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.


1 comment:

  1. I love your description of your college room and lifestyle - so simple and free.