Monday, March 15, 2010

Getting through the Day

As the Child of a Hoarder, I had to have a strategy to help me get through each day. Some days it worked better than others! This vignette, from Nice Children Stolen from Car, is called:

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

Not Green, Just Mean

A few weeks ago, there was a question brought up by one of the Children of Hoarders about parents who also had an aversion to bathing. The question recently resurfaced, so I thought I would include this particular vignette from Nice Children Stolen from Car, about bathing at our house. I call this one:

The King
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.

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