Immaculate Obsession: A Neat Freak Recalls a Childhood of Chaos

Ours was a house of things, items saved and stored. We didn't have conversations or emotions; we had stuff.

My daughter has a private corner in the living room where grown-ups are forbidden. “The rat hole,” she and I call it. If something is missing, a measuring spoon or my eyelash curler, it can surely be found in the rat hole. 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 Angela’s room, transformed in her four-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.

neat freak woman couchJoe Schmelzer for Reader's Digest

When I was ten years old, my father hired someone to build an enclosed porch onto 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 every morning for a week. He laid out his tools and went to work while my brother and I were at school. At the end of the week, he left behind a porch that felt as big and empty as a football field.

My brother 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.

[pullquote]We didn’t have conversations or emotions; we had stuff. [/pullquote]

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 why my brother 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 something elegant, something sophisticated. They stockpiled. They accumulated. They built around us thick walls of possessions, a fortress.

When I was pregnant with Angela, I spent sticky August afternoons in her nursery, sorting tiny pink T-shirts and baby socks. While my husband was away on military deployments, I arranged bottles of baby shampoo on the dresser and stocked the closet with sleepers and blankets, making room for something wonderful to happen in there, in the new space.

As an adult, cleaning my own home had become a tether, a way to find my footing when I felt I had lost control. It made me feel safe, like nothing bad could happen. If I was cleaning, then I wasn’t worrying. Were we ready to have a family? Would our baby be healthy? Then, after my daughter was born, I was an overwhelmed new mother, washing dishes in the middle of the night when my husband was out to sea. And when he left me for another woman, I scrubbed the kitchen floor until it gleamed.

Next: “I mistook orderliness for harmony” »

child playing toys
Joe Schmelzer for Reader’s Digest

My father saved practical things: tools, hunting videos, cans of oils and sprays. Unopened packages of clearance wool socks filled his dresser. My mother, on the other hand, saved things she found beautiful: a snowflake knitted from silver yarn, a ceramic figurine of a mother teddy bear holding a baby teddy bear. Her things were from thrift stores and yard sales. Several jewelry boxes were filled with necklaces and earrings she never wore.

My mother had no pretty things when she was a girl. She and my father grew up poor, the kind of poor you read about in books. In elementary school, she owned two dresses, alternating them so as not to wear the same dress two days in a row. When the lunch bell rang and her classmates went home to eat, my mother walked along the dirt road that led to her house, only to turn around and walk back once she got there. There was no sense in walking into the kitchen for lunch. She knew there would be nothing there for her.

As a teen, my father worked in the local supermarket, turning over his paychecks to his mother, who had four other mouths to feed. His father was absent, a drinker.

Now my mother has more items of clothing than she could wear in a year. She saves like she has something to prove. In her bedroom are three dressers stuffed so full, it’s hard to open the drawers. Between the clothes are jars of eye cream, tubes of lip balm, crinkled receipts, and envelopes of cash. In her sock drawer are bags of almonds and chocolate bars. Lotion tubes and Kleenex boxes form a pyramid atop a dresser, blocking a family portrait that hangs on the wall. My 12-year-old self peeks out over the top.

The jungle spreads to the kitchen, where a baker’s rack overflows with cookbooks. The cabinets hold spice jars so old, their contents are as solid as rock.

The most tangled, bewildering part of the house is the living room, where bookshelves are stuffed with half-filled notepads, boxes of broken crayons, and shrink-wrapped board games—games no one has ever played. The desk is heaped with papers, a curled wedding program sticking out from the stack. It’s from my cousin’s wedding three years ago.

Each time I visit, my eyes fixate on the same item: a picture frame bearing the sticky residue of a yard sale tag. It sits propped up as though on display, next to a bottle of lighter fluid and a Frosty the Snowman videotape. The frame, with its decorative red apples and yellow buses, is meant to hold school pictures, one from each grade. The spaces inside are empty and have been for as long as I can remember.

I grew up differently from my parents. When my brother and I needed something, they found a way to get it for us. He and I knew how hard our parents worked at their factory jobs making shoes. We visited their hot shops that smelled like sweat and rubber cement and saw how tired they were at the end of the day.

[pullquote]A bed with rumpled sheets and crooked pillows says something is out of order, something is wrong with my family.[/pullquote]

Instead of having our friends over, we went to their homes, which were tidy and organized, welcoming. I mistook their orderliness for harmony, thinking that if everything was where it was supposed to be in their kitchens, then everything was where it was supposed to be in their lives.

After I grew up and moved away, I thought I had escaped my parents’ house and their piles of stuff, thought I had left it behind, unable to swallow me up. But it did swallow me. Today, my own house is just as maniacal as theirs was. I clean twice a day, once in the morning and again before bed. I can’t sleep if there are dirty dishes or unfolded laundry. Toast crumbs on the table are like ants crawling on my body. A bed with rumpled sheets and crooked pillows says something is out of order, something is wrong with my family.

Throwing something out gives me freedom, makes me feel lighter. Maybe that’s what children do; we follow the road that takes us as far away from our parents as possible. We fear becoming them so much that we miss the moment when we become their mirror images, the same in our exact oppositeness.

As my daughter squirrels my belongings away to her rat hole, she is finding her own way of creating order. She likes to save things, while I am inclined to throw them away. Who is to say that one impulse is better than the other?

Angela has no interest in tidying her room or throwing out things that are broken. So I clean her room for her, putting her books back into order, big ones to the left on the bookcase and small ones to the right. I make her bed and straighten out the pillows, making everything feel safe again.

In the back of her closet, I find two glossy pages ripped from a National Geographic. One shows a baby harbor seal, the other a scuba diver. I hold them in my hand, feeling her personality jump off the pages. She loves the ocean. The pictures probably make her smile.

I wonder if she hid them from me, knowing that I would have no use for them. My instinct is to put them in the trash, but instead I put them back where I found them on the closet floor. Angela decided she needed those pictures, beautiful things kept simply because they are beautiful.

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