Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dysfunction takes to the Road

A recent thread on the Children of Hoarders forum made me think of this vignette from my memoir, Nice Children Stolen from Car. Until now, I thought my siblings and I were the only ones whose father or mother popped in unexpectedly on near-strangers. I call this one:

Sunday Drive
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


It always amazes me how much we, as Children of Hoarders, have in common. There has been a recent thread on the Children of Hoarders forum about "research." To the Child of a Hoarder, this means the careful and continuous study of life outside of the hoarder home, with the plan of building a normal life based on what we have learned. When I was a young girl, I called this process "research," and I was surprised to see that so many other Children of Hoarders referred to it the same way. It is also the title of the following excerpt, written almost two years ago, from my book, "Nice Children Stolen from Car." (When I shared this particular vignette with my writers' group, they told me that they didn't like it. Maybe you have to be a Child of a Hoarder to appreciate it!)

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

Doorbell Dread

This is a topic which has been discussed at great length by the Children of Hoarders Yahoo group.
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.”

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