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.

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