Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 8

My life was changing right before our eyes. My two baby girls were still in cloth diapers which still needed to be taken to the Laundromat three or four times a week. I had the same garden that needed to be tended. I continued to live in a four-hundred-seventy square foot trailer in a rented mobile home space. My soul was still that of a leftover hippy. Neither I personally, nor my circumstances, had changed one bit. Two things had changed, however: my basic knowledge of housekeeping and my fundamental thinking concerning it.

I was not lazy. I had not been lazy since the Saturday morning Scooby-Doo days of my youth. I was not stupid, or blind, or uncaring about my home. Before reading that first organizational book, I simply lacked skill.

No one had ever taught me how to keep house before. Growing up I had been taught how to dress myself and to tie my own shoes, how to wash my hair, how to sew, and how to write a term paper. I had even learned how to pluck a chicken when the occasion arose. I had been given all the equipment, knowledge and resources needed to complete those and hundreds of other tasks. I had taken three years of Home Ec in high school. There I learned personal hygiene from an outdated textbook, how to wrap a Christmas package, and the importance of keeping my muffins from having “peaks and tunnels.” Somehow, the practical how-to’s of housework, time management and organization were never on the curriculum.

Knowledge by itself is not what made the difference. The biggest change came in my thinking. I was a housewife. Housewives do housework, so everyday that is what I had been doing. To me, housework had been a chore, a drudgery or, at best, an obligation. I vacuumed because that is what housewives were supposed to do. I dusted because that is what I saw the pretty flitty moms do on television. I did dishes when there were none left clean. My eyes were not attuned to the big picture, only to the tasks at hand. The biggest difference Holly’s book had made was how I perceived my job as homemaker. It changed my thinking from job-orientation to goal-orientation.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 7

I made a courageous decision: I took the dusty monogrammed towels off the rack and put them in the dirty clothes hamper, sorted through the excess towels, kept only the few that we could use, and gave away the rest. After they were washed, we actually used those fancy towels to dry our bodies. Shocking! I felt like a Bohemian. I had never actually seen beautiful towels in use before, and I was sure that it simply was not done in polite company. I also felt a little bit naughty: When I was a teenager, a psycho lady once screamed at me for drying my hands on her show towels. It felt good to break the rules a little, and in some small way, get my revenge. As it turned out, those beautiful fluffy white monogrammed towels felt as good as they had looked on the rack. They felt better, in fact, than my Pledge-commercial-house ideals.

Each decision that I made expanded my mind and opened my eyes a little more every day. Rethinking the way I had been living, and putting it all aright, was like doing a Chinese puzzle. You know the little plastic kind with a tray full of numbered square tiles in random order with one tile missing? I used to get them as favors at birthday parties when I was a kid. To put the numbers in order I had to slide one tile at a time into the empty space. In the process of solving the puzzle, the numbers would become jumbled and unjumbled multiple times before they were set in order. That is how my thoughts were as I worked my way through the clutter. Over and over I had to ask myself, “What should I keep? Where should I put it? What should I throw out? What should I store? What if I need it again? How much is enough?”

Sometimes, like with the monogrammed towel decision, I had to give up my dreams for a better reality. Many times, however, I was not ready yet to let go, so I boxed things up and put them out in the still-doorless shed. The inside of our home, the part over which I had jurisdiction, was looking better and better.

The next time Holly came over again, about five days after giving me the book, she was stunned. As she came through the front door, she had to catch herself from falling off the stairs. The house was clean; the girls were napping, dinner was simmering in the crockpot and I was relaxing on the sofa reading.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 6

I found it harder to make decisions about our clutter in the bathroom. Our bathroom was so tiny; it seemed like an afterthought in the design of our mobile home. It was so small; we practically had to pull down our pants in the hallway and back in to use the toilet. It had a small corner sink surrounded by a few of inches of counter space, just big enough to hold a couple of toothbrushes and a set of electric rollers to quaff my already out-of-date Farrah Fawcet hairdo. Underneath it was a little cupboard for storage, and beside it built into the wall was a small triangular closet which held a five gallon hot water heater on the bottom and two storage shelves above. Next to the toilet was a full sized bathtub with shower. It was ridiculous use of the limited space because, with only a five gallon hot water heater, we had to boil water in the three gallon spaghetti pot a couple of times if we ever wanted to take a bath. The toilet was squeezed in between the generous bathtub and the wall. I had often thought how lucky we were that we were both very thin when we were young. If we had been any bigger we would have needed to call the fire department with the Jaws of Life to get us off the toilet. How was our family of four supposed to function in such limited space?

We needed all the stuff we had in the bathroom, but how much was enough? We had two babies. We really needed only two hooded baby towels, not the six that I had crammed into the shelves above the water heater. For the two of us we had multiple mismatched towels packed tightly into the closet shelves. My favorite ones, however, were the ones I never used: a beautiful set of fluffy white towels with gold monograms that we had received as a gift from Dan’s brother for our wedding. They hung on the towel bar literally collecting dust.

When I was growing up I had visited homes that had pretty towels hanging in the bathroom just for show. I believed them to be an essential part of a proper Pledge commercial house. I had only one towel bar, and so it seemed only fitting to grace it with the best and most beautiful that I had to offer. I loved my monogrammed towels, but keeping them hanging on the only towel bar meant that I had nowhere to hang the ratty old towels with which we always dried ourselves. We needed our closet full of crummy towels because we used them all: Since we had nowhere to hang used towels, we threw them into the dirty clothes hamper after just one use. I had to rethink my priorities. How could I free up space in the towel cupboard without sacrificing my pretty towel dream?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 5

Throughout that first week my reality was changing. I felt as though I was walking out of a dense fog and into the sunshine. I was seeing things I had never seen before, and unfortunately smelling stinks that I had never smelled before! The good news was that I was thinking thoughts that had never crossed my mind before. As I continued to move from room to room, surface to surface, and drawer to drawer, I had to ask myself, “How much is enough?” The silverware organizer in the top kitchen drawer was so full that the teaspoons were overflowing into the forks. How many teaspoons did I really need? We had been given four different sets of drinking glasses for our wedding. Our kitchen was tiny, and shelf space was limited. How many drinking glasses could we really use, especially if I were actually to wash the dishes more than once a day? Under the kitchen sink I had stored a dozen bottles of cleaning products, each of which had promised me happiness and a sparkling clean home. Most of them were liars. How many could I use? What about the good money I had spent on those half-full bottles of empty promises? Sometimes answering those questions was really difficult. I had to force myself not to over think.

Sometimes the answers to my questions were so stunningly easy and clear; I was shocked at my own former dulled wit. In the hallway between the kitchen and bathroom was a little utility closet, just the right size for a mop, broom and dust pan. It was filled from the floor to about knee height with old newspapers. Back in high school, Holly’s mom had taught me that newspaper was excellent for cleaning glass surfaces, so I saved as many newspapers as I could. Crammed on top of them I kept my mop, which I had always put away wet. The pile had become soggy, smelly and moldy, but I had never noticed before. For the first time I asked myself why I had kept so many. If I had had the common sense that God gave a turnip, I would never have saved any of them because we had a daily subscription to the paper. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. Could that have been me who had hung on to all this awful garbage? As I mucked the rotted mess out of the utility closet, I fought back my shame and forged on.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 4

Before I had even finished the first chapter, I set myself to doing everything in the book. I got three boxes which I marked “Give Away,” “Put Away,” and “Throw Away.” Starting at the first piece of furniture by the front door, which was the sofa, I picked up one item at a time and sorted it into its appropriate box. Some things were easy to classify: Popsicle wrappers were throw-aways; puppets from the church puppet ministry were put-aways.

Other things were harder: Like, what was to be done with two years worth of Reader’s Digest magazines on the coffee table? Don’t magazines belong on coffee tables? How many magazines? What if we needed some of the information they contained? Besides, the collection belonged to Dan, not me. My husband loved Reader’s Digest. I, on the other hand, found it to be a source of humiliation, as he beat me at “Word Power” month after month. I found another box and marked it, “Ask Dan.” I was on a crusade to save my house, and I could not let a few magazines slow me down. Besides, unlike Joan of Arc, I did not want to get burned at the stake.

I moved from one piece of furniture to the next, sorting and tossing. By the end of the first day, I had decluttered my entire living room and most of the kitchen. Whenever the throw away box got filled, I walked it out to community dumpster at the end of my street. I filled garbage sacks with give-away stuff and put them in the trunk of my car to take to the thrift store. I did my best to find homes for all the items that needed to be put away, but sometimes, I didn’t know where things belonged. I still had to take care of a nursing baby, a toddler and all their cloth diapers, but I was making genuine progress. When Dan came home that evening, he was a little dubious about my new crusade. He was afraid that I would blithely toss out his stuff. I showed him the “Ask Dan” box, crossed my fingers behind my back, and promised to be respectful of his possessions.

He wanted to hang on to the Reader’s Digests because he thought it might be nice to have a complete collection, but he agreed that I only needed to keep the two most current issues on the coffee table. I boxed up the rest, labeled them and stuffed them in the shed with his box of ironing.

The next day, after a successful decluttering session, I loaded up the girls in their double stroller, propped the diaper pail on the back of it, and headed over to the Laundromat on the other side of the mobile home park with my fabulous new book in hand. It was a beautiful summer day, and my house looked cleaner than it ever had under my watch. I left both the front and back doors of the trailer open to air out. . It was the first time I had ever felt the freedom to fling my doors open wide for God and all of humanity to see.

When Dan drove into our street that afternoon, he was met with two unmarked police cars and FBI agents pointing guns at the trailer across the street from ours. They yelled at him to stay back, but he rushed past them, frantic to get into the house. The place looked stripped clean; his wife and children were missing, and FBI agents were holding some criminal at bay across the street. He could only assume the worst!

“Where are my wife and daughters?” he called out to the police.
“Stay back, sir,” they barked.

After the worst five minutes of Dan’s life, a strange man emerged from the mobile home across the street with his hands over his head. The excitement was over.

“Where’s my wife?” Dan yelled at the officers. They did not answer, but only escorted the suspect into their vehicle and drove away.

He ran across the street to find out what happened. The neighbors had let a casual friend from out of town flop on their couch for a few days, and it turned out that the guy had been robbing banks all over the state. Dan was relieved, but that still did not explain why his family, and what looked like most of his worldly goods, were missing from his home. Meanwhile, I was peacefully unaware of the hullabaloo, reading my great new organizational book and hanging diapers on the clothesline beside the Laundromat. By the time I returned home to cook his dinner, I was happy and relaxed, and he was totally freaked out.

I was not missing, and neither was any of our stuff. The house just looked clean, that was all! My small amount of effort was already accomplishing great things.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 3

God was speaking to me in small and significant ways. First it was through the ladies who cleaned my house. Next it was the frame-dusting lady. Finally, though, it was through a book. It just so happened that Holly went into a bookstore, and there right in front was a big display rack of the newest bestseller which just so happened to be a book that was about to change my life. I am a strong believer in the idea that nothing “just so happens.” God loves me too much, and is wildly too amused by me, to let anything good that He has planned for me randomly slip through His fingers. The book should have had my picture on the front: It was about one woman’s struggle with overcoming clutter and her journey to a life of peace and order. Holly bought two copies, one for her and one for me. It was one of the best gifts I have ever received in my life.

Until then, I believed that I was alone in my squalor. Sure, Holly’s apartment was less than ideal, but her problems were not as bad as mine. I thought nobody’s problems were as bad as mine! Have you ever seen those commercials on TV where a kid sits cross-legged on the floor, opens a book and a great beam of light shines forth, carrying on it great heroic figures of history and literature? That is exactly how I felt when I started to read this book. The author had been just like me. She had overflowing clutter just like me. Her utensil drawer was filled with toast crumbs; her bathroom had a dull yellow film in all the wrong places, and her shed was crammed piles of regrets, just like mine. Hallelujah! Her words were a beacon, and she was my Joan of Arc, charging forward to reclaim her homeland. Not only did everything the author said inspire me, but also her methods and techniques made total sense in my clutter-filled world.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 2

A day or two after Glynis and her Kamikaze Cleaning Crew had stripped the scales from my eyes Holly came to see my house. She was as astonished as I was at the difference. While Holly never suffered from the same Pledge-commercial-Brady-Bunch-Barbie-plastic-turkey delusions that I did, she struggled with a messy apartment. Holly had been raised in a clean home, but she had not learned how to do housework when she was a kid. As a full time working single mother, Holly found herself battling messes and clutter just like I did. She marveled with me at the deep-down-cleanness of everything. Who knew that a drain board could be scrubbed with Ajax? We both thought that brown gooey stains on the dish drainer were inevitable. Like me, she never thought about whether or not toaster crumbs could actually be cleaned out of a utensil drawer. Both of us were smart enough to know that our homes did not look like others we had seen, but neither of us understood what needed to be done to gap the difference.

Somehow, in my mind, things looked good when they were new, and then, over time, they got dirty. I possessed some very rudimentary cleaning skills: I knew that a vacuum cleaner should be plugged into a wall, turned on and moved back and forth across a carpet. I knew that I was supposed to spray Pledge on furniture and wipe off the dust. I understood that, when all the drinking glasses were dirty, and I found myself getting a drink of water out of a wide mouth Mason jar, it was time to do the dishes. I did not understand, however, how to have a clean house.

My eyes were gradually opening to the possibility of a different way of life. When my girls were babies, I taught needlecraft classes and sold needlecraft kits and accessories at in-home parties. Once as I was passing around a beautifully framed needlepoint picture, a customer casually commented that she preferred to make her stitcheries into pillows because then she would not need to dust the frame on her wall. Dust the frame? Dust the frame? People dust frames on their walls? What a fascinating concept! I told Holly about it, and she said that she had never gotten the frame-dusting memo, either.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Chapter Three-- page 1

Chapter Three

Throughout those years I had two friends, Sue and Holly, who were allowed into my messy, confusing world. Both of them were busy single women who worked full time, hence my secret rendezvous with the Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer guy. I am not really sure what either of them thought of my poor housekeeping because neither of them seemed bothered any time I shoved a pile of laundry off the couch, so we could sit down for a visit.

Sue had been my college roommate. Along with another friend, Mary Jo, we shared a two bedroom, two story townhouse, which was located just a short hike across an abandoned graveyard from the university. Sue and I could not have been more different from one another. She was level-headed, studious, quiet and neat. I was none of the above. We ate a lot of Baskin Robbins, drank a lot of coffee, stayed up all night way too many times, sledded down the staircase on flattened cardboard boxes and forged a lifelong bond that still holds true to this very day. The fact that Sue loved me, and still loves me, is a testament to her longsuffering spirit. We shared the same bedroom: Her bed was neatly made with hospital corners on the sheets and topped with a color coordinated quilt and afghan. Mine was not. The clothes in her closet were hung neatly on hangers in separate sections. Mine were not. Her desk was neat, organized and equipped for actual use. Need I say this? Mine was crammed so full, and piled so high, that I usually pushed aside a pile of clothes and sat cross legged on my unmade bed to study. My messes, both organizationally and emotionally, did not bother her. She seemed not to notice the chaos that surrounded my existence when we were living together, nor did she give it a second look after I got married.

Holly is my oldest friend. I think we met for the first time when we were five. I do not know for sure when we first became friends, but I know we flew up in Brownies together because I have the Polaroid to prove it. In fourth grade we suffered through the same reading class, the intermediate reading group, with a crabby old teacher who spent her days rolling her dentures around with her tongue and pleading with God for retirement. We were too smart for the remedial group, but too busy daydreaming and talking in class to be placed in the top group. Holly and I always had that in common. We became best friends in junior high where we were seated in alphabetical order. Her name started with Mi and mine with Mo. Depending on whether we were seated A to Z or Z to A, the teacher was always looking at the back of one of our heads while we whispered and passed notes in class. We were Chemistry lab partners in high school, and worked together on the student creative writing magazine our senior year. Twiddlers and silly-hearts to the end, neither of us ever made first chair clarinet in band, or topped the honor roll, or got elected Homecoming Queen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 16

When our second little girl was born, the unthinkable happened. The Bible study ladies wanted to pamper me, to throw a baby shower for me, to bring me meals and to clean my house. It was their tradition: They did it for all the new mothers in the group. I had personally cooked meals and helped clean for some of them. Now it was my turn. I just could not let them see my house. During the week after I came home from the hospital, Dan ran interference for me. He picked up the meals from my friends on his way home from work to “save them the trouble” of driving all the way to our place. Luckily, they held the baby shower at another lady’s home. I put off the house cleaning visit for as long as I could. I told Glynis, “No, thank you.” I told her, “No need to trouble yourself.” I smiled sweetly, secretly clenched my fists, and said “Really, I’m fine. I don’t need any help.” My fingernails dug little bloody marks into the palms of my hands as I politely resisted and resisted. When the baby was about a month old I caved. Glynis and I set a date. I was supposed to take my two girls for a lovely outing, while she, Debi, and a couple of their helpful cleaning cohorts ravaged whatever dignity I had left.

The day before my friends were supposed to come clean my house, I worked harder than I had in my entire life. I picked up everything in the yard and pushed it away from the open shed door. I stuffed piles of magazines, toys, and craft projects into closets and under my bed. I washed all the dishes and pans and put them away in the cupboards. I made sure all our laundry was done and hung up in the closet. I vacuumed, swept and mopped. I stayed up well past midnight getting the house ready for the ladies to clean it.

When Glynis, Debi, Rachel and Donna showed up at my door the next morning I was showered and confident. I loaded the girls up in their double stroller and headed off to the park. I tried not to be nervous about what was possibly going on back home. The babies and I enjoyed a picnic lunch, visited the local library and headed home a couple of hours later.

When I walked in the door, I could not have been more shocked. The ladies were gone, and the house was CLEAN. I mean sparkling, shining, Pledge commercial CLEAN. The difference was so remarkable, I was dumbfounded. The kitchen sink was completely white. The edge of the linoleum around the bottom of the oven no longer had a greasy, crumb infested film around it. The drip trays on the stove were covered in fresh aluminum foil. The ladies had hung the curtain in the front window. The floor behind the toilet was no longer yellow. There were no toaster crumbs in the utensil drawer. The rubber dish drainer mat beside the kitchen sink looked like new. They had scrubbed off the slimy brown film with Ajax. Worst of all, the dish drainer was full of freshly washed baby bottles, nipples and rings. Up to that point, I had not known that baby bottle caps came apart into two pieces. Black slime grew between the rubber nipple and the plastic rings, and I had been giving my babies water out of those bottles! How could I have not noticed? I wanted to scream.

Something weird and new and wonderful and horrible happened inside my soul. I felt as though scales had fallen from my eyes, and I could see my life clearly. Ever since I was a teenager, I had been working at fitting stray puzzles pieces together, trying to build a picture that did not make any sense. My home, my dreams, my efforts ultimately looked nothing like the real me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 15

The ladies were all so nice to me. We went out to lunch together, and sometimes one of them would invite Dan and me over for supper. Their houses were clean, their lawns were manicured and their time seemed relaxed. Back at my house, the manager of the mobile home park was leaving threatening notices on my front door to clean up the mess in the yard.

Dan and I worked together to build a bigger shed. We needed the spare room and the crib because we had another baby on the way. As quickly as it was erected, it was filled up with stuff. In went the box of ironing, the pink taffeta covered cardboard dresser, the three gallon spaghetti pan and the piles of couponing and refunding junk. It all could have stayed reasonably contained, if only we had finished the project by adding a door. More space in the shed just meant more stuff. No door on the shed meant that our little mobile home lot looked like a perpetual flea market. The key word here is “flea.”

Somehow projects never got finished. The shed did not have a door. Our yard had a garden, but no lawn. I made curtains for our front window, but never hung them. Dan got a course and a half of brick laid for a planter, but ran out of mortar before the job was done. In December of that year, we took a wonderful drive up to the mountains with my family to cut a Christmas tree. We brought it home and left it out in the yard until the needles fell off sometime in March. It seemed that we never had enough time to finish a project before the next one came along. With my husband gone to work all day, another baby on the way, and an infant who split her time between sticking everything in her mouth and pooping her cloth diapers, I felt helpless. Even if I had the time to hang a door on the shed or put up the Christmas tree, I totally lacked the skill.

Now as a full-fledged adult I was right back to where I had been on my eleventh birthday: My house looked like crap, and I did not understand why. Nobody else in my circle of friends had homes that looked like mine. I felt different, and somehow wrong. I tried to keep a positive attitude. I worked harder and longer every day. I went to Bible study every Wednesday and smiled. My struggles were my secret. I was sure that if any of those Bible study ladies ever found out what a mess my house was, I would be back to calling the Adolph’s recipe hotline.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 14

My messy home kept me isolated. Any time someone came to the house, I would push back the overflowing debris and stick my face out a crack in the door. We were active in our local church, but obviously we could not invite any other young couples over to dinner. I was very lonely. My refunding newsletter listed an Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer 800 number which featured a recording of a new recipe daily. Home alone with a only a nursing baby for company, I secretly called it three or four times a day, just to hear an adult voice on the other end of the line. A woman from church kept bugging me to go to Wednesday morning ladies’ Bible study with her, but I felt trapped by my own failure. If I could not keep the house clean with the time I had available to me, how could I spare two hours away from home every week? I told her that I could not go because I had too much housework to do. She promised that she would come help me, if I went with her. There was no way that I was going to let her even see my house, let alone clean it! I agreed to go with her, just so she would leave me alone.

The ladies at Bible study seemed to have it all together, especially Glynis, the assistant pastor’s wife. She lived in the parsonage next door to the church with a tie-wearing husband and one very tidy child. Everything in her house was white, and she organized her spices in alphabetical order. I once asked her casually how she kept her house so neat even with a small child at home. She told me that, unless her daughter was in eminent danger, Glynis made her wait until she was completely done with her housework before she allowed the little girl to interrupt. Another lady, Debi, had three children, the youngest of whom was the same age as my baby girl. Her house was immaculate. She was also exceptionally stylish and good looking, but Debi said that she did not breastfeed because she could not bear to sit still and to hold the baby that long. Another lady, who sat beside me every week, lived her life out of a day planner. I had never even heard of a day planner before, but this gal could flip a few pages and tell you where she was going to be in six months and how much she spent on gifts last Christmas. Even though we shared the same faith, I felt like I had almost nothing in common with these people. Nonetheless, they were better than the Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer recording.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 13

Setting my mind against the inevitable disillusionment that followed took every ounce of my energy. I was happy at home. “Happy!” I say, “Happy!” What I was unhappy about was finding that, at the very core of my being, I was not the woman whom I had dreamed that I would be.

My mind had deluded me into believing that I was the Pledge commercial lady, but my soul was kind of a leftover hippy. I planted the biggest garden that I could in our little rented mobile home space amongst the debris that trailed out from the lean-to. I breastfed the baby full time, and I used only cloth diapers. My mind and my soul were in a constant battle: My life did not look like I had imagined it would, but I could not change who I really was deep inside just to please my imagination. I could not bear the thought of strapping artificial paper and plastic diapers on my baby and suffocating her sweet little bum. She wanted to be held and nursed constantly. Feeding her a bottle of artificially produced soy formula would have been nothing short of betrayal. I felt the same way about prepackaged food for Dan and me. I cooked fresh from my garden as much as I could and determined to spend as little as possible at the grocery store.

I started reading books on how to live on less. I clipped coupons and signed up for a newsletter that kept me up to date with the latest manufacturers’ rebates. I had seen people on television who used “couponing and refunding” to buy $500 worth of groceries for $4.32. The trick to doing this, however, is to keep every package, bag and wrapper from every product that you buy, to ask all your friends and neighbors to give you theirs and to dumpster dive for the rest. The baby was sleeping with us, so I used her crib to hold my refunding stash.

I really wanted to have a shiny clean house, but my time was consumed with nursing the baby, loading her up in the stroller with the diaper pail balanced on the back, and walking to the Laundromat every day. In my spare time, I went dumpster diving for cereal boxes and green bean labels. I worked in the garden and cooked nutritious soups. I even tried to clean the house. I hustled and hustled, but nothing ever seemed to look right. Sometimes I would still be vacuuming when Dan came home from work at 4:00 p.m. I left pans soaking on the back of the stove and cried myself to sleep every night.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 12

Those very early days of our marriage were a blur of lovemaking, fighting, working, lovemaking, sleeping late, eating out at restaurants, watching movies, visiting friends, dumpster diving, going to church and lovemaking. Doing housework? Not so much.

Both of us were disorganized and messy before we were married, but together we created a catastrophic chemical reaction. Our stuff seemed to multiply faster than two jackrabbits on their third date. Dan built a little open-air lean-to behind our home to hold our belongings. Whenever we needed to get something out of storage we would have to pull out a dozen other things. Usually we were too busy fighting, working, and lovemaking to put things back where they belonged. Much of the time, stuff was left strewn in the yard.

Added to our mess was our miserable compulsive tardiness. Right around the time we were supposed to arrive for a movie, a birthday party, or an appointment we were just finishing up fighting, sleeping or lovemaking. We were habitually half an hour, or more, late to everything. Our friends and family started telling us that every event started an hour sooner than it did. Silly them. We quickly got wise to their tricks and showed up even later. We were blithely in love and uncaring about anyone but ourselves.

The spare bedroom did not stay spare very long. Our first baby was born nine months and an hour and a half after our wedding. (I like to tell people that we had a great wedding reception!) I quit work to stay home with her. I had finally achieved the greatest goal of my life: I got to be a real stay-at-home housewife and mother! I was going to be the Pledge Commercial Lady; Dan would be like Ward Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver. He was going to come home from the office and sit on the couch in his tie and sweater vest smoking a pipe. Our child would sit neatly in her high chair eating strained peas and smiling. All this would magically happen because I willed it so.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 11

It took me longer than I expected to “Phil” in the blank and meet my husband. Like Diana Ross once said, “You can’t hurry love.” I was an old maid of twenty when I finally married. Lest you worry, dear reader, that my selfish motives caused the relationship to end badly, such was not the case. I genuinely loved Phil. I mean Dan. After almost 30 years I still do. Fortunately for both of us, he loves me back.

On my wedding day I was nervous and shaking. One of my bridesmaids said, “What are you so nervous about? This is the day you’ve been waiting for since you were, like, four years old!” I wondered if I had always been that obvious.

After a brief honeymoon during which our ten-year-old rusty Datsun pick up broke down in a place called Baker, Nevada, we settled into domestic bliss. We bought a ten by forty-seven foot two bedroom mobile home and moved in all our stuff. Guess what? I had married my father. He brought into our marriage forty-five boxes of I-don’t-know-what, and at least a dozen more which should have been marked, “What-was-he-thinking?”

One box was filled with just his ironing from the previous six months. What a considerate guy! He knew how much I wanted to be a real housewife, so he had saved every non-perma-press shirt he owned from the time he fell in love with me, just so I could have the joy of ironing. I found quickly that, even if I had wanted to shove Dan under the bed while I roasted plastic turkeys, he was a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood man with his own feelings and opinions. He liked his stuff. He wanted his stuff. He kept his stuff. When I suggested that, since he had not worn those shirts for more than six months, we should throw them out, he got mad. I taped up the box of ironing and hid it in the spare bedroom.

Of course I brought my stuff into the trailer, too, but it was good stuff. I only owned things that I really valued, like my mom’s three gallon spaghetti pot and Aunt Doll’s old cardboard dresser that was covered in pink quilted taffeta and filled with about twenty-five pounds of rickrack. My heartstrings were tied tightly to the things that belonged to my departed loved ones, and seriously, you just never knew when that kind of stuff would come in handy.

Added to both his boxes and mine were the wedding gifts. We got two toasters, three crockpots, and a “Hang in There, Baby” poster. We hung the poster on our bedroom door and exchanged one of the crockpots for a set of jumper cables for the Datsun. The rest we crammed into the spare bedroom.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 10

I graduated high school and set off for college with a few more of my personal puzzle pieces in place. Deep down I did not really care about getting a college degree. College, for me, was the means to an end with the end being a Pledge Commercial house and a bunch of kids like on the Brady Bunch. At college I could get a husband.

I planned for perfection: I had chosen wedding colors and themes for each season. I watched housewifey-type cooking and sewing shows on PBS. While I babysat my nieces and nephews, I thought about what a great mother I was going to be. I visited real estate open houses and imagined each one as my own. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted it all. I just knew I was ready to take on a full fledged grown up life. All I needed was my husband, Phil: Phil-in-the-Blank.

I was chomping at the bit to become a housewife. The key part of that word for me was “house.” The “wife” part had little meaning. I knew that all I needed was some guy to marry me, give me a bunch of kids, and work all day so I could be left to my own devices. My attitude toward marriage had not changed much since I was a little girl playing with Barbies.

Barbie was, for sure, my favorite toy. Using the word “toy” to describe Barbie doesn’t even seem right. She was more than a toy. She was the representation of all my dreams. With her 11½ inch disproportionately blessed frame, shapely rubber legs, and massive wardrobe, Barbie played out my future in miniature every day.

I had it all. The dining set came complete with formal dining table and six chairs, plastic dishes, teeny tiny silverware and a plastic turkey dinner. Barbie’s bed, made of glued-together Lincoln Logs was covered with groovy tie-dyed blankets and pillows. My mom made Barbie an ultra modern chair by covering a tuna can with felt, and my daddy cleverly designed a set of dresser drawers out of Diamond Brand mini kitchen matchboxes. Best of all, my Barbie had the coolest dream kitchen. It had a refrigerator, dishwasher, sink, oven and washing machine all combined into one circular unit that would spin and light up at the push of a button. Barbie’s high-heeled rubber feet didn’t have to move a step: After a satisfying plastic turkey dinner, the dirty dishes came to her. I spent hours playing with Barbie, dressing her, setting up her Dream House, and practicing what I imagined life would be like when I grew up.

Ken, on the other hand, didn’t get much play. Ken had only one outfit: an odd pair of black tuxedo pants that were left over from my older sister’s prom set and a purple letter sweater with a big white “Y” on the front. Most days I would wake Ken up, dress him, and send him off to work under the bed. He was devotedly content to lie among the dust bunnies, dried up crusts of peanut butter sandwiches and boxes of out-of-season clothing while Barbie pursued her dream of being the first woman on the block to become a housewife/pet vet/astronaut/policewoman with a spinning light up kitchen.

Ken didn’t have any dreams or desires. His purpose was to work hard and make an honest woman out of Barbie. After all, they did occasionally share a Lincoln Log bed, and of course, the Liddle Kiddles who sometimes doubled as babies had to come from somewhere!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 9

The most important influence of all was my Aunt Doll. She was my mother’s aunt who had been widowed about a month before I was born. The first time she came to visit, she must have decided that I was a pretty special baby because she moved onto our ranch and never left until her death almost twenty years later. Her real name was Katheryn, but ever since her childhood, people called her Doll because of her diminutive size. She stood a little over four and a half feet tall and weighed about eighty pounds dripping wet. Though intensely maternal, she never had any children of her own. Her sister, my grandmother, had always been a busy career woman with little time for kids, so Aunt Doll cared for my mother as her own child. When my siblings and I came along, Aunt Doll took over where she had left off with my mom.

She cooked for us, sometimes cleaned up after us, made us practice the piano, but mostly (to my father’s horror) she taught us to drink coffee. Aunt Doll drank thirty-two cups of coffee every day. I know that it was exactly thirty-two because she always counted them: Thirty-two was her limit.

My parents were afraid of Aunt Doll’s influence on me because, not only was she a coffee drinker, but she was also a smoker. She smoked three packs of red Pall Malls a day. Everything on and around her, even the food she cooked, reeked of tobacco. I have never been curious to even try a puff because I have tasted thousands of cigarettes in the air surrounding my beloved Aunt Doll. I loved her so much, but she smelled so bad. Momma and Daddy need not have worried. Her real influence on me came in the form of a 1947 green Elna sewing machine.

Aunt Doll was a professionally skilled dressmaker. As a young woman, she worked for a tailor back East where she made fully-lined winter coats and men’s suits. On the ranch she made all of her own clothes and many of ours. She even designed and constructed special soft terry cloth undershirts for my dad. Sometimes I would point out a dress that I liked in the Sears catalog, and she would appear at our door with an exact replica a day or two later. With peddle to the metal on that old Elna she spent her life sucking down coffee, puffing away on Pall Malls and watching Guiding Light on her black and white circular screen TV. What a gal!

Aunt Doll’s house was pretty and orderly. She did not buy new things for herself. Everything she owned was old, and all of it seemed to serve a good purpose. Clutter was non-existent. She had one small storage closet lined with neatly labeled boxes where she kept Christmas tree ornaments, hidden gifts for my siblings and me, and small treasures that only she understood.

On Christmas Eve of my senior year in high school, Aunt Doll was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The doctor told her that she might have as much as one year to live. With the time she had left, she marked everything she owned with masking tape which indicated the date and occasion from which each item came. She also wrote an initial of C, G, R, or M to for Clark, George, RoxAnne or Marianne. With her personal effects clearly divided, she helped ease the burden of her passing.

One item was a shoebox marked ‘M&R’ which contained nothing but napkins, napkins that she had kept from every party, wedding, and special restaurant at which she had eaten since 1927. A few months after Aunt Doll died, RoxAnne and I sat down together and read her whole life in napkins. She had cocktail napkins from bars all over the east coast, engraved napkins from her ex-sister-in-law’s various marriages, and one with the name of a mystery man scrawled across it. What a weird little education that was! We kept a few that were significant to us, like my thirteenth birthday party napkin, the one from RoxAnne’s wedding and the napkins from my niece and nephew’s baby showers, but we were in a quandary about what to do with the rest. Nobody else would want them, not even a thrift store. Nobody could use them; they were old, dusty and written on. We thought about stuffing them back in one of our dad’s outbuildings, but instead, we decided to throw them away. Our hearts were genuinely broken at the decision. I think it was the first time in my life that I had ever thrown away anything of any emotional significance.

Aunt Doll’s influence on my life was profound. I worked diligently to become an excellent seamstress. I own and use four different types of sewing machines, but my favorite is the Elna. I have never smoked. Most of all, I have never, never saved a napkin.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 8

My mother had given me my sense of humor, my love for crafts, my tenderness for children, and my (how should I put this?) full figure. Having lost her at such a young age, however, I felt like my life was a big unfinished jigsaw puzzle, and I had lost the box lid with the picture on top. I kept rummaging through the pieces trying to make sense of who I thought I should be. Besides Grandma, I looked for the answers among a few other important women who influenced my life.

My pastor’s wife, Mrs. Chism was a great comfort to me. The parsonage, which was right next to the church, might as well have had a revolving door. Kids were always welcome there, and more importantly, Mrs. Chism never seemed to be bugged by them. I would sometimes stop by after school just to visit, and she would involve me in whatever she was doing. If she was peeling potatoes, I was peeling potatoes. If she was organizing her recipes, I watched with the interest of an action adventure movie. How exciting it was for me to watch a real live homemaker at work! How mysterious were the ways of a woman whose house was welcoming, peaceful and orderly! I made up my mind that, when I grew up, I was going to be just like her.

Another woman of influence was my 4-H cooking teacher, Mrs. Parks. On her refrigerator she posted a weekly menu complete with reference of cookbook titles and page numbers for each dish. Her daughter, Connie, was one of my best friends, so I spent a lot of time at their house. Mrs. Parks lacked Mrs. Chism’s warmth, but her house was immaculate. Like one who works at figuring out a magician’s slight of hand, I wanted to unlock the secret of her organizational prowess and tried to watch carefully how she moved through her space with such diligence and efficiency. When I got to be a mom, I was going to be like her, too. I mentally scrounged through the loose puzzle pieces of my life looking for a match.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 7

Life with Grandma was a peaceful one. A lot of the clutter and chaos that had defined our lifestyle when my siblings still lived at home moved out. While not especially meticulous, she kept the house reasonably tidy. She was frugal, quiet, helpful and loving.

She cooked some weird, old-fashioned stuff, like watermelon rind pickles and candy made out of orange peels. Grandma picked buckets full of wild Russian olives to can. She knew how to make wine out of the berries that grew along the banks of the irrigation ditch. Unfortunately, she was not the creative and passionate cook that my mother had been. I tried to stay away from home on macaroni and cheese night. Her mac-n-cheese was the color and consistency of shoe leather. When it was just at the peak of chewiness, she squirted about a half a bottle of ketchup all over the top and baked it an extra fifteen minutes, just to guarantee its unpalatablity. Grandma’s cooking may have lacked pizazz, but to her credit, she never left pans soaking on the back of the stove.

Everything about her appearance was practical and understated. She did not use makeup or perfume, always wore the same pair of black orthopedic shoes, and never spent more than thirty-five seconds in front of a mirror. Mostly, her wardrobe consisted of clean snap-up-the-front house dresses that she purchased mail-order from the “Monkey Wards” catalog.

Under the surface, however, ran a precious vein of pure feminine gold. One day she bought herself a very expensive formal gown, went to the beauty shop to get her hair done, and then had her portrait taken at the local photographic studio. “Every girl should do that once in her life,” she said. For my sixteenth birthday she bought me a pretty pink hair brush and told me that if I brushed my hair one hundred strokes each night, it would shine like a new colt. In her spare time she devoured Harlequin Romance novels and told stories of how she fell in love with my grandpa.

Grandma saw and admired in me youthful beauty and hope. She listened to my ridiculous boy chatter. She knew all about my dreams of domestic perfection, and never once rolled her eyes. For my high school graduation she bought me my own expensive formal gown. In my mother’s absence Grandma became a dynamic influence in my life.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 6

By the time Momma died, all my siblings were grown and gone. Now alone as a single dad raising a way-too-cute-for-her-own-good teenage daughter, Daddy needed help. He invited his widowed mother to live with us. Grandma was very different from my mom: This fact by itself would have made her highly suspect, even if I had not already disliked her for as long as I could remember. Momma and Grandma never really got along. On second thought, that is not entirely true. They got along all right, somehow always managing to be civil to one another, but neither of them had been happy about it.

Grandma was a no-nonsense kind of woman. Nonsense had been my mom’s middle name. Momma coddled children, bought every new gadget, and visited Disneyland once a year. Grandma pinched pennies, crocheted baby blankets out of thrift store yarn, never went to Disneyland, and, as far as I knew, never coddled anyone, most especially herself.

Before moving in with us, my only vivid memory of her was when I was four years old. Grandma came to stay with us one of the times that Momma was in the hospital. She had fixed us kids a proper meal which was to be eaten at a proper table with the proper utensils. In an age of the Red Skelton Show, Man from U.N.C.L.E., Sing Along with Mitch and, best of all, TV trays, we rarely did such a thing. Grandma told me to sit up straight and cut my meat. I didn’t know how, and I must have told her so in a way that she mistook for insolence. She quietly excused herself from the table, walked out to the drainage ditch and cut a willow switch. Without a word of explanation, she spanked me and instructed me to obey. I was a quick learner. I sat up straight, cut my meat and decided from that day forward that she was a mean grandma.

Every little kid needs a grandma-type lady to adore him unconditionally. Grandma Mollart was not that kind of lady, but I had two other old ladies who filled that role quite nicely. My mother’s mother, Grammy, lived in Southern California. Laden with as many presents as the bonnet of her 1962 Chevy Corvair could hold, she came to visit us once a year for the expressed purpose of spoiling us rotten. Her twin sister, Aunt Doll, lived in another house on our ranch, and worked hard at spoiling us the rest of the time. I saw absolutely no need for Grandma Mollart to move in.

She could live with us and try to take care of me, if she wanted to, but I made up my mind not to love her. Grandma was a quiet woman who worked hard and kept to herself most of the time. Not loving her would be easy. Besides already having Aunt Doll to love, I was going to be too busy with school, 4-H, square dancing and boys to worry about Grandma’s impact on my life. Besides that, a couple of weeks after Momma died I started my first job, so I would not really have to interact with her, if I didn’t want to.

I worked at the only dry cleaner and shirt laundry in the county. We washed, pressed, folded and delivered uniforms and linens for the National Guard and most of the hotels and restaurants within a sixty mile radius. It was physically very hot and strenuous work. The shirt laundry department averaged temperatures in excess of one hundred degrees with humidity at around eighty-five percent. I lost about ten pounds in the first eleven days of work and became very, very sick.

I missed work and stayed in bed miserable, sweating and retching. Grandma brought me cool cloths; she changed my sheets, and emptied the garbage pail next to my bed. When I was better, I said distantly, “Thank you for taking care of me. You have been very kind.”

Grandma was visibly taken aback. “Why, darlin’!” she said in surprise, “You’re one of my babies! Of course, I would take care of you: I love you!”

I was shocked, and a little embarrassed. How on earth could she possibly love me? After all, I was only one of her twenty-seven grandchildren. She barely knew me. Worse than that, I was one of the four that belonged to my mother, whom she had clearly never liked. I was afraid to love her back. To do so would have seemed almost a betrayal. Despite my resolve, I opened my heart a crack and decided to give her a chance.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chapter Two--page 5

I yearned for the type of home life I saw around me. I wanted a home and a family like Carol's, where children were fed neat snacks on pretty plates. I longed to lift a lovely vase of flowers and see a smiling reflection. I wanted to look around me and see a beautiful home to match the shining furniture. I wanted a clean car and a real garage. I wanted a groovy, smartly dressed mom. I wanted a handsome dad who wore a tie to work. I wanted white shag carpeting. I yearned for a manicured lawn where children could play quietly behind a white picket fence.

I adored my parents. I wouldn’t have traded my family for Jill’s or anybody else’s, but I believed that, because our house didn’t look like others, we were different and somehow wrong. I knew I didn’t measure up: What I longed for most of all was a Pledge-polished reflection that was worth a smile.

My heart ached for beauty and order. I couldn't wait to grow up and have a house of my own. I was sure that when I got to be a mom, things were going to be perfect. I confided my dreams with my favorite stuffed duck, Waltzing Matilda. She and I spent my birthday money that year on a box of Grape Nuts and practiced preparing neatly served snacks on little sage-green Melmac plates and cups to my baby dolls out in the playhouse every day.

Eventually I got too old for such things. Waltzing Matilda retired to the Easter basket from whence she came and lived out the rest of her days somewhere in the clutter on the top shelf of my closet. My dad, of course, filled the playhouse with more stuff.

Though I was too old to pretend, I never stopped playing house, and I clung tightly to my secret ideals. Throughout my teen years I diligently honed my skills at cooking, baking, sewing and handcrafts. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, Momma was blind and bed-ridden. She had taught me everything she could, so mostly, I learned by doing. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, my mom passed away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chapter Two--page 4

I was vaguely aware that our home and family looked different than those of my friends. My friend, Andrea, had seven brothers and sisters, a perky mom and a handsome professional dad who wore black horn rimmed glasses and a tie to work every day. Their kitchen had beautiful shiny tile, a gleaming stainless steel sink, and an island with a counter top stove, just like the Brady Bunch. Another friend, Carol, lived in a home with dark hardwood flooring that probably reflected her mom's face when she waxed it. One summer afternoon we played in their carefully groomed back yard while her parents napped. When she awoke, Carol's mom gave us each a nutritious snack of neatly sliced apples served on clean china plates, which she had removed from paper-lined shelves, and cold chocolate milk in pretty little crystal juice glasses. Then she drove us to the movie theater in her clean air conditioned station wagon, which the family kept in their neatly organized garage. At my house we ate cold leftovers from the refrigerator staight out of the Tupperware, drove a Chevy wagon that my sister had crashed into a herd of cows, and on a good weekend, we got paid a penny apiece for every fly we killed.

At my eleventh birthday party a girl named Jill, who lived in a house with a fashionably decorated sunken living room covered in soft white shag carpeting, said my house looked like crap. Her words stung.

Part of me knew what she was saying was true, but I was just a kid, so I didn't understand what made the difference between her home and mine. I thought maybe the difference was money. Maybe if we were richer, we would have a cleaner house. Maybe it was my mom. Jill's mom was a teacher, and mine was a housewife who was sick all the time. Maybe it was because we lived in the country, and Jill lived in town. Maybe town people had better houses. Maybe our house was too big; maybe it was too small. Maybe it was too old; I didn't know. I felt angry at her bad manners, powerless to defend my family, and ashamed that I was somehow different. Mostly, though, I felt longing.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 3

We kids did all of the housework because Momma was not a Pledge-commercial-type lady. She did not flit about with soft white cloths dusting and smiling at the furniture. She did not do the cleaning at all. My mom was sick most of the time. As a young wife, she had suffered through the loss of three stillborn babies. After ten miscarriages, it took her a total of seventeen pregnancies to get four live children. She was diagnosed with diabetes a couple of years before I was born, and when I was just a baby, she got cervical cancer. She survived it, but never really recovered emotionally. In addition to that, the diabetes caused degenerating discs, kidney failure and blindness. Despite her illness, she was a great lover of fun, so when she was feeling well enough to get out of bed, housework was not a priority.

She was probably the most creative and intelligent woman I have ever known, and when she was able to work, she worked hard. Momma could read a cookbook with the excitement and intrigue of a novel, then get up and fix amazing new dishes for supper. She canned bushels of tomatoes from the garden, and at slaughtering time she prepared tons of meat for the freezer. She also loved sewing and every kind of needlework and handicraft. She had shelves, tables, boxes and bins filled with craft magazines, yarn, fabric, paint, ceramics, needlepoint, and Craft-of-the-Month Club kits just waiting for her eager hands when she felt well enough to do them. Like my dad, there seemed to be nothing she couldn’t do. I think the one exception might have been housecleaning.

In our family culture, now that I think about it, once-a-week housecleaning during the hours between cartoons and American Bandstand by four under-skilled, and for the most part unwilling, minors actually made sense.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Chapter Two--page 2

I remember one particular Saturday when my sister returned from spending the night with her best friend, Leah Robinson.

"Did you know that the Robinsons clean their kitchen after every single meal?" she said.

"What? They, like, do the dishes three times a day?" She had piqued my interest.

"Not only that, but they put every dish away in the cupboard and actually clean everything in the kitchen every time! They even sweep and sometimes mop."


I couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever clean a kitchen if she didn’t have to, let alone choose to do it two or three times a day. It seemed so impractical.

Of course, we did the dishes. Almost every day. Each of us kids was assigned dish duty for a week; so when the sink was full, or we ran out of clean drinking glasses, the designated washer got to work. If we were really lucky, Momma would burn something to the bottom of a pan. That way we could leave it soaking at the back of the stove, maybe for days. Maybe long enough until it was the next kid's turn. If the pans weren't dirty enough to soak, George would sometimes hide them under his bed until it was Clark's turn. Then Clark had the option to either wash them or to leave them soaking until my turn the next week. When, or if, the pans got washed was a crap shoot. But, all bets were off if our mom needed them for cooking. Eventually one of us would have to do it. Once washed, the dishes rarely made it back into the cupboard. With the balance and skill of circus professionals, we could stack a mountain of plates, cups, glasses, pans and lids to air-dry in a single ordinary dish drainer.

As for the rest of it, RoxAnne and I had kitchen duty every Saturday. We cleaned the kitchen once a week whether it needed it or not. It needed it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Chapter Two

By the time life had slammed me headlong into the 47 yard dumpster and left me for dead in my own clutter, I was no stranger to change. I had been writing and teaching classes about organization for more than a decade by that time. Most visitors to my home saw it as a peaceful, orderly place, and mostly that was true, if they didn't look too closely. I had already come a long way from my messy upbringing on the ranch.

When I was growing up, housework was strictly a weekend affair. For me, Saturday meant three things: Scooby-Doo, American Bandstand, and cleaning. Getting to watch Scooby-Doo was easy. All I had to do was emerge from my bed and pick the sleep-sand out of my eyes early enough to watch Scooby and the gang, followed by their Hanna-Barbera cohorts, entertain me with their madcap misadventures from 7 to 9 every Saturday morning. If it were a really good Saturday, I could catch the Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour, and maybe even Super Friends. Being a Saturday morning couch potato came naturally. I loved it.

Getting the opportunity to watch American Bandstand, however, was not so easy. If I had any hope of giving that new song an 89 "‘cuz the beat was good, but I didn’t like the lyrics," my siblings and I would have to work. The time between cartoons and American Bandstand was always stressful. That was the time we would clean the house.

Don’t get me wrong. When I say "clean," I mean it in only the most technical sense. Cleaning products were sprayed about, fighting and bad tempers ensued, brooms and mops moved from here to there, but our house was never actually clean: Not like Brady Bunch clean, or the house on Bewitched clean or Pledge-commercial clean. You know, on Pledge commercials where the mom lifts the lovely bouquet of fresh cut flowers from the center of the dining room table, sprays the Pledge, wipes it with a soft white cloth, and stops to admire her own reflection on the shiny surface? Uh-uh. Not our house. Never happened.

Saturday morning cleaning always began with my dad and a broom. Our house had concrete floors covered with linoleum, which, I suppose, made Saturday morning clean up so much simpler. Daddy would take a straw broom and sweep everything in his path to the center of the living room into a big pile. Then he would yell, "Whatever is still here in five minutes goes into the trash!" We four kids would scramble to grab cardigans, Barbies, G.I. Joes, moon shoes, stuffed animals, homework and jewelry as fast as our anxious little hands could go because we knew, for sure, that my dad never lied.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Chapter One--page 7

When I refer to 47 yards, I mean cubic yards. A cubic yard is the measurement of a box which is three feet by three feet by three feet. The dumpster was seven feet wide, eight feet high and twenty-three and one-half feet long. With swinging doors in the back that opened to its full width, it could have easily held four square-dancer-bedecked old Plymouths parked end to end and stacked on top one another. By the time we were done, we had filled and emptied it four times at a cost of $500 per dump. We spent $2000, physically exerted ourselves harder than we had since the Disco era, and betrayed our dad's wishes all in one horrendous weekend. We tried to assuage our feelings of guilt by leaving the swinging doors unlocked for scavengers who might want to dig for treasure. That's what Daddy would have done.

After spending three days hoisting mouse-chewed Barbie dolls, broken 78 records from my mom's teen years, unlabeled photographs of people long since passed, drawers full of old grocery and gas receipts, broken tools, rusty cabinets, unfinished craft projects, and piles of dead vacuum cleaners into the dumpster, I became sick. I stayed in my motel room bed for two days, lifting my head from the pillow only to vomit. I doubt that it was the flu or food poisoning: We all ate the same food, and nobody else in the family got sick. I believe it was a very visceral response to the overwhelming pain within my spirit. This was the one final and worst betrayal of all: I was desperately unhappy, and that is the thing my Daddy would have wanted the least. Had he known that storing all that stuff would cause me so much pain, he would never have kept it.

When I was finally able to function, I took the six-hour drive back home with a few precious bits of my inheritance. Ordinarily, Thanksgiving weekend marks the beginning of the Christmas season for my family. We crank up the Christmas music, put up the tree, drink cocoa and deck the halls. Not this year. Too depressed and exhausted to care about Christmas at all, I collapsed on the couch and surveyed the pictures covering the walls of my own living room, my bookcase stuffed with dozens of books, the furniture, knick-knacks, memorabilia, toys and collections that I treasured in my own home. Then I thought about my garage full of unfinished projects, my own basement stacked with storage boxes, my kitchen drawers and cupboards filled to capacity with gadgets, and my craft room overflowing with good intentions. I wondered to myself how much of it my kids might someday be forced to toss into a rented dumpster. Emotionally spent and physically puny, I made the decision to change.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Chapter One--page 6

That is what made our decision to throw away his stuff so horrible. If Daddy could see what we were doing he would have been rolling over (more like spinning) in his grave.

Most children find contentment in fulfilling their parents' final requests as one last act of honor and obedience. Two of my childhood friends went to great pains to scatter the ashes of their dad, Doc, who was an avid fisherman, in all the places he had loved. Some of Doc went into a swath of irises in the cow pasture above his favorite bass pond. A bit of him ended up in a wildflower meadow on the shore of a special brook trout lake, and just a pinch went into his late wife's rose garden. Even though they had not hiked the trail in over twenty-five years, the girls even made a special memorial hike up to a wilderness area to scatter his remains where the family had backpacked every Summer while they were growing up. They felt peace and joy at knowing that Doc's body would eventually become an organic part of the nature that he so loved. My friend even chuckled at the irony that, if a little of Doc washed into the lake, the fishies might get the last word and nibble on him.

My siblings and I found no such contentment. A combination of circumstances mixed with the daunting reality of his junk had forced our hands to do exactly the opposite of what we knew Daddy would have wanted. Clark and I had moved hours away to opposite corners of the state, and RoxAnne lived halfway across the country. Poor George, who lived only a few miles away, could not, and should not, have had to handle it on his own. As now the four legal owners of the property, we each had to agree to the terms of sale and sign a contract with the realtor. Thanksgiving weekend was the only time all four of us could take time off work. In the three months between Daddy's death and this weekend when we were legally free to deal with his property, thieves had stolen most anything that they believed could be sold. Even if we had the heart to let strangers rummage through everything to pay a quarter here and a dime there for the remaining clutter at a yard sale, we simply did not have the time to organize one. We salvaged what sentimental treasures we could, borrowed my uncle's front end loader, and used it to shovel everything into a 47 yard dumpster.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chapter One--page 5

I think the main reason my dad kept so many things was his deep sense of values. He believed it wrong to discard things that were still useful. Reclaiming something that was even nominally functional was more virtuous than buying anything new. A child of the Great Depression and a World War II veteran, Daddy had lived through some very hard times. I have heard that people from his generation hold onto their possessions out of fear, a very real fear that they might once again find themselves in want. When this fear turns pathological, newspapers report that a little old lady from Cincinnati died of suffocation under a mountain of egg cartons or that paramedics couldn't find a stroke victim inside a ten-foot-high yellow maze of National Geographic magazines. A healthy fear of want, however, results in frugality. Daddy was frugal, but not miserly. Frugality, while it is a great virtue, was not his primary motivation to keep so much stuff.

Inside one of the sets of school lockers we found about twenty old metal Thermoses. A few had their insulated glass liners. Most had lids. Some still had cups. Marred by rust, chipped paint, and lime scale, they all had a bad case of ugly. He wasn't saving them for fear of never again being able to afford a locker full of Thermoses: He knew that he didn't need them, but with some elbow grease and a few new glass liners, they were still good. Neither was he saving them to save money: A new glass liner, if you can find one, is just about as expensive as an entire Thermos. He wasn't hoarding them out of a fear of want: He was saving them out of a sense of duty. If anything could, with even the remotest possibility, be reused, he was under moral obligation to save it. Like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer on the Island of Misfit Toys, my dad found his worth in redeeming things that the rest of the world had cast aside.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Chapter One-- page 4

Daddy didn't cram a ranch-ful of stuff into a twenty-eight by fifty foot shed for selfish purposes. My dad was not a hoarder. That's right, I said, "not." Hoarders are people who cling to their possessions. Hoarders seize, clutch, grasp, stockpile (don't you just love the thesaurus?) with tight fists, clenched teeth, and the determination that, like Scarlett O'Hara, they "shall neva, neva be hungry again." Daddy did not squirrel away ten years worth of Better Homes and Gardens in neatly stacked green plastic milk crates because he wanted the blue ribbon recipes for himself. No, somebody somewhere might need them someday. They might be exactly the thing that a poor decorating-challenged-recipe-deprived lady had been looking for all her life. And wouldn't you know it? TA DAH! There they would be. He always had the presence of mind to save important things like that. He hung onto everything just in case: Just in case the neighbor's old Kirby snapped a belt. Just in case a young couple was moving into a new house and needed a dishpan of mismatched flatware, or just in case a rancher friend lost his very last baling wire twisting tool. My dad was not only ready, but also eager to help.

Daddy was sentimental. Stored among the debris I found a tiny box which contained just two china plates and two china cups with a note in my dad's own handwriting that read, "Beverley and I--First Thanksgiving '49." My dad loved a good story, and better yet, he loved to tell and retell his own. The story of the little plates and cups, however, is one that I had never heard. Before their elopement in mid-November 1949, neither of my parents had lived on their own. Daddy brought Momma back to an empty house on his mother's ranch, and once there, I suppose, they must have purchased just one plate and one cup for each of them to celebrate their first holiday together alone. How special was that short note and its little sentimental treasure hidden among the stacks and piles! I rejoiced like an archaeologist unearthing a single priceless artifact in a vast desert wasteland. That china and its precious note were proof of my dad's undying love for my mother even beyond the grave. He kept lots of other sentiments, too, from our rusted-out steel school lunch pails to his grandmother's steamer trunks filled with baby clothes and bric-a-brac. Some of the things brought beloved memories to mind as we sorted between treasure and trash. Others kept their secrets, sentiments lost at our father's passing because, unlike the china plates and cups, he did not write their stories.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Chapter One--page 3

In its heyday our ranch had six outbuildings : a chicken house, a workshop, a pump house, a real fully operational outhouse, an extra building that was dubbed "Georgie’s Room" because that was where my brother George slept when he came home on leave from the service; and, hallelujah, my play house, where one very special stuffed duck named Waltzing Matilda and I practiced the domestic skills which have served me well to this day. These buildings, with (perhaps) the exception of the outhouse which contained only what one might expect, were filled to capacity with all the things necessary to do everything in the whole world. They functioned in varying degrees of organization from Daddy's workshop in which every nail, nut, screw and molly had its own baby food jar to the chicken house, where stuff got left to be pooped on.

After our mom passed away and the four of us were grown, Daddy sold the ranch, packed up the house and six outbuildings, and moved to a double wide mobile home on a third-acre lot just outside of town. Behind his mobile home he built the shed where my siblings and I spent this Thanksgiving weekend dumping a lifetime of clutter into a rented dumpster.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chapter One--page 2

Not only can ranchers do everything in the whole world, but they also own everything they need to do it. Such was the case with my dad. He held onto precious antiques passed down from generation to generation, plus everything he had ever been given, all the things he had ever scavenged from the dump, anything he had ever purchased new from a store, and especially those treasures for which he had haggled every weekend at a yard sale. Everything he owned seemed to hold a higher purpose. Where others might have seen the wooden console from a busted old TV set, Daddy saw a new bookshelf. A dead refrigerator could double as a meat smoker. He once sculpted a really terrific hood ornament out of two bowling trophies that he picked up at a yard sale. One trophy was a male bowler and the other female, each with its right arm back ready to swing the ball. He removed them from their wooden bases, cut off their little bowling balls, soldered their left hands together, and proudly presented them to me.

"Look at the hood ornament I made for your car!" he beamed.

At seventeen I drove a 1967 Plymouth Barracuda, with like, I don’t know, maybe three million miles on it. I think my dad paid $150 for it in the mid-1970's. While serious auto enthusiasts would give their eye teeth for that car today, at the time it was just an old Plymouth.

"What’s that supposed to be?" I didn’t mean to be rude, but I was, after all, seventeen.

"It’s a hood ornament. They’re square dancing, see?"

Okay, so now my story becomes a gutsy tell-all autobiography: Here is where I reveal a fact that even some of my closest friends do not know: I was an avid square-dancer in high school. My best friend, Holly, wore platforms and knew all the movements to "YMCA." I secretly dressed in pantaloons and knew the difference between a Do-Si-Do and a Right and Left Grand. The little bowling trophy people were clearly engaged in a Right and Left Grand.

While I was moved by my dad’s thoughtful gesture and impressed further by his ingenuity, I had no intention of driving to school in an old Plymouth with square dancing bowlers bolted to the front of it. He ended up attaching them to our front gate post right over the "A 4-H Member Lives Here" sign. Just so there’s no confusion here: Yes, we were class A nerds.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chapter One-- page 1

"That’s what you get for having bad taste, Mom," said George as he tossed the ashtrays into the bucket of my Uncle Clifford’s front end loader. The ashtrays were a perfect set of three in graduating sizes that nestled inside one another. Greeny-blue with scrolled brown edging and white notches to hold burning cigarettes, they were somewhat the shape and color of Gumby’s head on a bad hair day. The set was in mint condition: Nobody in our family smoked. The ashtrays had rested on our living room coffee table for as long as I could remember in preparation, I suppose, for a visit from a group of three smokers who had aversions to sharing the same ashtray, and who needed something really hideous into which they could tap their burning ashes.

When I was kid, I didn’t think about whether or not the ashtrays were stylish or ugly, whether we needed or loved them. I never once thought about whether or not having a set of three ashtrays of any description sitting forever on a the living room coffee table in a house full of non-smokers made any sense at all. The ashtrays were just there, along with a zillion other things piled, stacked, and messy in our home. And, now, here they were, fodder for the 47 yard dumpster.

Our hearts ached as we watched them hit the bottom of the rusty metal loader scoop. All four of us, Clark, George, RoxAnne, and I stood speechless, gazing down dumbly at the ashtrays. They didn’t break, at least not right away. I yearned to reach in and snatch them back. After all, they were still good. Somebody might want them. I might want them. They were a part of my childhood, not a significant part, but they had belonged to my precious departed mom and dad. Throwing them unceremoniously into the bucket of a rusty old tractor seemed almost sacrilege. I resisted my urges and returned to the task at hand: hefting a green metal teacher’s desk and a 1955 set of New Standard Library Encyclopedias on top of the ashtrays. When the bucket was full, my nephew, Justin, backed up the front end loader, raised the scoop, and headed for the dumpster.

My dad, a widower, had passed away three months earlier and had left behind a twenty-eight by fifty foot shed which was filled from the floor up to its sixteen foot ceiling with stuff. He had even taken the time to build shelves up in the rafters. With barely a pathway to move through the building, my siblings and I had but one weekend to deal with his stuff. Boxes of stuff. Crates of stuff. Shelves of stuff. Bins of stuff. Old high school lockers filled with stuff. Some of it, like my mother’s silver tea service, were valuable. Other things, like stacks of apple boxes filled with photographs, held our precious childhood memories. Many items, like the set of three 1950's nesting Gumby-head-shaped ashtrays tugged at our hearts. Most of the stuff, however, like the locker filled with broken vacuum cleaner parts and tractor gears, made no sense whatsoever. Daddy was gone, and his children had to deal with what he left behind.

My dad was a rancher. Ranchers are the most amazing people on the planet: They know how to do absolutely everything. If the crew of Apollo 13 had had a rancher on board, they never would have spoken those immortal words, "Houston, we have a problem" because the rancher would have come up with a solution and fixed it before Jim Lovell would have had the chance to pick up the radio. Those of you who have known ranchers know what I say is true. If you have never experienced the pleasure of a rancher's acquaintance, I highly recommend that you rush right out to the country this weekend and meet one. You will quickly find that they are more dependable than the auto club, more knowledgeable than a Harvard professor, more helpful than an Eagle Scout and more ethical than most clergy. My dad was such a man. If you needed your cow butchered, your fences mended, or your chickens caught, my dad was your man. He could adjust a rooftop TV antenna in the middle of a snow storm, and fix a sewage pipe down in the place where even angels feared to trod, the crawl space under our house. The man was the Superman of self-sufficiency. He built our entire house out of surplus World War II ammo boxes in the days before the county enforced strict building codes. Once while on vacation, on the side of a winding mountain road in Yosemite National Park, he replaced the rear axle of our family station wagon filled with four kids and a hysterical wife. He could tar paper the roof, chop the firewood, get up several times each night to keep the fireplace stoked in the winter, milk the cow, slop the pigs, plant the garden, groom the horses, repair the swing set, tend the sick, bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and fall asleep in the Barcalounger during the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday night.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Before the First Step

I've heard that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step. That is not entirely true. Maybe it's true for a toddler escaping out the front door heading for stray doggies to pet, old gum to chew, and endless unperceived possibilities to kill oneself in the most adorable fashion imaginable. Maybe it's true for teenagers whose only thought before a thousand mile journey is how many members of the opposite sex they might meet on the way to Potter, Kansas, or what to do if the bed in Great-Aunt Mildred's guest room smells like dust and Bengay. Maybe it's true for dads who honestly believe that plans are for sissies, and bladders magically hold more when seated on the passenger side.

For moms, however, the journey begins long before that first step. Every journey begins with an inkling, a suggestion, a possibility, hopefully a plan. And, always, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the thousands of miles that came before. Every new journey we encounter begins before we were even born. It begins with the legacy that was left behind by our parents and their parents. How and when we take our first steps, where our journey takes us, what we encounter along the way, and mostly what we, in turn, leave behind are impacted by the things and people we have loved.

The miles I walked before this book brought me to the 47 yard dumpster. My plan (because, after all, I am a mom) is to write about where it came from, how it changed me and how my experience can help you avoid a legacy of clutter.