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.

child playing toys
Joe Schmelzer for Reader’s Digest

My father saved practical things: tools, hunting videos, cans of oils and sprays. Unopened packages of clearance wool socks filled his dresser. My mother, on the other hand, saved things she found beautiful: a snowflake knitted from silver yarn, a ceramic figurine of a mother teddy bear holding a baby teddy bear. Her things were from thrift stores and yard sales. Several jewelry boxes were filled with necklaces and earrings she never wore.

My mother had no pretty things when she was a girl. She and my father grew up poor, the kind of poor you read about in books. In elementary school, she owned two dresses, alternating them so as not to wear the same dress two days in a row. When the lunch bell rang and her classmates went home to eat, my mother walked along the dirt road that led to her house, only to turn around and walk back once she got there. There was no sense in walking into the kitchen for lunch. She knew there would be nothing there for her.

As a teen, my father worked in the local supermarket, turning over his paychecks to his mother, who had four other mouths to feed. His father was absent, a drinker.

Now my mother has more items of clothing than she could wear in a year. She saves like she has something to prove. In her bedroom are three dressers stuffed so full, it’s hard to open the drawers. Between the clothes are jars of eye cream, tubes of lip balm, crinkled receipts, and envelopes of cash. In her sock drawer are bags of almonds and chocolate bars. Lotion tubes and Kleenex boxes form a pyramid atop a dresser, blocking a family portrait that hangs on the wall. My 12-year-old self peeks out over the top.

The jungle spreads to the kitchen, where a baker’s rack overflows with cookbooks. The cabinets hold spice jars so old, their contents are as solid as rock.

The most tangled, bewildering part of the house is the living room, where bookshelves are stuffed with half-filled notepads, boxes of broken crayons, and shrink-wrapped board games—games no one has ever played. The desk is heaped with papers, a curled wedding program sticking out from the stack. It’s from my cousin’s wedding three years ago.

Each time I visit, my eyes fixate on the same item: a picture frame bearing the sticky residue of a yard sale tag. It sits propped up as though on display, next to a bottle of lighter fluid and a Frosty the Snowman videotape. The frame, with its decorative red apples and yellow buses, is meant to hold school pictures, one from each grade. The spaces inside are empty and have been for as long as I can remember.

I grew up differently from my parents. When my brother and I needed something, they found a way to get it for us. He and I knew how hard our parents worked at their factory jobs making shoes. We visited their hot shops that smelled like sweat and rubber cement and saw how tired they were at the end of the day.

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A bed with rumpled sheets and crooked pillows says something is out of order, something is wrong with my family.

Instead of having our friends over, we went to their homes, which were tidy and organized, welcoming. I mistook their orderliness for harmony, thinking that if everything was where it was supposed to be in their kitchens, then everything was where it was supposed to be in their lives.

After I grew up and moved away, I thought I had escaped my parents’ house and their piles of stuff, thought I had left it behind, unable to swallow me up. But it did swallow me. Today, my own house is just as maniacal as theirs was. I clean twice a day, once in the morning and again before bed. I can’t sleep if there are dirty dishes or unfolded laundry. Toast crumbs on the table are like ants crawling on my body. A bed with rumpled sheets and crooked pillows says something is out of order, something is wrong with my family.

Throwing something out gives me freedom, makes me feel lighter. Maybe that’s what children do; we follow the road that takes us as far away from our parents as possible. We fear becoming them so much that we miss the moment when we become their mirror images, the same in our exact oppositeness.

As my daughter squirrels my belongings away to her rat hole, she is finding her own way of creating order. She likes to save things, while I am inclined to throw them away. Who is to say that one impulse is better than the other?

Angela has no interest in tidying her room or throwing out things that are broken. So I clean her room for her, putting her books back into order, big ones to the left on the bookcase and small ones to the right. I make her bed and straighten out the pillows, making everything feel safe again.

In the back of her closet, I find two glossy pages ripped from a National Geographic. One shows a baby harbor seal, the other a scuba diver. I hold them in my hand, feeling her personality jump off the pages. She loves the ocean. The pictures probably make her smile.

I wonder if she hid them from me, knowing that I would have no use for them. My instinct is to put them in the trash, but instead I put them back where I found them on the closet floor. Angela decided she needed those pictures, beautiful things kept simply because they are beautiful.

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