Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Low-Tech Task Management

Everyone has their own method of organizing their daily tasks, and many people today use electronic organizers and smart-phone applications to manage their daily tasks.

I've tried a few electronic calendar applications, and find some of them useful for reminding me of things like doctor's appointments.

But nothing I've found in the world of electronics surpasses the organizing tool I've been using for decades.

1. It's small.

2. It's cheap.

3. It fits in a jacket pocket or in your purse.

4. You don't have to do a lot of data entry to reschedule events.

5. You can re-prioritize tasks in seconds.

6.  No batteries required.

7.  No membership fees.

It's called:

A packet of index cards held together with a stout rubber band.

And this is how it works:

Rather than writing a daily things-to-do-list, I make an individual index card for each task that needs to be done.

Some of these individual cards may contain a list: for example, the "GO TO GROCERY" card will include the grocery list, or "GO TO DRUGSTORE" will include a list of things to be obtained there.   When I am done with each card, it will be discarded, and a new grocery list will be compiled when needed.

Most other cards will contain one specific task:  "Dentist appointment at 2:00pm, October 21,"  "Meet with sales rep at 3:00," or "Pick up dry cleaning."

Cards for  task on a specific date and time are discarded after use.

Cards for tasks with non-specific times and dates are replaced in the deck and are re-used: for example, "Pick up prescriptions," "Get gas," "Go to bank," and "Book club meeting first Wednesday of each month."

And here is how I manage the cards: while I have my morning coffee, I go through the cards and put them in order based on either importance or by the time of day they need to be done.   The first OR most critical thing to do for the day will be on top of the pile, and so forth.  But I always carry the entire pile with me.

For example, I had a day off work today, so my pile included some "standard" cards as well as some cards specific for today, in this order:

"Put garbage out"

"Go to bank" (I needed to cash a check)

"Buy heartworm medicine at vet's office"

"Go to post office" (I had two packages to mail, and I needed stamps.  I could remember that, and did not need to write a list).

"Go to grocery" followed by a list of things I needed there

"Pick up prescriptions"

"Get gas"

"Meet Janet for lunch."

"Return library books."

"Bring box to Goodwill"

"Get car inspected."

These cards were placed in the front of the deck of index cards, in that order.

Most tasks on my list were not for a specific date, so as I completed each tack, I moved it to the back of the deck. When I finished at the grocery, I discarded that particular card, because, of course, it was a very specific list for today's needs.

But as it turned out, the weather turned bad after I went to the library, so I went home.   Tomorrow, I will make another attempt to get the car inspected and stop at Goodwill.  All I needed to do was replace those task cards in the front of the deck, since those tasks were not urgent.  Both tasks could be postponed a day or two.

Simple, isn't it?

Likewise, if you are especially efficient one day and finish your priority tasks earlier than anticipated, you can flip through your deck for something else to do.

The deck of cards also allows you to easily re-schedule your day if something unexpected comes up, or to route your errands for maximum gas efficiency.

Try making your own deck: one card each for tasks you must do daily, weekly, monthly, and specific tasks, lists, and appointments for specific days.  You will find yourself continually adding and deleting cards in your deck.

Please tell me if you like this method after you try it.  I hope you find it helpful.

I've done this for many years and it really, really works.  It's better than any day-planner, personal organizer, or other system I have ever tried.

What tips and secrets do you have to share to manage your own time?  We can all learn from each other's ideas.


Monday, April 18, 2011

S'More Decluttering Ideas From Maggie -- Linens

Some ideas for managing sheets, towels, washcloths and hand towels:

--If possible, have all the beds in your house the same size, or at least no more than two sizes (perhaps a large shared bed for the parents and individual single beds for the kids).  Kids really can go straight from the crib to a regular single bed!  They did since they dawn of time, before "kid stuff" manufacturers and marketers invented increasingly large sizes for growing kids, trying to force consumers to buy first a crib, then a toddler bed, then a junior bed, then, finally a "single" bed -- which means that in addition to special furniture and special-sized mattresses, you have to buy all the special-sized sheets and blankets and coverlets.  Aargh!   People only think of this to get money away from people like you and me.

But if everyone in the house has a full- or queen-size bed, kids and adults alike, or at least if all the kids have the same size bed from the time they graduate from the baby crib, then you can have far fewer sheets, especially if you stick with white, or, for the kids, solid colors that can be mixed and matched.  You really don't need more than one change of sheets at any given time per bed, and if each bedroom gets a sheet change on a different day, you can get by with even less, assuming one set is always being washed.  Having all your sheets the same size  and color (white, like a hotel, or solid colors that can mix and match) eliminates time spent searching for the "right" sheets for the "right" bed and simplifies your storage and laundry.

--The same with towels.  Stick with white or an array of solid, light colors that coordinate rather than having a "theme" for each bathroom that needs to be matched.  All of our towels are white hotel towels and all of our sheets are white hotel sheets, bathmats and washcloths.  Not needing separate sets of "decorator themes" for each bathroom means fewer towels and bathmats, and even if you repaint the bathrooms or hang new wallpaper, white goes with everything.

--For the kitchen, we also use white terry "bar rags" from Sam's and thin white cotton dish towels from Sam's (restaurant supply stores sell them too, and so do Walmart and Target and other discount stores.)

--The bar rags are a good size for bathroom hand towels and all purpose cleaning, too.

--White napkins from the restaurant supply store can greatly reduce paper towel use and paper napkin use (and storage) and add only a small amount of additional laundry.  White terry washcloths make good, absorbent napkins for kids (or sloppy adults).

As a result, at our house, we only use paper towels for the icky things (like pet accidents or cat hairballs) or things that would not be safe to launder and put in the dryer (like spilled paint or cooking oil).   This has saved us lots of money on paper towels and the small basket for hand towels, restaurant napkins and washcloths to replace the paper towels has created only one more washload per week.

Sticking with white or an array of solid neutral colors eliminates the perceived need to buy more "stuff" to "redecorate" every few years.  It really does.  For Pete's sake, how "exciting" or "cute" do your towels need to be?  Sheets and towels are just sheets and towels.  The important thing is that they are clean.

Applying the same rules to blankets and coverlets helps keep things simple, too.  That handmade quilt from your crafty best friend, or the afghan crocheted by your sister, will show off nicely when placed on a neutral or solid-color bedcover or on top of white sheets.

It seems like a little thing, but when we got rid of all of our odd-sized linens and bought all white, we somehow ended up with about 40% more storage space for linens, but we still had clean sheets, blankets, washcloths and towels all the time.

Staying away from novelty items and impulsive seasonal redecoration really does simplify your storage and your daily chores.  If you really do feel the need to keep up with decorating trends for a change of appearance, maybe you can opt to buy only new curtains, lampshades, bedside rugs or throw pillows (the white sheets will go with anything) and give the old curtains and pillows to Goodwill or Salvation Army right away.  

Just a few ideas.  Hope these help!


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spring Cleaning Tips from Maggie -- Books

Half of "Spring Cleaning" is getting old junk and trash thrown away or recycled, donating those "gently used" items to charitable organizations, and giving the house a good, detailed, all-around scrubbing -- more detailed than the weekly sweeping, vacuuming, dusting and mopping.

For example, at our house, dusting is my Number One Most Hated Chore Ever!  I vacuum weekly, sweep the kitchen and traffic areas almost every day, and mop every week.  But I hardly ever dust because I hate it.  This also applies to cleaning woodwork and baseboards, and shining windows.

Now, two things I have learned about dusting are:

The less stuff you have to dust, the less of a pain in the butt it is.

And also:

If you can think of a way to keep dust OFF your stuff, the less often you have to dust it.

I didn't come to these amazing realizations overnight.  And one of these realizations is that while both my cousin Julia and I don't have much in the way of knick-knacks (almost nothing, really), we both have a lot of books to dust off.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I did a major attack on our bookshelves after Julia and I were talking about our hoarding relatives.  My husband and I read a lot, like Julia and her husband, and she said that she had her "AHA!" moment when she asked her husband, "why do we keep so many books?  Just to prove that we can read?"  Their house is really tidy, even though they have several pets, but they have a lot more books than the average person.  All on shelves, but a lot of books -- it's one thing we have in common.

It made me laugh, but I understand.  Our grandparents, who were not hoarders, taught us to prize books, and take good care of them.  Books were much harder to come by when our grandparents were young, and better made than most books today, so most people took good care of them.  We've inherited some of their old books.  I have Grandma's copies of T.S. Eliot and Jack London's work, among others.  These antique classics make me happy to see on my shelves.  Julia has some of Grandma's old books, too.

But why do we save last year's paperback best-sellers that we bought to read on the beach or on our lunch breaks at work?  That makes no sense at all.  And why do we have yellowed, dog-eared copies of paperback books we read in college?

Although we both keep our books neatly shelved, and only have about five or six average-sized bookcases in each of our homes (not that much, really), we both realized that our bookcases were pretty much packed full, so we set out on a mission a few years ago.

Every spring, we clear our bookshelves of pop fiction and other "light reading."  You know, the books you'll read once, but probably never again.  We also take a long, hard look at old favorites, and at books many people have duplicates of -- for example, I am a Stephen King fan, and I married a Stephen King fan,  so we had a lot of duplicates.  And then family members who know we love Stephen King gave us even more, for birthdays and holidays.  So we had even more duplicates.  And we aren't even hoarders.  So every spring, part of spring cleaning goes to book organizing, looking for duplicates and keeping to our commitment to keep only one copy of each -- preferably the hardback, or if it's a choice between paperbacks, we keep the one that's in best condition.  We also take a hard look at the ones we probably won't ever read again.  For example, we thought "Cell" was not one of Stephen King's better offerings, and neither of us plan to re-read it ever again.  So out it went.

Julia is a Tolkien fan and last year she realized she had duplicate, ancient, tattered copies of various Tolkien books, so when her Mom asked what she wanted for Christmas, she asked for a hardbound set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  She threw out her falling-apart paperbacks.  Now she has one, good-quality, boxed hardback set that looks nice on the bookshelf.  And yes, she does re-read them now and then.  She's a science fiction fan in general, and she ends up with duplicate copies for the same reasons we do.

Anyway, we put our heads together, and we do this one weeekend every spring:

We empty all the bookshelves in our houses, dust, wipe down and polish the shelves, and dust off the books.  Before we re-shelve the books, we make piles by author or by type -- my husband and I reshelve most of ours in alphabetical order by author, she does hers by general category (science fiction, history, etc.)

And here is what we ask ourselves:

1.  "Last year I re-shelved this book because I thought I might read it again, or my husband might read it.  I didn't.  Neither did he."   Keep or discard?

If it's a classic, we keep it.  If not, out it goes.

2.  "Somebody gave us this, but neither of us read it and we aren't likely to read it."   This is often something like a cookbook or travel book.  Both Julia and I have very few cookbooks.  We both know how to cook very well.  The cookbooks we keep are for cooking styles we don't do very often at home, like Middle Eastern or Asian.  And Julia has a couple of historical cookbooks, really more of a history of local cooking.  That's all.  But for some reason, lots people love to give cookbooks -- I guess they make good, all-purpose gifts .  For us, these are easy decisions.  Keep what few we will actually use, and discard the rest.

 3.  Coffee table books -- also, usually gifts.  Really,  you leaf through it once or twice ..."Streets of San Francisco," or "Castles of Europe."  Okay, nice book.  But do you really need it?

Why not donate them to  a senior citizen's center or a nursing home, so people who can't travel anymore can enjoy them?

4.  Mulitple books about general things you're interested in.  Does my husband, who is into the paranormal, really need every single book ever written about ghosts?  Out of this pile of 30 ghost-hunting books, how many of them are good references and how many are just re-hashing old legends that are better documented in another book?  How many offered no new information, were poorly written, or just plain sucked?  Likewise with the horror novels -- "honey, you remember you said this book was awful?"  Out with it!

5.  Worn-out copies or multiple copies of classics.  Can't these be replaced with single-volume, hardback anthologies?  We did this with our big stack of worn-out Shakespeare books from various college classes.  Of course you should have Shakespeare in the house, but instead of a box full of individual paperback plays and sonnets, with yellow-highlighted parts and notes you scrawled in the margins in 1977, how about just one big, thick Shakespeare anthology instead?   Really, when we pulled out all of our Shakespeare paperback books, we had 37 little paperbacks from my college English classes and from his (more, because he majored in English).


Out they went.  I gave him a Shakespeare anthology for his birthday.

We set a goal to get rid of at least 15-20% of books every time we clean out.  Last year, when we downsized enough to have a whole empty bookcase -- YAY! --  we bought an IKEA bookcase with glass doors to replace our oldest, most worn-out bookshelf, and we put out best books in the new one.  With the glass doors, the books don't get dusty.  We've decided that we will do this every years until we only own three bookcases with glass doors, and then the rule will be that we can't have any more books than will fit in those bookshelves.

In the meantime, both Julia and I got our husbands an e-book for Christmas.  Both of us got the Nook from Barnes and Noble, mainly because it allows you to download books from your public library.  So now we will only but hard copies of books that have real meaning to us -- no more money spent on books that are just entertainment or light reading!

All of the books we discard are donated to charity if they are in fairly good shape.  If they are too worn out, we recycle them.

P.S. - My husband just reminded me that we recycle the old phone book the very minute the new one lands on our doorstep in the fall.  Not a "regular" sort of book, but a big one anyway!

Next time:  what we do with DVD's, records, tapes and movies.

Have a great spring, whatever you celebrate!


Friday, April 15, 2011

Spring Cleaning

I've had a lot of extra work lately, and have been remiss insofar as keeping this blog up to date.

Today, I want to talk about spring cleaning.

When I was a kid, most people used the first warm days of spring as an opportunity to clear their homes of clutter, clean their interior walls, clean rugs, wash and wax wooden floors, scrub the grout in the bathroom tile, clean woodwork, and donate surplus items to charity.  After the house was decluttered, cleaned and aired out, people would go to work in their gardens, putting in flowers and plants for summer vegetables. 

Before Easter, our urban neighborhood would be bustling with activity as people threw open their windows, washed curtains, and let the fresh air and sunlight have free run in their homes.  The dust and soot from winter fireplace usage was scrubbed from the walls near the hearth, and a fresh coat of paint was applied if needed.  Winter clothes were washed, hung out to dry in the sun, and put away until the next year.

Most people would drag their household rugs outside, throw them over the fence, and beat the deeply-embedded dirt out of them (although most people had vacuum cleaners, wall to wall carpet was not yet common in our city).  After the rugs had been beaten senseless, they were hosed down to remove any remaining dirt or grime, and lightly scrubbed with a brush and soap before being rinsed and allowed to dry in the sunshine.

Meanwhile, floors were waxed and polished.

By May, most people's homes sparkled.

As a child, I was in awe of our neighbors who, over a mere few weekends,  refreshed and detail-cleaned  their homes to welcome the springtime.     

My non-hoarding grandmother was also one of these people, and from her, I learned how these things were done.  I thought it was fun to beat great clouds of dust out of the rugs, to tuck scented soap in with the winter garments before wrapping them carefully in moth-resistant cotton sheets and packing them in the trunk until next winter.  I enjoyed helping Grandma wax the floors -- when the floors were clean and dry, she invited the grandkids over for a "waxing party." All you had to bring was a pair of old socks. She would mop Johnson's Wax onto the floors and the kids would "skate" around the rooms until the floors shone like mirrors.  Older kids would help with the details, like shining the floor inside the corners.  After the floors were waxed, she'd make cookies, popcorn and Kool-Aid in the kitchen.  

Another thing Grandma did every year was to go through her house, looking for things she could donate to charity, or things she hadn't used in a long time.  The latter would be boxed, and would go into the attic.  If, by the following spring, she hadn't needed to retrieve anything from it, that box (and others like it) would be donated to the Salvation Army.

It was a good system.  Although Grandma was far from wealthy, her house always sparkled. Everything was mended and well-maintained, there was no clutter, everything had its place, and everything went back to its place after use. 

Life was good at Grandma's house.

Not so much at our house.

Sometimes Dad and I made a game of seeing how much we could clean on Saturday afternoons,  when Mom and my aunt sometimes went grocery shopping together.  But we never managed to make much of a dent in the piles of "memories."  We had to shift the stuff around to clean the floors and walls, to wash the curtains and clean the baseboards.   What I remember most is the dust, and how amazed I was at the amount of dust that could accumulate from one year to the next.  

More importantly, I didn't understand why Mom kept some of the things she held onto for dear life: yellowed newspaper clippings from the wedding announcements of co-worker's children ... broken china figurines and novelty coffee cups which had been birthday or Christmas gifts from acquaintances ... cracked picture frames ... broken rosaries ... plastic Easter eggs ... old ribbons from birthdays and Christmas gifts.  You name it, it was there.  All precious somehow, yet all jumbled together in uncovered boxes, gathering dust.

I often wondered how it could be possible for a box of oddments to be treasure and trash at the same time.

If I picked up one of these boxes, and fished out a newspaper clipping, asked my mother "whose wedding announcement is this?".... well, I would get an answer along the lines of, "don't you remember Miss Patty's niece? Bridget?"

(For the benefit of readers outside of the Southern United States, all adults a child is acquainted with are referred to by "Mr.," "Mrs.," or "Miss," followed by the first name.  It is a way of acknowledging familiarity, while at the same time reserving a certain degree of respect for one's elders).

If I looked puzzled, or shook my head and said "no," Mom would answer with, "I can't believe you don't remember Miss Patty's niece!   Her name was Bridget.  She babysat for you sometimes when you were two. She was a cute girl with red hair."

"No, Mom, I don't remember.  I was only two.  Why did you save her wedding announcement?"

"Well, for goodness sakes, she was your babysitter one summer!  I have to save that!  Don't you have one sentimental bone in your body?  You do remember Miss Patty, I hope?"

"Miss Patty .... oh, she lived down the street when I was little, but I don't remember much about her."

"Good Lord, how can you forget Miss Patty?  She used to sing for the church choir and she was in Little Theater and ...I just can't believe ..."   Mom would walk out of the room, mumbling and shaking her head in amazement that an eleven-year-old did not remember a temporary babysitter from nine years previously, or her babysitter's aunt, who used to live down the street.

One Saturday, when Dad and I were attempting some spring cleaning while Mom was out shopping with her sister, we broke a vase.  Not a valuable Victorian antique; not a priceless Chinese ginger jar.  Just a regular stoneware vase with a pretty design on it, which someone had given Grandma as a Christmas gift in the 1940s.  It sat atop a crowded bookcase, among dozens of other vases and figurines.

Dad turned around in the crowded living room with a mop handle in his hand.  The handle hit the vase.  I tried to catch it, and missed. The vase hit the wood floor and fractured into several pieces.

My Dad picked up the pieces, found his jar of epoxy, and together we carefully set to work reassembling it, all the while watching the clock for the hour of Mom's scheduled return.

We finished half an hour before Mom was due home.  We turned the vase carefully from side to side.  The cracks were not noticeable; they resembled the hairline "crazing" one often sees in pottery.  We set the vase back in its place, and settled down to listen to a baseball game on the kitchen radio.  I had a Coke.  Dad made us a snack, and opened a beer.

Not long afterward, we heard Mom come in, heard the keys jingle in the lock, heard footsteps ... and then she stopped.  Dad and I stared at each other.

She had seen it.  And she knew it was broken.

Had she noticed the cracks?  No.

It was turned the wrong way around.

The vase had a different design on each side.  We had set it back in position the wrong way.  And, in a quick glance around the living room as she walked in the door, out of all that apparent chaos, she had noticed that tiny detail.   And she had investigated.

She cried.  It was as though we had broken it on purpose.  A story poured out, about how that vase had been given to my grandmother by some friend or neighbor who used to be so kind, so very kind, so long ago, during the Depression, the neighbor who shared backyard gardening chores and the resulting produce with Grandma, the neighbor who once drove Grandma to the doctor when she sprained her ankle.

And we broke that nice lady's vase.

Sometimes it all seemed so pointless, even to try to help.

Do any of you have stories of cleaning attempts gone awry, or going unappreciated, as you were growing up?  I'd love it if you would care to share your own stories.

In the meantime, have a happy spring season, and enjoy cleaning your own homes.

Friday, March 4, 2011

I'm About to be A Lab Rat!

I will soon be a taking on a six-month-long, part-time job as a lab rat, but in a nice, and I hope, helpful way.

Along with many other Adult Children of Hoarders, I will be taking part in a study headed up by Dr. Suzanne Chabaud, whom you may know from the "Hoarders" television series.  She is the nice, calm Southern lady who calls it like she sees it. It takes old-school Southern manners to hold out her hand to help and, simultaneously, not to hesitate a moment to point out how awful a house smells, with the same sincere smile on her face and the same willingness to help. 

Her team will be studying the effects of growing up in a hoarded home. 

I have to admit that I am just a little bit nervous.  Although I know that the study will be completely anonymous, with participants' identities scrupulously protected, I nonetheless expect that answering the surveys and  talking through the interviews will stir up a lot of emotions I thought I had repressed or otherwise dealt with in some other way.  I know that there are some things in my life which are still terrible sore spots, but I also know that I have forgiven a lot, and that I love my mother and my other hoarding relatives and only want to see the best for them, especially my mother, in the long run.

A few things I am concerned about: 

-- although I grew up in a hoarded home, I was not verbally or physically abused, although my parents were very controlling people.  I know that our house was mostly about a 5 or 6 on the hoarding scale, and it was a "clean hoard" (no garbage, feces, etc), while other people grew up in much filthier homes and in very abusive situations, and I don't want to sound like a whiner.

-- there is that nagging sense of betrayal of the hoarding parent, just as with Adult Children of Alcoholics when they reveal their secrets.  The strict anonymity of the study will help me get past this, I am sure.

-- I want to tell my mother's story and, as I have all my life, try to ferret out why she holds on to so many things that only evoke negative memories.  It is as though she has a "Museum of Failure," jam-packed with Things That Might Have Been.  This aspect of her hoarding causes me the most pain -- listening to her re-live bitter family feuds when she touches certain objects that remind her of certain places in time, or sitting patiently as she tells, in excruciating detail for the umpteenth time, about incidents in which she was taken advantage of by certain of her relatives.  Why would she want to be reminded of them, and re-tell the same stories time after time with the same hurt, as fresh as when it was new, forty or fifty years later? Why does she want to hold on so tightly to the "Library of Hurt Feelings of the Past?"  Unlike some hoarders, she rarely picks up an object to tell a happy story about it.

-- I am also wondering if I will be able to discuss plans for the future.   Specifically, even though I love my mother and hope she lives to a very healthy old age, when she finally does pass on, I will need to be able to get rid of everything except photos, a few real heirlooms and other objects with positive family memories, and a few items of furniture ... and to get rid of these things without guilt.  

-- but my biggest concern?  I am afraid that the interviews will not give me enough time to tell the whole story.  I hope that is not the case.  

The researchers are also interested in identifying what strengths, if any, we feel we may have gained from growing up in such environments, and in fairness, they are also seeking information about any good points or character strengths our hoarding loved ones may possess. 

This is going to be interesting, and I will keep you all posted on any parts of the study I am allowed to blog about.

Have a great weekend!  Here in the South, the trees are budding, small animals are coming out of hibernation and the birds are singing.  Time to let some fresh air into our own lives as well.  Has anyone started their spring cleaning yet?


Friday, January 21, 2011

The Story of the Green Mohair Couch

Before I get to part three of my basic background story, I'd like to share an individual incident that readers may find interesting, as many hoarders also suffer from OCD and contamination issues.  Those of us recovering from hoarded early lives need to remember that our loved ones who hoard rarely suffer from hoarding all by itself.  It often appears in combination with other mental health issues, such as depression or OCD.  Several problems can be present at once.  It's one of the problems that makes this illness so difficult to treat.  The following anecdote covers such an issue.

The Tale of the Green Mohair Couch

I still remember the label on the underside of the couch: "Mohair: The Diamond Fiber."  It was a label woven of glittery metallic thread, a 1950s typeface boldly outlined in black, the kind of lettering you might see on the side of an old T-bird sporting tail-fins and lots of chrome.  The words were centered on the label over a wide, shallow diamond stitched in red metallic thread, and the manufacturer's location, in the eastern USA, was printed at the bottom.

It was the "Fifties Modern" style couch my parents purchased when they got married in the late '50s, along with matching, low-slung armchairs. The fabric was a warm, sage-green mohair with a nubby texture, shot through with a hint of gold metallic thread here and there.  It came with two sleek end tables and a low, oval coffee table.  At the time, it was an unusually trendy purchase for my aesthetically conservative parents, but they wanted a new, modern living room set and a new, modern bedroom set to start off their marriage.  After all, it was the the new age of television and Sputnik -- this was a way of keeping up with the times.  Most of their other furnishings were hand-me-downs -- antiques in good condition, from various deceased relatives.

The couch and its pointy-legged companions received many compliments, and before my mother's hoarding years began, many a tray of cocktails and canapes were laid upon that sleek little coffee table.  Family and friends often came to our house to laugh and chat, to barbecue, and to have iced tea and cocktails.

But time, children and pets wear furniture down, and, truth be told, fashionable couches and armchairs aren't usually meant to last forever.  By the early 1970s, the springs were weak, the seats were sagging, the fabric was worn, and the chairs were no longer comfortable.  Mom inquired about having the set re-upholstered, but was told it would cost more than it was worth.  Of course, Mom thought the set was priceless, but Dad convinced her it was smarter to buy a new living room set than to reupholster the old one.

Naturally, Dad thought the old furniture would go away.

So we considered purchasing a new living room set.  My parents settled on a '70s classic: a brown, tan and cream plaid sofa-bed, and a matching armchair from Sears.  Although the original living room tables were a bit worn and somewhat outdated, they were still in good shape, and made of a good-quality wood, so my parents decided to keep those.

Unfortunately, by the early 1970's my mother was hoarding in earnest.

Problems arose immediately, of course, both in having the new furniture delivered and in getting rid of the old furniture. My mother's first instinct was to keep it all.  By this time she was several years into keeping everything that came into the house, and we were still wiggling between boxes of Grandma's things.  Mom wanted to put the old living room chairs in my room, but they both wouldn't fit, and, frankly, I didn't like them.  I didn't want more of Mom's stuff in my nice, neat little room.

"Why don't you just give them to Goodwill?"  I asked.

"Because that's the furniture your father and I bought when we got married.  I can't just get rid of it."

I remember seriously thinking about this.  Why was that so important?  Are you supposed to save your first furniture as a couple, no matter how shabby it gets?  Did other couples do this?  I thought of friends' parents, who occasionally bought a new couch.  The old one generally was either given away or shoved into the garage for the teenagers to hang out on.  I didn't remember anyone else attaching special significance to their first couch.  Was I heartless?  Or had I somehow missed out on a critical bit of marital sentiment?  I was fourteen.  I needed to know if this was what other people did.

I persisted: "But Mom, it's old and worn out.  It's no good to anyone, unless they want to put in the time and effort to reupholster it.  Maybe we can give it to AmVets?  They fix things up, don't they? They fix TVs and things to re-sell them, right?"

After several weeks of persistence, between me and my Dad, we convinced Mom to donate at least the armchairs to charity.  However, she was ashamed of their worn condition and did not want them placed on the porch for AmVets to pick them up.  What would the neighbors say?  They would know she was a terrible housekeeper, with that worn-out furniture.  The secret would be out!  Like most hoarders, Mom imagined that her mundane daily activities were of tremendous interest to the neighbors, that the neighbors might actually walk right up onto our porch to inspect the old chairs waiting to be picked up by the charity store, and that the neighborhood would soon be abuzz with the shocking fact that Mom owned worn and outdated chairs.

So, one Saturday, my Dad and I had to get up very early, long before dawn, as we did if we went fishing together.  We packed the chairs into the trunk of my Dad's car, one at a time, in the dark, before anyone else was up and around, to deliver them to the back door of AmVets so no  one would see them.  We made two trips -- one for each chair.  This was the only way Mom would allow them out of the house -- at four-thirty in the morning, under cover of darkness.  I remember my Dad didn't say much that morning.  It was cold and windy, and our two drop-off stops were hurried because AmVets was in a sketchy neighborhood.

The couch presented a different problem.  My Dad said, "It's still sturdy, it would just cost too much to reupholster.  But someone could use it.  They could put a slipcover on it.  They could have it cleaned. They could re-stuff the pillows.  Let's just give it to the AmVets people to haul it away, honey -- please?   The chairs fit in the trunk of my car.  I could move those in the car, but the couch just won't fit."

Mom said "But we can't let the neighbors see it, and AmVets only comes in the daytime. People would see it."

Dad had a bright idea:  "We can throw an old sheet over it while they put it in the van."

Mom shook her head.  "It might fall off.  Or the neighbors would see it after they removed the sheet.  Before they closed the door on the truck."

On and on they went, Dad trying to think up a creative way to get the old couch into the AmVets van without anyone seeing it, and Mom automatically shooting down any idea presented to her.

Finally, frustrated, Dad said, "I have an idea -- let's just put it on the back porch and throw an old blanket over it. The dogs will enjoy sleeping on it, and no one will see it on the screen porch."

That's where it went.  Dad kept the back porch clear, so there was plenty of room for the couch.  The porch only contained the washing machine, clothesline, and a few storage boxes for tools and fishing tackle.

The rest of that weekend involved clearing the living room enough for the new couch and armchair to be delivered.  Dad and I painted the living room by shifting the contents around to clear wall space.   Mom bought new curtains, and I put the old ones in the attic. resigned to the fact that they could not be discarded. The old coffee tables and other furniture got a thorough cleaning and polishing.  The living room sparkled for a couple of weeks.  Dad and I were happy.  We had talked Mom into a living room paint job, a new couch,  and even had convinced her to put some of her "stuff" from the living room into boxes in the attic.

The clean and freshly painted living room was still crowded with trinkets and bric-a-brac, but the newspapers and magazines and such were in the attic, at least for now.  Maybe things might, finally, be starting to change.

Then the stuff began to drift back into the living room -- one box at a time, one stack of magazines at a time.

That green mohair couch stayed on the back porch until 1980, and the dogs loved it.  Although they always had a good, sound doghouse, there was also a dog-flap in the back porch screen door, and they especially liked being able to snuggle on the old couch on chilly days in the wintertime -- of course, we always brought the dogs indoors at night.

One Saturday morning I drove home from college to spend the weekend.  After lunch, I sat on the back-porch couch to cuddle one of the dogs, and as I did, I heard a squeaking noise inside the couch.  The squeak was not caused by a rusty spring.  I lifted the blanket, then lifted the couch cushion, and discovered a nest of baby mice and a very nervous-looking mama mouse.  I gently put the cushion back in place.  I didn't like being infested with mice, but I didn't want to hurt them, either.

"Mom," I called out casually, as I looked for a pair of garden gloves, intending to move the mice and their nest to a more suitable location outside our yard, "it looks like we have some mice living in the couch."

She rushed out onto the porch.  This was not well received.  The one thing that will dis-attach my mother's sentiment from any object is anything having to do with rodents.  She can somehow overlook insect damage, but she has a true phobia of mice and rats. "Oh no," she said, with true distress in her voice.  "Our wedding couch.  I guess we really do have to get rid of it now."  She was on the verge of tears.

"Fine," I said.  "We'll make up some new dog beds out of some old blankets."  I didn't want to ask my Dad to help move the couch because his back was in bad shape and his health was poor, so I said, "I'll just run next door and ask Jerry to help me carry the couch to the curb.  Monday is garbage day, so the city will pick it up."  Jerry was a college student who rented the neighbors' upstairs apartment.  He thought I was cute.  He would have been glad to help.

"Oh my God, NO!"  my mother cried.  "We can't put that at the curb!  The neighbors won't know the dogs have been on it!  They will think it was in our house like that!  All torn up and full of mice!"

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Yes, it is seriously shabby now, but how in hell are the neighbors supposed to know about the mice, I thought.  Are they mice psychics?  What I said was:

"Okay, Mom.  What if I cover it with an old sheet?"

"No!  It might blow off, or someone might look under the sheet."

"Okay... hmmm... what if I cover it carefully in newspapers and masking tape?"  I knew that a couch gift-wrapped in newspaper would look much more insane at the curb than a shabby, grimy couch covered in dog hair, but at least it was an idea.

"No!  It might fall off when the truck picks it up, or someone might tear the paper to look."

And suddenly I found myself in the center of the exact same argument we had had several years before.  The couch couldn't simply be covered with old newspapers until the trash pickup came, because the cover might somehow come off, or someone would peek under the cover and actually see it, or people would see it at the moment it went into the dump truck.

The debate lasted a long while.  Mom became increasingly upset as it sank in that she would finally, really, have to get rid of the first couch she and Dad bought when they got married.  She was upset that other people would see it after so many years of wear and tear.  She was upset that the mice might get in the house.  She wanted it removed, but she didn't.

She finally came up with a solution.  When I heard it, I said, "You can't be serious." But she was.

The couch was to be dis-assembled, its components put into garbage bags, and the bags were to be stacked at the curb.  So Dad and I spent the rest of that Saturday on the porch with a razor knife to remove the upholstery, and we used a handsaw and a small hacksaw to cut the frame into pieces.  We found another mouse nest; like the first mouse family, I carefully scooped them all up in a bucket and deposited them in a sheltered place among some bushes in the narrow alley behind the neighbors' garage, where they weren't likely to bother anyone.

Dad and I shared a few beers that day, and I remember him shaking his head remorsefully as we took the couch apart:  "This couch has a solid frame," he said. "If only she'd let it go when we got rid of the chairs," he said, "somebody might have been able to fix it up -- they would have had a useful living room set.  This is such a waste."

I still clearly remember stuffing yards of moth-eaten green mohair, foam stuffing, abandoned mouse nests and broken springs into those big, dark-green garbage bags, tying them shut and carrying them to the curb.

The funny part was that our immediate neighbors, hearing all the sawing and banging noises, looked over the fence and queried as to what we were doing.  "Just busting up some old junk so it will fit in the garbage truck," I remember saying, because that sounded like it made sense.  How could I possibly explain what we really were doing?

Ironically, it was the sawing and banging noises generated by Mom's insistence on the couch being broken down -- her attempt to hide the evidence of her hoarding -- that got the neighbor's attention.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Julia's Story, Part Two

I told the first part of my story a few posts back, so if you are a new visitor, you can go back and catch up.

My first summer away from home, out of the dormitory, and on my own was a whole new experience -- viewing life through the new lens of normalcy.

I had lived in the dormitory during my first two years in college.  I experienced sharing a room with another young woman who (thankfully) was also fairly neat and tidy. It was so refreshing in the morning to wake up with someone else who got dressed, made the bed (most of the time), and put things away before going to breakfast at the dining hall, and then on to class.  We took turns sweeping and mopping our room with the supplies provided in the cleanup closet in the hall on our floor in the dorm.  Once a week we took our laundry to the dorm basement and studied while our clothes bounced around in the machines, then we immediately brought them upstairs and put them away.  We ate in the dorm cafeteria during the week, but on weekends we were expected to fend for ourselves, using the kitchenettes provided on each dorm floor.  We each had a few basic dishes and kitchen utensils, and we prepared simple meals together and washed the pans and dishes afterward. It was relaxing -- even fun -- to do the small, everyday chores necessary to live like a "normal" person.  Sometimes we ordered a pizza, or went out for burgers and beer at one of the college hangouts.

Of course, like any normal college students, we had a small amount of clutter: the laundry that filled our hampers till the weekends, a few piles of magazines and notebooks, stacks of record albums, or odd shoes kicked under the bed.  But almost always, even when we were too busy to tidy up daily, each of us could straighten up our side of the room in about ten minutes, swish a broom, and quickly be ready for friends to come over to chat or study.

As I described in part one of my story, I went home after my freshman year in college.   I returned to college in the fall, to a different dormitory, and my roommate and I added two other friends to our "upperclassman suite."  It was really just two small, two-bed rooms with slightly larger closets, a shared bath, and and a view of the lake, but we thought it was cool.  We would all go on to become lifelong friends.

Then we had final exams in the spring, and summer loomed before me, not as the happy time it should have been, but as the time I would have to go home for three whole months, only this time I knew I would have even less space to occupy in "my" room than I had the year before. When summer came at the end of my first year of college,  I had moved back home to a room that had become more crowded with clutter than when I left, as I mentioned in my last post.  I worked two jobs, so I was hardly ever there.  It didn't matter much.

But at the end of the following year, I did not want to move back home for the summer.   I didn't want to move back into my crowded bedroom.  Ever.  When I last visited for Easter, I had about two linear feet of clear space in the closet, and very little room to use on the floor.  Many more boxes had also appeared, which needed to be navigated around.  Years later, I learned these were called "goat paths" in hoarded houses.  Back then, I only knew that I felt like my mother's "stuff" was slowly engulfing me like a giant amoeba.

So when that second summer arrived, I moved my belongings in with a friend who had a spare bedroom in the basement apartment he shared with his girlfriend.  It was a funny, oddly shaped little room with brick walls which had been painted chalk white.  It was really a sub-basement room tucked under the wide front stairs to the apartment building -- you actually had to step down into it through a short door with a slightly rounded top -- and I had no doubt it was originally meant for storage.  The ceiling was slanted, and it was much lower on one side than the other. But it had a cozy bed, a nightstand, a coat-rack and a little desk and chair, as well as a small closet and a sunny casement window that looked out over the haphazard flower garden next to the entry.  I kept that little room neat and tidy. At night I would bring in my bicycle and park it next to the radiator on the low side of the wall under the stairs.   A small bookcase was placed along that short wall as well.  I owned my grandmother's sewing and knitting basket, and placed that near the bed.  I tucked my portable sewing machine under the bed.  I used a crocheted afghan for a bedcover in mild weather, and unzipped my thick down sleeping bag for use as a blanket on cold nights.

I took pride in the neatness of my room and in the fact that all of my possessions fit inside my Volkswagen van.  I had a comfortable place to study, and I enjoyed listening to my small stereo while I pored over history and biology.   On rainy Saturday mornings, I would pile my pillows against the headboard and read or knit as I listened to new wave and punk rock on the campus radio station, or news and classical music on public radio.  I went out with friends.  I dated without anxiety.

I shared the kitchen with my new roommates that summer, cheerfully cooking and cleaning up on the nights when it was my turn and sharing the other household chores.  My few pots, pans and dishes fit in one cabinet.

Many people would have thought this simple life of books, music, and studying -- with regular weekend visits to a popular student pool hall for beer and burgers and the occasional keg party -- to be too Spartan, but I loved it.  For once, I lived in a regular household with people who valued tidiness, and woke up every morning to a neat, clean home shared with two roommates, a dog and a couple of cats.  I could invite a date over for a game of Scrabble or a spaghetti dinner without being embarrassed and without having to frantically clean for hours in advance.  At worst I'd have to empty a few ashtrays, pick up a few empty beer or soda cans, sweep, and wash the dishes before company arrived. The apartment was most definitely a well-worn, 1920s vintage stucco building which today might be described as "student bohemian" or "shabby chic," but it was a happy, tidy, airy place and I loved it.

Although I loved my parents, I hated going home.  The set of clashing emotions was painful, embarrassing and frustrating.  Shouldn't I be living with them and cleaning up for them?  After all they had raised me, and they loved me  - didn't I owe them something back?  But I knew that every effort I had made to help clean up had always been met with resistance, and I knew that if I lived with them it would only get worse, that there would only be more arguments with my mother about her stuff, and the arguments would  end with, "we just can't argue about this any more.  It will upset your father, and he has a bad heart."  Case closed.

After my father had his first heart attack when I was a teenager, his cardiac health became my mother's all-purpose excuse for inaction:  "I don't want to argue about this, it will upset your father and he will have a heart attack."  Or, "Stop arguing about this or you'll make your father have a heart attack."

So the subject of "stuff" was indefinitely sidelined.  

I made a point of taking a couple of classes and working every summer so I had the excuse of not moving home, and by my junior year I had stopped living in the dormitory entirely, and had started sharing apartments with my other friends.

My parents only met a few of the guys I dated in college, and that was only during my dorm years, when I had to leave the dormitory for the entire duration of major holiday breaks, and only because those guys had asked for my home number so they could visit me.  Because my dad took pride in the yard, I would meet my date on the front porch if the weather was halfway decent and, as I did during my high school years, I would pray to whoever might be listening that my date wouldn't need to use the bathroom.

But after I moved out, I never brought another guy to meet my parents until it was unavoidable.  They needed to get to know the guy I was planning to marry.  This man, my own husband, would set foot in my parent's house exactly twice between 1981, when we had our first date, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.   During those years, my father became increasingly ill, and my mother cared for him alone.  I helped whenever I could on a regular basis, and begged and pleaded with them to move into an apartment in a retirement community in the city where we lived so that I could help on a regular basis, but they refused --  partly because Mom didn't want to leave their familiar set of doctors, but also because Mom didn't want to get rid of any of her stuff.

And I'll talk about that in my next post.