The White-Knuckled Neat-Freak
After growing up in a house of hoarders, a young woman channels her inner neat-freak.
Ours was a house of things, items saved and stored just in case. We didn’t have conversations or emotions; we had stuff.
My daughter has a private corner in the living room where grownups are forbidden. “The rathole,” she and I call it. If something is missing, a measuring spoon or my eyelash curler, it can surely be found in the rathole. She sits there, wedged between the couch and the bookshelf, stockpiling her pirated items, out of the watchful eye of her clean-freak mother.
Her collections spread like ivy to her bedroom, where she saves tiny piles of pebbles and seashells, twigs and acorns. Orphaned items find new belonging in Angie’s room, transformed in her 4-year-old imagination from their ordinary purposes to something fanciful. A handful of pencils becomes a sword collection. A mixing bowl takes shape as a Jacuzzi for superhero figurines. A broken coil of vacuum hose morphs into a black snake.
“Why are you keeping this?” I ask.
“It’s a rattlesnake,” Angela says. “A nice rattlesnake.”
I hand over the broken hose and wonder how my daughter can be so much like me, yet so different at the same time.
When I was 10 years old, my father hired someone to build an enclosed porch onto the east side of our house. Like many families, we needed more room for our stuff. But our stuff wasn’t quite like the things other families had.
The contractor arrived in a red pickup truck every morning for a week. He laid out his tools and went to work while my brother, Brian, and I were at school. At the end of the week, he drove off, leaving behind a porch that felt as big and as empty as a football field.
Brian and I ran the length of our new porch. We smelled the fresh lumber of its vacant, clean walls and marveled at its empty spaces. What would we do with this new place? We could play there, spread our sleeping bags out on the wooden floor for a campout. We could practice our cartwheels or throw a football back and forth.
Within months, the porch’s possibilities, once endless and promising, were lost. It became a heap of snow sleds and fishing poles, holiday ornaments and outgrown clothes—things that no longer served us but no one was willing to throw out. There were rusted coffee cans filled with homeless screws and nails, tent poles sticking out of tote bags.
A path was blazed from the screen door of the porch to the sturdier front door of the house, which concealed our family’s greatest secret, the reason Brian never invited friends over and I never hosted a sleepover party. Ours was a house of things, items saved and stored just in case. We didn’t have conversations or emotions; we had stuff. To say my parents were collectors would make it sound like it was something elegant, something sophisticated. They stockpiled. They accumulated. They built around us thick walls of possessions, a fortress.
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