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.