, she discusses the characters and their tangled lives with more interest and enthusiasm than she shows for the real people in her life.
By mid-morning, she has finished talking on the phone and is ready to get down to the business of serious soap opera watching. She takes her coffee and cigarettes and stations herself horizontally on the couch, prepared for the first program. Sometimes she brings an ashtray; other times, she can’t be bothered and uses her coffee cup once it is empty.
Her focus on the television is unbroken until noon, when the soap opera program schedule is interrupted by the news. Our mother has no interest in what is happening in the world around us. As soon as the newscasters appear on the screen, she lets out an impatient sigh, heaves herself off the couch and makes her way through the piles of clutter to the kitchen. Even though it is only lunchtime, she begins preparations for supper, which has to be ready and on the table for our father by 5pm, no excuses allowed.
Our mother works at a feverish pace to get things done during the news break, anxious not to miss a minute of the soap that will soon follow. As soon as the first dramatic organ chords begin to drone, she is out of the kitchen and back to the couch, all preparations on hold.
Her programs have interesting names: Love of Life. Search for Tomorrow. The Guiding Light. As the World Turns. General Hospital.
The characters have interesting names, too, like Blade and Tiffany, Beau and Chanel. But the stories are all the same: everyone seems to be in love with someone else besides their own husband or wife.
Our mother doesn’t seem to mind the similarities between the story plots. Or maybe she just doesn’t notice. She doesn’t notice much when she is watching her soap operas anyway, which, we have decided, is probably why our supper is sometimes overcooked or even burnt.
She doesn’t notice us kids, either. We arrive home from school during her last two programs, and if we try to talk to her, the response is always the same: “Yeah, yeah, whatever you want. Now leave me alone and go outside.” We have learned that this is the best time to ask her for permission for things she normally wouldn't allow us to do.
Her last story ends at 4 o’clock, which puts the pressure on for the supper meal to be completed by the time specified by our father. The earlier lunch prep has been helpful, but there are always distractions which jeopardize the quality of our meal, like one of her fellow soap opera fans phoning to recap the day’s steamy action.
Cindy and I wish our mother would be less interested in soap operas and more interested in doing stuff that other mothers do, like baking cookies and asking kids about their day at school. We’d like to talk to her about things like that: how we did on our math test, what our friends are doing after school and what we want for our birthdays. Maybe then we’d be able to talk to her about other things, too: like why we live the way we do, in garbage and in fear.But wishing doesn’t change anything. Day after day she keeps watching the same old programs and making the same old meals. And day after day, at 5pm, our father comes through the door, already yelling before anyone has even had a chance to do anything wrong. We never know if our meals will be good or bad, but we do know one thing:
They will always be on time.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
In this excerpt from Nice Children Stolen from Car, you will perhaps see this same trait in my father. I call this one:
copyright Barbara Allen 2009
Our father often tells us how he wanted to be a priest but chose, instead, to become our father.
My sister Cindy and I think this was a poor career decision on his part. He should have been a priest; at least then fatherhood would have been excluded from his list of life options. His temper is too hot and too unpredictable for any parent; we’re never quite sure just what will set him off or how violently he will react. When our cat playfully scattered papers in one of his piles of stuff, our father slammed its head repeatedly against the wall before flinging it through the air out the front door. We have no desire to become his next missiles and do our best to stay out of his way.
The fuse of his temper used to be especially short on Sundays. That was before he became a deacon, when our family used to sit together at Mass: me, Cindy, our three sisters and brother crowded into the pew, our mother and father on either end. Our father had no tolerance for less than perfect behavior: we kids had to sit ramrod straight with no whispering, no nudging or poking, no crinkling of church bulletins, no scratching of legs, noses or other body parts, no fidgeting. Yet, try as we might, our behavior never seemed quite good enough. Once, our brother Stevie, a born fidgeter, was just a little too restless during Mass. Our father hauled him out of the pew, flung him out the side door, and began kicking him with the point of his dress shoe before the door had a chance to close behind them, the entire church looking on.
But now our father is a deacon, a position in the Catholic Church which he informs us is much more important than it is in some other churches, where you only get to pass the collection basket. A Catholic deacon, our father tells us, is as important as the priest, maybe even more important, since priests are becoming few and far between. We don’t care much about that anyway; what really matters is that he doesn’t sit in the pew with us anymore, monitoring our every itch and twitch for punishment purposes. Now each Sunday finds him on the altar, wearing his special deacon robes and his look of extra-holiness as he assists during Mass. His duties vary: he may do a reading, give a long-winded homily or hand out Communion.
My best friend Rose tells me her mother will not receive Communion from my father, whom she refers to as “that hypocrite.” She walks, instead, all the way to the other side of the church, where someone else is handing out the Host.
I have always liked Rose’s mom, but after I hear about the Communion boycott, I think I might even love her.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
I'm sure there are plenty of you out there who have either lived with or know a hoarder who may refer to him/herself as a "Collector." Here's another excerpt from Nice Children Stolen from Car about my father, who also likes to use that name to describe what he does.
copyright Barbara Allen 2009
Our father calls himself “a collector.” He makes this claim with considerable pride, as if our house were filled with prehistoric pottery and American Indian artifacts, instead of dented coffee cans and years-old newspapers.
While there is nothing museum-worthy about the contents of our house, it is nevertheless a sight to behold. Our father may call himself a collector, but he doesn’t really collect things: he hoards them. Precarious piles, many nearly shoulder-high, representing years of accumulation, crowd each room; to make our way through the house we must use narrow paths that are barely discernible between the stacks of stuff.
Our father does not throw anything away. No matter if it is a Sears catalog from which he will never order or a used pizza box: once it has entered our house, it can never leave.
No one else is allowed to throw anything away, either. Cindy and I try one day. We gather together a useless jumble of toys: headless dolls, trucks without wheels, broken pieces of plastic that once belonged to something, but no one remembers what, and bundle them into a cardboard box. We cart the box outside to leave for the garbage men; our father carts it back in.
“It’s all good stuff,” he says.
There is so much “good stuff” that some of the piles topple over, blocking the hallway, clogging the stairs, destroying the paths we use to get from room to room. Mounds of clutter press up against the baseboard heaters in our bedroom; Cindy shows me a tattered piece of newspaper, the edges charred and brown. She doesn’t sleep well anymore, she tells me. She’s afraid we will die in a fire that starts next to our bed.
There is so much “good stuff” that we can’t have friends visit. They might not understand the value of the rancid grease which lines the top of the stove in open baby food jars, or in the paper towers of unopened mail that arrived months ago. Our father fears visitors might blab our personal business to the neighborhood and beyond, and that, he tells us, is wrong.
No one should know anything about what goes on inside our house. What happens inside, he says, stays inside.
Along with the rest of the garbage.
Monday, January 18, 2010
Over the past couple of years, compulsive hoarding has quite literally "come out of the closet," and spilled forth into the bright light of public awareness. While talk show programs and television shows, such as "Hoarders," have done much to make this happen, I feel that often the emphasis is placed almost exclusively on the hoarders themselves. Very little is said about the children of hoarders and how they may have been affected by the experience of growing up in this type of environment.
Fortunately, there are some resources now available for children of hoarders, the best one by far www.childrenofhoarders.com. Their Yahoo group offers support to hundreds of children and families of hoarders, giving a place where they can finally not only tell their family secret, but get help dealing with the aftermath.
But many of us remember when there was no help available, when our secret could not be told. In this blog, I would like to share some excerpts from my memoir "Nice Children Stolen from Car," which tells the story of that period in my life, written from the point of view of a fourteen year old. I'm sure that it will be a familiar one for many readers. Let me know what you think!
Nice Children Stolen From Car
Copyright Barbara Allen 2009
I start with the dresser drawers. I have, on one or two occasions in the past, caught a glimpse of what seemed to be paperwork stacked in layers among the socks and underwear. Now, as I comb through the jumble of not-quite-clean clothes, I keep my eyes open for the official-looking envelope which will contain the information I so desperately need to find. Each item that I move aside or examine during my rummaging is carefully returned to its original place; I want my search to go undetected.
When the contents of the dresser drawers reveal nothing more interesting than untidy piles of receipts, old bills, and random scraps of paper, I turn my attention to other areas of the bedroom.
The closet isn’t promising. Outdated and unworn dresses, suits, slacks and shirts cram the rod, broken cardboard boxes spill out from beneath the hanging clothes, spewing more outgrown, never-worn garments onto the floor, but I see no paperwork of any kind.
Under the bed is another possibility, but a grim one. I inch my way across the room through piles of dusty newspapers, old National Geographics, geological survey maps, books, and yet more clothes. The unmade tangle of gray, unwashed sheets gives off a thick, musty smell. At the bedside, several area rugs, balled and linty from lack of vacuuming, are layered on top of one another. I sit cross-legged on the topmost rug and, wrinkling my nose, try to keep my face as far from the sheets as possible as I reach beneath the bed for one of the many cardboard boxes overflowing with papers hidden there. The box makes a scraping sound as I drag it forward toward me through the grit that films the floor; the top is open, the contents blanketed by layers of dust.
I had hoped the missing information might be in this, or one of the other boxes beneath the bed, but I soon realize that I am wrong. The boxes contain nothing of importance…or nothing of importance to me, at least: church bulletins from 1955, old test papers, articles clipped from “Dear Abby” columns, years-old newspaper sale flyers, price tag stubs. There is no rhyme or reason why this stuff has been saved, but there is plenty of it.
Too much stuff, actually, for me to continue looking anymore at this time. I have been in this room far too long as it is, and think it is probably in my best interest to leave now.
Outside, the sound of car doors slamming confirms my decision. The man and woman who claim to be my parents have returned, and my search for the adoption papers will have to be postponed once again.
There are, of course, no adoption papers. I finally abandon that idea, but come up with others, different theories to explain how I could have made my way into this family.
“Wrong Baby Brought Home from Hospital” is my favorite. I imagine the couple whose baby (me) was unknowingly swapped for another. My real parents are Mr. and Mrs. Normal, tidy and well-groomed, with a warm, welcoming home that smells of just-baked cookies or clean laundry. In the evenings, they sit in their cozy den and watch television. Between them on the sofa is a dirty, unkempt child with an unruly tangle of unwashed hair, the impostor who has taken my place in their lives.
As much as I love the idea of being a baby switched at birth, I soon discard that possibility as well. One of my younger sisters, Cindy, is so much like me in looks and personality that it is inconceivable that we could have come from unrelated families. And even my active imagination will not allow me to believe that there could have been two babies unfortunately brought home by mistake to the same family.
So I make up a new theory which will explain Cindy’s presence: “Nice Children Stolen From Car while Parents Inside Store Buying Milk.”
Cindy and I like this idea. We discuss it together sometimes, but we never truly believe it. The woman we must grudgingly acknowledge as our mother clearly has no energy or motivation for kidnapping. She spends her entire day lying on the sofa, chain-smoking and watching soap operas. Sometimes she stops watching long enough to take a nap.
The man who by default must be our father is also an unlikely kidnapping suspect. He seems to be only interested in filling our house with stuff, not random children stolen from a car. He isn’t home much anyway, but when he is, he is so unpleasant, we wish he wasn’t.
None of the theories work; I know that. But I keep them in the back of my mind, and pull them out when I need them to get through the day.