Immaculate Obsession: A Neat Freak Recalls a Childhood of Chaos

Ours was a house of things, items saved and stored. We didn't have conversations or emotions; we had stuff.


My daughter has a private corner in the living room where grown-ups are forbidden. “The rat hole,” she and I call it. If something is missing, a measuring spoon or my eyelash curler, it can surely be found in the rat hole. She sits there, wedged between the couch and the bookshelf, stockpiling her pirated items, out of the watchful eye of her clean-freak mother.

Her collections spread like ivy to her bedroom, where she saves tiny piles of pebbles and seashells, twigs and acorns. Orphaned items find new belonging in Angela’s room, transformed in her four-year-old imagination from their ordinary purposes to something fanciful. A handful of pencils becomes a sword collection. A mixing bowl takes shape as a Jacuzzi for superhero figurines. A broken coil of vacuum hose morphs into a black snake.

“Why are you keeping this?” I ask.

“It’s a rattlesnake,” Angela says. “A nice rattlesnake.”

I hand over the broken hose and wonder how my daughter can be so much like me yet so different at the same time.


neat freak woman couchJoe Schmelzer for Reader's Digest

When I was ten years old, my father hired someone to build an enclosed porch onto our house. Like many families, we needed more room for our stuff. But our stuff wasn’t quite like the things other families had.

The contractor arrived every morning for a week. He laid out his tools and went to work while my brother and I were at school. At the end of the week, he left behind a porch that felt as big and empty as a football field.

My brother and I ran the length of our new porch. We smelled the fresh lumber of its vacant, clean walls and marveled at its empty spaces. What would we do with this new place? We could play there, spread our sleeping bags out on the wooden floor for a campout. We could practice our cartwheels or throw a football back and forth.

Within months, the porch’s possibilities, once endless and promising, were lost. It became a heap of snow sleds and fishing poles, holiday ornaments and outgrown clothes—things that no longer served us but no one was willing to throw out. There were rusted coffee cans filled with homeless screws and nails, tent poles sticking out of tote bags.

We didn’t have conversations or emotions; we had stuff.

A path was blazed from the screen door of the porch to the sturdier front door of the house, which concealed our family’s greatest secret, the reason why my brother never invited friends over and I never hosted a sleepover party. Ours was a house of things, items saved and stored just in case. We didn’t have conversations or emotions; we had stuff. To say my parents were collectors would make it sound like something elegant, something sophisticated. They stockpiled. They accumulated. They built around us thick walls of possessions, a fortress.

When I was pregnant with Angela, I spent sticky August afternoons in her nursery, sorting tiny pink T-shirts and baby socks. While my husband was away on military deployments, I arranged bottles of baby shampoo on the dresser and stocked the closet with sleepers and blankets, making room for something wonderful to happen in there, in the new space.

As an adult, cleaning my own home had become a tether, a way to find my footing when I felt I had lost control. It made me feel safe, like nothing bad could happen. If I was cleaning, then I wasn’t worrying. Were we ready to have a family? Would our baby be healthy? Then, after my daughter was born, I was an overwhelmed new mother, washing dishes in the middle of the night when my husband was out to sea. And when he left me for another woman, I scrubbed the kitchen floor until it gleamed.

Next: “I mistook orderliness for harmony” »

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5 thoughts on “Immaculate Obsession: A Neat Freak Recalls a Childhood of Chaos

  1. For reasons irrelevant to my comments, I am very behind on my Reader’s Digest subscription and am working to get caught up. I just read this article in the December issue and it nearly brought tears to my eyes. It seems my parents aren’t quite the hoarders yours are, but growing up, my room was the only “safe” haven of clean. My first husband was a neat freak and it was so appealing to live in a home that felt under control. After the divorce, with my 2 year old son I moved back in with my parents for 6 months to get back on my feet. Despite being so grateful for their support and help it was painful to return to their chaotic, yet loving, nest. Out of my parents and two sisters I am the only one concerned with organization and cleanliness. It’s weird. Your description of toast crumbs feeling like ants crawling on your skin is spot on; and rumpled sheets and crooked pillows cause me similar discomfort.

    My aforementioned son, now 20, inherited the pack rat gene. His bedroom was a scary place to enter, and I mostly had to keep his bedroom door closed because of the stress it caused to see his piles of treasures. As a child I could impose my clean standards upon him, but as a teenager I had to let it go (you know, pick your battles). When he moved out to join the Marines, we packed most of his room and put it in a storage unit as our house is very small and we wanted the extra space. However I cannot fully clear out his belongings. A couple corners and the closet are still full of his stuff, things I cannot part with because I look at them and think, “This is special to him,” and all of these things make him feel close to home. Countless times I have entered his room to organize and condense and purge, but once I get down to it I just cannot move his things. Despite the anxiety I feel surrounded by clutter and filth, his remaining clutter is all I have until he returns.

    It was just very interesting to read about someone similarly sandwiched between two generations of pack rats. I will be sharing the article with my son as I’m sure he will get a kick out of it.

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