Friday, April 2, 2010

Chapter Five--page 10

It seemed like every kid in the complex knew where to get the goodies. I’ve seen nature shows on television about bees, which send out a single scout to find nectar, and before you know it, an entire colony has moved in. No one is quite sure how they communicate. They swarm, suck the flowers dry and move on. My apartment was a little like that, with swarms of kids that I had never seen before looking for a treat. Honestly, I loved it. I had always wanted to be the slender, pleasant, perfectly-coiffed TV mom who happily pours sugar water laced with Red Dye 40 from a frosty smiling glass pitcher. In an effort to complete the role, I saved points from the back of the packets to buy myself one of those iconic pitchers.

The mental picture of myself never quite measured up to reality. For one thing, that mail-order pitcher was not made of lovely frosty glass after all. It was plastic. It wasn’t even clear, but rather a weird shade of frosted yellow that made the Kool-Aid Man’s smile appear black when it contained Purplesaurus Rex, and brown with any other flavor. As for me, I rarely coiffed; sometimes I didn’t even shower. Neither was I slender, but no one could tell how heavy I was getting beneath my clothes. I practically lived in a shapeless pink knee-length T-shirt nightgown with a bedraggled bunny holding a coffee cup and proclaiming, “I don’t do mornings,” printed on the front. Anytime I actually got dressed, my kids would ask, “Where are we going?”

The great thing about serving as the neighborhood Kool-Aid mom, however, was that all the kids liked me, but they rarely came in to mess up my apartment. I would dispense drinks, cookies or popsicles and then make them take the food outside. This also provided our family with a certain level of “protection” like I had seen on gangster movies. As long as the Kool-Aid kept flowing, my kids were less likely to get beaten up or peed on. The best thing about befriending neighbor kids was that I was able to make friends with many of their parents as well.

The diversity of our community allowed me to get to know other moms from all over the globe. I learned a great deal about geography, culture and religion during our four year stint at the apartments. I also gained two lifelong friends there, Becky and Jill. Both of them made a significant impact on my relationship with money and possessions.

Jill, who was eight years my junior and had two preschoolers, exemplified nearly everything I imagined my life should be. She was genteel, graceful, organized and beautiful. Her apartment, though simple, was beautifully coordinated. An Irish Chain quilt, which she had stitched for her own hope chest as a teenager adorned her bed. An antique console radio acted as a lamp stand, and an old steamer trunk was her coffee table. Unlike me, she did not use chintzy pressboard cabinets to store her stuff. Her video tapes were tucked neatly into hand woven maple baskets. Instinctively she always seemed to know how to decorate with just the right amount of stuff: Her home was neither cluttered nor stark. Let’s not forget, we both lived in a mere six-hundred square feet of living space, including the hallway kitchen.

Her honey-colored naturally curly hair flowed down her back in perfect tresses. Her figure looked like it belonged on a naughty auto shop calendar, but she always dressed simply and modestly. Besides all that, she was a great cook, meticulous housekeeper and an attentive mother. To me, she was practically an urban legend.

The crazy thing about Jill, though, was that, even in all her apparent outward perfection, she was genuine, and genuinely kind. When my kids had the flu, and the four of them were tossing their cookies all over my apartment, Jill came over and helped me clean up the mess. When I was expelled from the Up Town Snotty Women’s Color Coordinated Tea Club because I was neither snotty nor color coordinated (believe me, it’s a sordid story), Jill let me cry on her shoulder. Her home was quiet and peaceful, while mine sometimes looked like a monkey wagon when the circus rolled into town. As a mark of her friendship, she once left some dry cereal spilled on her living room floor to prove to me that she, too, could be messy. Who could ask for a more faithful friend?

Jill used to have a simple graceful Windsor back pine rocker, the kind that rocked smoothly and fit my matronly fanny just right. Whenever I visited, I would relax in the chair and sip a friendly cup of tea. I loved that chair. It reflected many of the things that I admired in Jill herself: grace, beauty, simplicity and comfort. I sometimes secretly prayed for one just like it.

One evening my husband, Dan, came home with a broken rocking chair that he had retrieved from the apartment complex’s dumpster. One of the supporting cross braces was missing, so the legs and rocker on its left side had torn from their holes. The chair was pine with a Windsor back. Without the damage, it looked exactly like Jill’s.

Dan can fix anything. That, combined with the fact that he looked awesome in Angel’s Flight bellbottoms when he was twenty-five years old, is main reason why I married him. He immediately set about to restore the newly found treasure to its former glory. He re-drilled the holes and reset the legs with dowels. Then he amputated our toilet plunger handle to replace the missing cross brace. After a quick lick of matching stain across the wood, it was as good as new.

I was so elated; I could not wait to call Jill the next morning. “Jill,” I babbled, “Dan found a broken rocking chair in a dumpster last night, and he fixed it, and you’ll never believe it! It looks just like yours!”

“Where did you say he found it?” she asked glumly.

“In the neighborhood dumpster! Isn’t that amazing?”

“U-u-m, Marianne, that IS my rocker. When my husband sat down in it last night, the cross brace was missing and the whole thing went crunch.”

Suddenly, I felt nauseous. “Why didn’t you ask Dan to fix it for you, silly?”

“It’s okay,” my beautiful Jill was on the verge of tears, “I’m just glad it got a good home. I’ve gotta go now.” She hung up.

My elation had turned to sorrow. Of course, I thought grievously, I must give her the chair. I phoned her back again.

“Jill, I’m bringing over your chair.”

“Please don’t do that,” she sniffed, “I want you to have it.”

“But it’s your chair!” I argued.

“Please keep it. Don’t bring it over.” She hung up again.

The chair was no longer a blessing, but a curse. What should I do? I could not let a chair, even a beautiful dream-come-true-fantasy-life rocker, come between my friend and me. I thought about it a long time before calling her back.

“Listen, Jill, I am going to ask this only once: Would you be happier and more comfortable taking the chair back or leaving it here? Think clearly before you answer because, after this moment, I will never mention it again. I don’t want to feel a strain between us when you see the chair, whether it be in my house or yours. You’re my friend. No nonsense. No hanging up. No crying. What’ll it be?”

Jill was silent for a moment as she thought. “I really, truly want you to have it,” she said. “Yesterday, I was broken hearted to throw it away. Today, I am thrilled that you got such a beautiful rocking chair. You are my dearest friend, and I love you.”

After Jill’s husband finished at the university, they moved across the country, so he could further his education in medicine. She and I lived as neighbors for less than two years, but our bond has remained strong for over two decades. Jill is still close to my heart. To this day, I have a Windsor backed pine rocker and an amputated toilet plunger to prove it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 9

Life in the apartment complex brought with it a whole new cast of characters. Much like the old mobile home park, the place was overflowing with kids. Unlike the folks at our old place, all of the parents there were full-time university students. With only a few exceptions, they were intelligent, involved, and, most importantly, present. Many of my neighbors were also international. During the four years we lived there, our family made friends with people from Asia, the Middle East, South America and Europe. Our little microcosm was wonderful, but it was hardly a perfect world.

One of the families across the hallway was from China. Both the mother and the father spoke English, but since they were busy with school and work, they left their little four-year-old son, Song Song, in the loving care of his grandmother. Song Song’s English repertoire consisted of exactly three phrases: “I’ll save you, Sweet Polly!” “Never fear! Underdog is here!” and “Simon bar Simon!” Yes, I know that the villain in that cartoon was Simon bar Sinister, but Song Song didn’t.

The people who lived directly above us were a colorful melting pot of crazy. The mom was a loud Brazilian who screamed out the windows at her children every day and smashed her furniture around the apartment on the weekend. The dad, an American fellow who rarely spoke, only appeared outside his door as he left and came home from work. Trudging down the stairs with an old-school black metal lunch bucket every day, he looked like Fred Flintstone meets Zombieland. They had one son and one daughter. The little boy, Max, entertained himself by peeing on other kids’ toys, while his tubby older sister coped by eating her feelings.

In the apartment beside them was an American family of four. From the outside they looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting: A mother, father sister and brother all with red hair and freckles. Life inside their apartment, however, was a dark and lonely place. Both mom and dad were busy college students who left their two children to fend for themselves all day long. The teenage sister, who was supposed to be taking care of her little brother Brian, turned on cartoons for him every day and retreated to her bedroom to cut herself. Brian usually showed up at my door at about 6:45 every morning for breakfast. On school days, I made sure he got dressed and out the door. On weekends and during the summers, he stayed until he absolutely had to go home.

The family that lived in another apartment across from us was Korean. The father was a post graduate student and the mother was a lovely friend of mine whose only fault was befouling the entire apartment building with her cooking every night. Thanks to her, the place smelled of rotted cabbage and overdone shrimp most of the time. Their son frequented my apartment in a daily search for something better to eat.

The apartment complex featured a wonderful back yard for the children to play. It had a large grassy area with picnic benches and clotheslines, plus slides and swings for Max to pee on. I thought about trying a Mr. Bubble Pool Party there, but among the thirty-six apartments in the complex were a total of about seventy children. Even I, in my Brady Bunch delusions, could see that that wasn’t going to work. In lieu of creating the fanciful world of Mr. Bubble, I chose to become the neighborhood Kool Aid mom.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 8

The apartments had previously been used as enlisted men’s quarters for an old Air Force Base. Originally each apartment had a living room, two bedrooms, and a long hallway which connected the rooms and dead-ended into a bathroom. The bathroom was even smaller than the one we had had in our first trailer. It had a tub, but no sink. The sinks were located in the bedrooms. Its primary feature, however, was the scariest toilet my kids had ever seen. It was an industrial tankless toilet that hooked directly to the plumbing. Every little kid is afraid of being flushed down the potty. In this case, the fear might have been justified. Every time I flushed, I could almost feel the water sucking an upstairs neighbor kid down the drain.

The kitchen in this place was the best part of all. The apartment didn’t originally have one. The enlisted men must have eaten in a Mess Hall. After the university acquired the complex, they installed an itty bitty kitchen sink and a half-size stove in the skinny little hallway which connected the rooms. My first thought when I saw the arrangement was, “I can do this. I’ve gone camping before.”

Originally we put all four kids in one bedroom and ourselves in the other. As they grew a little older, Dan and I decided to give up our room, so we could split them up. They were divided not by gender, but by messiness. The ones who lacked object permanence got one room and the ones who took after me got the other. We sold the couch and moved our bed into the livingroom.

With six of us in that little apartment, the kids were climbing the walls. I mean that literally. The kitchen hallway was so narrow that they could stretch their hands and feet on either side of the walls and shimmy up. Living in that tiny space was an efficiency experts dream: I could sit on the toilet, reach my arm around the door to stir a pan on the stove in the hallway, and use the other hand to wash footprints off the kitchen wall all at the same time.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 7

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I wonder if that still holds true even when the change one makes is an insane one.

Dan and I decided that the only way out of our poverty was an education. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? The words, “Dan and I,” make it sound like a joint decision. As for the rest of it, using “poverty” and “education” in the same sentence makes me appear noble. In truth, the change that I wanted most was a change in my husband. He was a blue collar worker when I got him, but even after years of tinkering with his character, I could not get him to be like Ward Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver. Although we had met in college, neither of us had finished. I convinced him that the only way out of our woes was for him to return to school and finish his degree in Civil Engineering.

We quickly sold the doublewide for about $5000 less than its market value and used our small amount of equity to pay for Dan’s tuition. We had a big yard sale, and I got rid of a lot of things. We crammed the rest our stuff, including that original box of ironing, the complete collection of Readers Digest, and the neatly labeled boxes of pocket trinkets into a rented storage unit. The six of us moved into a six-hundred-square-foot two bedroom apartment in the Married Student Housing complex at the local university.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 6

Two weeks after our son was born Dan lost his job. The company for which he had worked moved their operation to another state. A month later the baby got very, very sick and ended up in Pediatric ICU for a week. In my quest for Mr. Bubble perfection, I had put no money into savings. We were left with no regular income and no health insurance. One of our friends hired Dan as a laborer for his construction company, but the work was sporadic. I babysat several neighbor children, and I continued to sell needlecraft kits at in-home parties. Try as I might, we could never seem to catch up. Too much of our meager income was floating away with my floating checks. The bank which held the loan on our doublewide, the mobile home park which rented us our space, and numerous collection agencies which represented the medical community came knocking on our door. For two full years I held them all at bay by paying what I could whenever I absolutely had to.

I gave birth to our fourth baby, a girl, at home. She was born fine and healthy, but I ended up in the hospital with complications. We accrued more medical debt, and I despaired under the weight of it. I felt like a failure, but nobody, not even Dan, knew. As much a failure as I was in regards to my relationship with possessions and money, as my family and friends would attest, I was a big success as a wife and mother. I worked very hard to create a secure environment filled with peace, patient discipline and kindness. Dan maintains to this day that I was "the best mother he has ever known." On our wedding day years before I had promised Dan that I would make our home a sanctuary. I held true to my vows, but I did it at great emotional cost. I bore the full weight of our financial burdens on my own soul. I worked hard to keep Dan ignorant about our troubles. I fielded all the collection calls, and kept him in the dark about our bank account. I felt like I was paddling upstream against a raging current. Worst of all, I chose to do it all alone. I was ashamed. I knew that I wasn’t the Pledge commercial mom that I wanted to be, and I hated myself. I could only imagine how my husband and my friends would feel about me, if they knew the truth. Something had to change.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 5

I believed that having more perfect stuff would create a more perfect me. I started spending money in a passionate, but albeit unconscious, effort to fill the gap between who I was and who I believed I needed to be. I wanted my pantry to look exactly like the ones I had seen in the Tupperware catalog. I spent hundreds of dollars on perfect plastic containers that fit into perfect modular shapes for my obviously imperfect doublewide trailer. Heaven forbid that I should use inexpensive, possibly mismatched plasticware, or that my flour should sit naked in its original bag on the pantry shelf! In my kids' rooms every set of toys was organized in perfectly labeled plastic baskets from the dollar store. From both an organizationally and fiscally responsible point of view, this was a very good thing. My problem was that, as a homeschooling parent, I was inundated with dozens of educational supply catalogs which featured more brightly colored, aesthetically pleasing organizational systems for children. They also sold intellectually stimulating toys which were obviously essential for enhancing my children's development. My poor kids were stuck playing with uninspiring stuff like Barbie dolls and Happy Meal prizes. I habitually put myself down for not having the best. I bought every organizational book that I could lay my hands on, and I filled my bookshelves not only with them, but also with classic children’s literature, encyclopedias, and how-to’s. I joined two or three different book of the month clubs. Even if I never got around to reading them all, an extensive library made me feel empowered. I also spent thousands of dollars on home d├ęcor items to cover the shame of my cheap trailer-house faux wood paneling. I faithfully subscribed to stacks of women’s magazines, each one promising that I could “walk my way fit,” “find out what he really wants in bed,” and make the “best chocolate cake ever” all at the same time. I filled the empty space in my character with possessions, and I did it with amazing skill. No one looking at me from the outside would have guessed how addicted I was to stuff.

I bought all these things with money that I did not have to spend. My priorities were badly messed up. We were always behind on our house payment and medical bills. Collection agencies were ringing our phone off the hook while I buried my head in the latest catalogs and yearned to buy my children everything I thought that they should want. I got into the insane habit of “floating” checks. I would go to the grocery store and request money over the amount of purchase. Then I would run to the bank and deposit that cash to cover another check that I had written the day before. Time and again, it never really worked, and I never really learned. When one bank grew tired of my shenanigans, I opened a new account at another.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 4

I can’t speak for Joyce, but for my part, I believed that a 1976 trailer in a rented lot was just a stepping stone to bigger and better things. I told myself that this was the way life was supposed to be: A young couple starts small, and then they, to borrow a phrase from the immortal Dr. Seuss, “keep biggering and biggering.”

I wanted more. I wanted newer. I wanted nicer. I wanted better. The same longing that had filled my heart since childhood grew from innocent hope to something so twisted that it is hard for even me to explain.

On the one hand, I loved my life; I truly did. My children and my marriage were, without any doubt, more wonderful and fulfilling than I had ever imagined. My home was clean, well-ordered, and peaceful. Dan built me a beautiful tiered vegetable garden in the back yard, and he even put a door on the shed. Deep down, I was still the leftover hippie chick that I had always been: I grew, canned and cooked my own organic food. I gave birth to my last two babies at home and breastfed them with absolute devotion. I continued to diaper them in real cotton. I sewed most all of the family’s clothes myself. I started attending homeschooling support groups and reading books about homeschooling when our first baby was only five weeks old. Throughout their childhoods, I taught all my kids at home until they went to college. I worked outside my home, and attended college myself, only when my hours did not affect the children’s schooling. I was a fiercely devoted mother, homemaker and wife. That was who I truly was with every fiber of my being.

On the other hand, I was miserable because my lifestyle did not fit into my Brady-Bunch-Pledge-commercial-Mr. Bubble imagination. I could not reconcile my real values with my imagined ones. Dan was an ordinary low income blue collar worker without any real prospects of advancement, and I was a refugee from the Le Leche League. Joyce eventually put her kids in public school, got a job and moved out of the trailer park. I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. I was once again the only housewife in the not-so-happy neighborhood, and I was filled with self loathing, even in the midst of genuine happiness.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 3

I soon found out that Joyce was a year and a half older than me. Unfortunately, she was cursed with extraordinary youthful looks. A youthful appearance is great after the age of thirty-five, but looking eternally fifteen when she was in her late twenties was sometimes a little embarrassing. Joyce was a wife, mother, and business owner, but she had trouble getting waited on in the grocery store. The clerks often thought she was the daughter of the customer in front of her, and would pass her over for the next adult in line.

The two of us became closer than sisters over the next few years, and our kids regarded one another as cousins. We did almost everything together, and helped one another through those early years with young children and small bank accounts.

I remember once when my second daughter, Beverley, was about eighteen months old, and I was about eight and a half months pregnant with my son, I was exhausted, so I put Beverley to bed and locked myself in my room for a good cry and possibly a nap. By the time she was old enough to stand up; there wasn’t a crib on earth that could hold her. She could scale over the side of her bed faster than a Marine at boot camp. Beverley hoisted herself over the crib rails, toddled to my bedroom door, threw herself on the floor, stuck her cherub little face under the crack and screamed bloody murder. I was so overwrought; I did not want to open the door and possibly hurt my precious little one out of frustration. I covered my head with a pillow and just let both of us cry. Joyce heard the baby howling all the way over at her house and came over to see what was wrong. She knocked at my door, but when I did not answer, she came in, analyzed the situation, picked up Beverley, and took her back to her house. She did not judge me, or scold me, or call the nice men in the little white coats. She just loved me, and I don’t know who I would have been without her living next door.

Both of us struggled financially. I can’t count the number of times that the two of us combined our resources just to get through dinner. She would have noodles and canned tomatoes in the cupboard, and I would have a little hamburger and a couple of cans of green beans. Between the two of us we had enough to feed both of our families.

We not only shared our food, but we also sometimes split the housework. I hated to fold clothes. To this day, the very thought of fifteen thousand different little piles of baby socks, training pants, tiny milk-stained t-shirts, lacy ruffled tights, and sleepers with a dozen little snaps that only the most skilled engineer can figure out makes my stomach hurt. Seriously, the same washer that fits only five pair of adult jeans can hold seventy five thousand teeny tiny baby socks, of which it eats at least fifteen per load. Joyce liked folding clothes, but she hated to clean the bathroom. I enjoyed cleaning bathrooms, so sometimes we swapped toilets for laundry. We also got into reading to one another. She came over and read aloud to me while I did my housework, and I read to her while she did hers.

We had so many things in common: She had four kids. I eventually had four kids. Both of us were stay-home mommies. Both of us had a hard time making ends meet. We were genuinely happy, but at the same time, secretly discontent. Both of us had big imaginations and we dreamed of life beyond a doublewide trailer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 2

The mobile home park into which we moved could have had Mr. Bubble potential. The place was teeming with kids. They were everywhere: playing with Matchbox cars in the middle of the street, stealing one another’s bikes, beating up weaklings, and darting mindlessly across the busy state highway that bordered the park. Soon after we moved in, strange kids (and I mean in all senses of the word) started knocking on my door and asking if they could come in to play.

“No, sweetheart,” I would tell them, “you can’t come in unless I talk to your mommy. I don’t know where you live. You don’t know me. Your parents will worry.”

Time and again they tried to assure me that their mom wouldn’t care. She wasn’t home. They were being watched by a big sister, mom’s boyfriend or nobody at all. I was probably the only stay-home mother within a quarter mile radius. For the first six months in our new home I was pretty lonely.

The mobile home lot next door to us had been empty when we moved in, but one day, two big trucks pulled up and delivered a brand new doublewide. The following day a passenger van was parked beside it. On the back of it were two bumper stickers. One said, “Get back to basics: Read the Bible.” The other proudly proclaimed, “I love my kids: We all buckle up.” A Christian family with kids! I was so excited.

Right away I baked a loaf of banana bread and trotted it over to their front door as fast as my pregnant little body with two toddlers in tow could take me. I knocked on the door, and when it opened, my heart sunk. There stood a teenage girl surrounded by four children, two elementary school aged girls and a pair of twin two-year-old boys. Bummer. Just another big sister babysitter.

“I live next door, and I baked some banana bread,” I said weakly. I was just about to ask if her mother was at home, but I sensed from the way the boys were clinging to her and rubbing their graham cracker snot on her legs that she was the mother. The girl looked like she could be no more than fifteen or sixteen years old. Biologically, it seemed unlikely, but clearly, these were her children.

“Come on in,” she smiled. “I’m Joyce. I’m so glad you didn’t ask me if my mother was home. Everybody asks me if my mother is home, and I always say, ‘Why don’t you call her and find out.’”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 1

I was right, of course. A 1976 model double-wide mobile home on a rented lot could never match a shining, freshly waxed dream home. While I was honestly happy with our home, I was not content. Part of my discontentment came from the same longing that had filled my soul since I was a little girl. Other people lived differently than me. They had professional husbands who wore ties to work, and they lived in real neighborhoods with pretty flowers lining their picket fences, and they had swing sets in the back yard. Other ladies, I thought, had lovely neighbors with whom they could gossip over the back fence while their children held a Mr. Bubble Backyard Pool Party.

During my stint as a Saturday morning couch potato, I used to watch a commercial for Mr. Bubble in which a beautiful, slender, Dippity-Doo-coiffed mother relaxed on her chaise while a screeching group of small children jumped around in a wading pool filled with Mr. Bubble. The suburban yard was neatly manicured. The children even had a little cabana boy who dispensed towels from what looked like a lemonade stand on which was scrawled “Mr. Bubble Pool Party” in TV-kid lettering. The children were all obviously happy neighbors from a happy neighborhood. That was the life I wanted!

Growing up on the ranch, I did not have a neighborhood. My nearest neighbors were my cousins who lived across the alfalfa field and down the length of a drainage ditch on the other side of the highway. They were the kind of kids who pushed one another off the top bunk just for fun and never blew their noses: not really Mr. Bubble Pool Party material.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Chapter Four-- page 6

When it came to dealing with our possessions, the two of us were operating under opposite paradigms: I wanted my new home to look like a Pledge commercial, and he could have lived happily in the back room of the local Salvation Army Thrift Store. As long as everything was put away and out of sight, I was happy. As long as everything was out in the open where he left it, he was happy. We got into a lot of fights about it.

During one argument Dan said, “Who cares? It’s my dresser, and if I want my stuff left out, who does it bother?”

“Everyone in the whole world!” I responded, “Everyone except you thinks your dresser is a disaster, an eyesore and a health hazard.”

“Okay,” he sneered, “if you can get just ten people to sign written affidavits that my dresser bothers them, I will clean it up myself.”

I had yet to meet a spousal challenge that I could not handle.

“You’re on!”

I called all my friends and requested written statements regarding their feelings about Dan’s bedroom blight. Here are some of the excerpts from the responses:

“Dear Dan,
I am afraid your wife is reaching a critical stage of a disease commonly known as ‘heapaphobia.’ It is the extreme inordinate fear of growing piles of paper and pocket trinkets. Sufferers have been known to charge these growing heaps of garbage with flaming blow torches. This could be very hazardous for you, Dan, as you would lose not only your trivial belongings, but also your dresser and, perhaps your half of the bed…”

“Dearest Dan,
I think that your pile of stuff next to your bed is not only unsightly and disgusting, but might well be considered a fire hazard. If this is to go on much longer, Marianne may have to leave you to come live with me and stay up late into the night, drinking sparkling cider and eating bon bons…”

He even received a solicitation from a dubious nonprofit organization:

“Dear Mr. Liggett,
You have been recommended to us as some one who might have an interest in our growing organization. We believe that we, with your help, can eradicate a very serious problem that is sweeping our great and beloved nation.

“Our Get-Objects-Off-Bureaus-in Every-Room Society (commonly known as G.O.O.B.E.R.S) is made up of American citizens who, like you, believe in making our nation a better place to live. Please do not confuse us with B.O.O.G.E.R.S (Bureaus-Of-Overflowing-Garbage-Excessively-Rank Society), our arch rivals. Our goal is simply the preservation and promotion of neat and organized Bureaus and Dressers. We believe if we can get just 30% of the population to maintain organizationally correct bureaus, we could vastly improve the quality of life in America…” The letter went on to ask for a sizable monetary contribution.

Unfortunately, Dan also received a few letters of support:

“Dear Dan,
With respect to your wife’s disdain for your arrangement of highly important documents and items, I feel that it is not only a man’s right, but indeed his duty, to hold fast to those principles that he holds most dear. In short, bully for you!”

One legal eagle wrote:
“Dear Dan,
After much research and investigation within the hallowed halls of our constitutional interpretive rights, I see no other course of action but that you stand firm and withstand the pressure to give up your rights. We gave up tyranny with the Constitution and the establishment of the People’s Bill of Rights.

“The First Amendment states: ‘No law may be passed abridging the freedom of speech.’ This has recently been expanded by the Supreme Court to include personal actions and expressions of one’s personality quirks. This also includes the right of people to peaceably assemble. I would take this, in your case, to mean to assemble your personal belongings in the place of your choosing…” The writer went on to explain that “the right to bare arms” meant that he was free to take off his watch wherever he wanted to.

I failed to get all ten affidavits, so the battle of the dresser continued. Even though nothing changed, at least we got a bit of comic relief for our situation. I thought about Mrs. Chism, Mrs. Parks and Jill’s mom with her white shag carpet. Surely, they didn’t fight with their husbands about piles of junk, did they? No matter how I kept house, I believed that mine could never measure up.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Chapter Four-- page 5

I think Dan lacked Object Permanence. That is the developmental stage during which babies learn that, if Mommy steps out of the room, she is not gone forever. Most children gain object permanence when they are six or seven months old. Usually, by the time a baby is crawling, he knows that the red polka-dotted ball that he threw behind the couch five minutes ago is still there. Not my husband. If his stuff was not out in plain sight right where he can see it, it was thrown away, lost, or stolen! Why would I want to steal his 2 mm drill bit? Or his spark plug gapping tool? Or his half-eaten Mars bar? Okay, maybe that one was a bad example.

Unlike my husband, I liked stuff to be just that: stuffed. Nowhere was the struggle more evident than in our bedroom. Every day I would send Dan off to work with clean clothes and empty pockets. Every evening he would come home with his pockets full of junk to dump onto the dresser. Small tools, receipts, gum wrappers, phone numbers, phone numbers written on receipts and gum wrappers, trinkets, whatnots, and goo-gaws were unloaded routinely every night. This would not have been a problem, if he would put everything back in his pocket the next day. Every morning he went away with his pockets empty. Every night he added to the pile.

I started sliding his pocket junk into a little box which I placed in the top drawer of the dresser. That way, I was moving his stuff only about six inches, but it would be out of sight. He didn’t like it, but he put up with it temporarily. When the little box was full, I emptied it into a shoe box, which I stored neatly underneath the dresser. When the shoe box filled up, I moved it over and started another. The space under the dresser could hold three shoe boxes. When those were filled, I taped them closed, labeled each one with the date and stored them out in the shed with the old box of Reader’s Digests and, no kidding, that original box of ironing.

Dan could see that my system worked well, but he was never really happy about it. Cognitively he could grasp that, if he ever needed any of his pocket trinkets, he could find them. If he tried to argue with me about it, he always ended up agreeing with me rationally. Emotionally, though, he felt violated. It was his stuff. He liked his stuff. He wanted his stuff, and most of all, he wanted his stuff left out where he could see it.

Whether from conscious rebellion or from unconscious passive aggression, Dan began leaving bigger and sometimes more disgusting things on his dresser for me to deal with. He piled everything from masonry tools and magazines to Halloween costumes and already chewed gum. While he was at work, I would daily squirrel his stuff out of sight.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Chapter Four-- page 4

I loved that dishwasher. For the first time in my life, dirty dishes could be out of sight somewhere other than under my brother George’s bed.

Shortly after moving into the new house, I got pregnant with our third child, and I started babysitting Holly’s baby. Nonetheless, our home stayed tidy, peaceful and clean most of the time. I had mad skills in housekeeping. My goal was to have myself and the house looking good by 7:00 every morning before Holly arrived. Apart from the occasional untamed diaper explosion, or unexpected yogurt finger paint on the furniture, I was able to do it.

I loved being a housewife, and I worked hard at honing my skills to do a better and better job. I bought and read every organizational book I could find. I was focused, but not obsessive. Anyone walking in at almost any moment would have seen peace and order. That was because I had a dishwasher where dirty dishes could hide… and a shed with a door where storage could hide….and closets for everything else.

I didn’t like messes to be out in the open, but as long as I could keep the door closed so nobody else could see, our closets, pantry, cupboards and dressers were a shambles. As long as everything looked good on the surface, I was happy. My husband, on the other hand, liked to leave stuff out where he could see it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chapter Four-- page 3

Mrs. Belcher had every intention of making good on her threats, but we sold the trailer and bought a doublewide mobile home on a nicer rented lot in another park before she actually got the chance to take us to court. The odd thing was that we cleaned up the yard, planted a lawn, put a fresh coat of paint on the outside, and installed skirting to get our home ready for sale. The new buyers reaped the benefits of our efforts. Somehow, we were able to do for someone else what we had not done for ourselves.

Our new doublewide was beautiful, at least as beautiful as a mobile home that was built in 1976 could be. The walls were all covered in dark wood paneling and the shag carpeting was brown, orange and gold. The kitchen linoleum had a funky print looked like the top of a pizza. I mean it: I could have dropped an entire pepperoni pizza on the kitchen floor, and it would have been camouflaged. Ugly, yes, but it was very handy for the mother of toddlers. It didn’t matter how many spit-soaked graham crackers got stuck to the floor; they disappeared into the landscape.

I loved my new home. It was over twice the size of our first trailer, and it had a washing machine. A washing machine!! I had been praying for a washing machine. I dreamed of how wonderful life could be if I didn’t have to tote dirty diapers and laundry on the back of a double stroller any more. Oh, the leisurely hours I could spend, and the pockets full of quarters I could save! The double-wide had not only a washing machine, but also a dryer and a dishwasher. I was really moving up in the world.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Chapter Four-- page 2

The park manager, Mrs. Belcher, was a really scary lady. She was big, tough, and a little bit twisted. She lived in the double-wide behind the park office with her quiet skinny husband and their thirty-five year old son, who served as minion in her trailer court kingdom. Rules were her religion. She observed them and enforced them with absolute devotion. Nobody liked her, except for maybe the landlord, who reaped the benefits of her tireless efforts from his vacation home in Florida.

She was harsh, persistent, unpleasant and effective. The mobile home park which had previously teemed with life from feral cats and unlicensed dogs became a totally pet-free zone. Gone were the pesky motorcycles and unsightly broken down vehicles. Everyone’s yard had lawn, and everyone had skirting around the bottom his trailer: Everyone except us.

I felt desperate, angry and trapped. I was scared of Mrs. Belcher, but Dan found her laughable. He said she looked like an English bulldog in a dress. He told me not to take her so seriously. He was right about the bulldog thing, of course, but I did not think he was very funny. When we were going together, I loved Dan’s sense of humor and his laid-back attitude. Now as his wife and the mother of his children, I found him infuriating.

I had gotten on the cleaning and de-cluttering bandwagon, but Dan had not. The day after Bulldog Belcher photographed my yard, I took action. I called a friend of ours who had a big pickup and had him back it over our pathetic brick planter, right up the shed door opening. He and I heaved Aunt Doll’s pink taffeta dresser, all the couponing and refunding junk, the spaghetti pan, the extra ratty towels and box after box of God-only-knows. I pulled up as many bricks from the planter as I could and tossed those in, too. I kept the box of ironing and the two-years-worth of Reader’s Digest because I knew that Dan would remember that they were there. When Dan came home from work that night, I had never seen him so angry. I challenged him to think of even one thing that I had thrown out. He could not.

I felt victorious, but I had begun a war which raged privately between my husband and I for decades afterward.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chapter Four-- page 1

Chapter Four

Wouldn’t it be spiffy if I could end my story right there? I lived my life in a Pledge commercial happily ever after. The end.

I had learned some really great skills, tips and techniques for keeping house, many of which I will share later in this book, but I still held on to some wrong thinking that did not work well for me. First was my idea of what work was, or was not, my responsibility. I believed that all work within the four walls of our home was within my jurisdiction. Cooking, cleaning, decorating, and diaper dunking were my jobs. Beyond these, I graciously tended the garden because, for one thing, it was intrinsically part of my job as hippie/cook; and, for another, I enjoyed it. Everything else belonged to Dan. A fair division of labor seemed a righteous cause.

I believed that my job was to clean the house, to keep the children bathed and potty-trained, and to assure that the two pound chub of liverwurst I bought on sale last week got used before turning green in the refrigerator. I had my job. Dan had his. He was supposed to finish the brick planter and to put a door on the shed. I also expected to be entirely free of any consequences from his failure to do so. I shoved things into the shed haphazardly, and left boxes and debris flowing out into the yard without any sense of personal responsibility. It wasn’t my job. Why should I care?

Our yard looked like a poorly run flea market. Strangers would randomly stop by and ask if I were having a yard sale. For a short time I worked at home as the bookkeeper for the Christian school that was housed in my church. Once, when my boss stopped by to drop off some receipts, she got upset because I had not told her I was moving.

“What gave you the idea that I was moving?” I asked.

“You clearly have things boxed up and stacked in the yard!”

“Oh, no,” I responded, “my husband just isn’t as organized as I am.”

She looked at me like I was the stupidest woman on earth. Maybe I was.

That day she took the ledgers away from me and told me that I would have to do all my work at the office. The main reason I had taken the job was that I had been able to work from home. I don’t really remember whether I quit shortly after that, or I was fired, but I felt I had been treated very unfairly.

The worst thing about having a messy yard was the trailer park manager. She banged on my door at least once a week. Sometimes I answered. Sometimes I hid. Most times she left threatening notices on my door. One time while I was hiding and peeking out the front window, she walked through the yard and snapped pictures. I assumed that she intended to use them in court. I was angry at my husband. Why didn’t he just clean things up out there? Why should this be my problem? I was doing my job: Why wasn’t he doing his?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Chapter Three-- page 9

I had been in a sort of Catch-22: My eyes were not attuned to my surroundings because everything was a mess, and everything was a mess because my eyes were not attuned to my surroundings. I had been blind to my own messes because each one by itself had served a purpose. In my mind, the soggy newspapers on the floor of the utility closet were intended for cleaning windows. The stacks of Reader’s Digest were there to be read. The dusty monogrammed towels were supposed to look pretty. I was not completely blind; I knew that my house was a mess, but somehow, I had been missing the big picture.

I had been trudging through a mental list of tasks every day, instead of pursuing the goal of a beautiful, clean, welcoming home. Instead of vacuuming out of obligation, I began vacuuming for the sake of beauty. Instead of dusting because I was lost in the imagery of an old commercial, I dusted because I wanted my house to look nice. Even though washing the dishes all at once when all of them were dirty seemed logical, it did not serve for a beautiful kitchen. My goal changed from simply doing dishes to having an empty sink and cleared countertops. When I was stuck in job-orientation, I took all day to get nothing done. Instead doing housework for the sake of housework, I started cleaning my home with the goal of having a clean home. The difference may have been subtle, but it is all the difference in the world.

When I felt like I had all day to get my work done, I took all day to do it. Once I began to realize that keeping a clean house was the means to an end, I hurried as quickly as I could to tidy up things. Keeping the house tidy freed me for more important activities. I could go to Bible Study without guilt or fear. I could visit my elderly widowed neighbor without the doom of a messy house awaiting me when I returned. I could invite friends over on a moment’s notice. I could pop the girls in their stroller and walk down to the library for story time, or I could zip through my housework and give myself a full day to sew and suck down coffee just like Aunt Doll, if that is what I wanted to do.

Becoming goal-oriented saved me a lot of work, too. If the carpet looked good, I had no need to vacuum it. If I had only a couple of breakfast dishes in the sink, it took only a few seconds to give them a quick swipe and put them away in the cupboard. There was no need to pull out the Pledge and a handful of rags, if a quick little swish of a feather duster would do. My goal was to create a lovely home, and to do it in short order every day, so I could live the abundant, joy-filled life that God had intended for me from the beginning.