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.

neat freak woman couch
Joe Schmelzer for Reader’s Digest
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.

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.

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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