Wednesday, January 27, 2010

And don't forget...The Enabler

It would be easy to blame all the wrongs of my childhood on my father. But he would not have been able to hoard to such an extreme if my mother had not enabled him to do so. Why didn't she object? Was she afraid of him? Was she lazy or depressed? Or did she just not care? In this excerpt from Nice Children Stolen from Car, you'll meet my mother, otherwise known as:

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

Perfectionism Trait in Hoarders

I recently read, via the Yahoo group, Children of Hoarders, a few interesting posts which mention how the trait of perfectionism seems to be manifested by some hoarders.
In this excerpt from Nice Children Stolen from Car, you will perhaps see this same trait in my father. I call this one:

The Deacon
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

Hoarder versus Collector: You be the Judge

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.

The Collector

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

Nice Children Stolen from Car: introduction

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 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


They have to be here somewhere.
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.

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