A Fine Mess

Clearing out a wardrobe in middle years is an exploration of hope over reality. I wish I was tidy. I quite enjoy the catharsis of taking a massive bag of clothes and books to the charity shop. I take pleasure in polishing when there’s a clear surface to dust. But I really wish someone else could magic away the clutter.

This suit, yes it made me look elegant and corporate but…. I bought it eleven years ago and haven’t been able to fit into it for eight. Why is it still there?

And the lovely party dress bought on a whim online. In the wrong size. There it hangs, six years later, forlorn and unworn waiting for me to regain my once elfin figure (and also for a party invitation).

At the bottom of the wardrobe was my dissertation, unread since it was handed in. The cover is stained from where it got damp once. It was rescued when I cleared out my parents’ shed in 2013. I try to visualise me as an earnest young undergraduate stabbing away at a typewriter. I can’t remember how her mind worked, but I can remember the agony of producing every word, even though most of them now make no sense (the average goldfish bowl is more profound). Still back in the wardrobe it goes, because the only other place to put it is an overloaded bookcase.

Somewhere in my system there must be at least one tidy gene. Unfortunately, it has been mislaid in the chaos of all the untidy ones. I do like a neat working environment for writing, drawing or sewing.  But the reality is that if necessary, I will have to turn my back on anything out of place elsewhere in the room (I’d never do anything creative otherwise) and for example right now I am tapping in my little writing corner while behind me are four piles of clean laundry and outside the room…

On the other hand, the plus side of having been brought up in a house where a clear worktop was just wasted space is that I can cook in an area the size of a side-plate if necessary; a skill which makes me able to cope with the catering side of camping with nonchalance.

Personally, I blame my parents. One of my earliest memories is of a room, floor to ceiling (or at least above my three year old head) with stuff. I can’t now recall what stuff although books featured significantly. However, I do remember a glass case with a stuffed red squirrel inside. It had fascinating shiny eyes. There was also a musical box which had real butterflies pinned to little rods which danced up and down when the music played. They were very pretty, but I was sad that something so free should be fixed so permanently. “Are they dead?” I asked. “Afraid so but just as well.” Dad answered. Sometime between then and when we moved to the next house, both the squirrel and the musical box were sold. They had come with my parents from their first home, a flat in Hendon which had previously belonged to my father’s aunt (who conveniently died sometime before the wedding). As far as I can gather, my father thus accumulated a number of her books (which covered a range of the early 20th Century equivalent of New Agism, e.g. Theosophy, British Israelitism and so on) and several odd items she had either inherited or collected, including dead animals in cases. Recently, friends took us to find that flat where my parents started their married life and where I lived until I was eighteen months old. It is fundamentally a maisonette. At the time when I was born, my parents lived in the top floor and one of my father’s other aunts lived on the ground floor. I took some exterior photographs to show my mother and then did an internet search to see whether we could find any interior shots from the last time it was sold or rented out.

“The bathroom looks a bit different,” said my mother in some surprise, slightly affronted that it hadn’t remained the same for fifty years, “and the sitting room never looked as roomy as that when we were living there.”

“That’s possibly because it’s tidy now,” I pointed out.
“You might be right,” conceded Mum.

After moving from Hendon, we moved to Dunstable, then to Wokingham, then to Winnersh then to Neath in South Wales. This was all in a space of seven years. If the proverbial rolling stone gathers moss, my rolling father gathered stuff. There is no other word for it unless you know a collective noun that covers books, half finished projects, paperwork which is in no order whatsoever and may have become irrelevant twenty years earlier, items inherited or handed down by relations who presumably didn’t want them and knew my father was a sucker for that sort of thing, random bits of china and souvenirs etc etc. Stuff. What we had most of was books of course, thousands of them. When we moved to the house in Wales, we put the majority of them up in the front room on bowed bookshelves. Some of the villagers were incredulous. “What they want all them books for?” they said, as if this was stranger than keeping baby alligators, which was what the adjoining neighbours did in their front room.

Eventually, my father and another neighbour moved the bathroom from downstairs into a bedroom upstairs and what had once been the bathroom became what we called the study. Only my father was capable of “studying” in there. Everyone else was in fear of being crushed to death by something falling off the tottering piles of books and papers. Whenever my sister or I had a birthday party, or some masochistic relation came to stay, there was a frantic shoving of clutter into the study. If you subsequently wanted anything, it was an exercise similar to finding a specific geological strata in a range of mountains and probably more dangerous. After my ninth birthday party, the bully at school made nasty comments about our disordered house which made me hate it; but on the other hand, when I reconnected with an old friend a few years ago (a girl who came round regularly, not just when we’d shovelled a room clear) she told me how refreshing it had been to visit a home where you could paint, sew, write, cook and no-one cared about the resulting chaos.

(Incidentally, the study finally became too constricting even for my father to write in, so, after trying to work in the attic but finding it too dark, he constructed a room within the airing cupboard where he could put his electric typewriter and eventually a computer. Really, you’ve just got to believe me on this.)

It’s hard to imagine how my father turned out this way. Or maybe it was a natural reaction. My paternal grandmother was the archetypal housewife and kept her home streamlined and immaculate. My paternal grandfather was a prototype minimalist and couldn’t bear mess or pictures at an angle or things on windowsills or dust or crumbs. He didn’t show any evidence that small children playing caused him any pain, but we did have to tidy up after ourselves, which we virtually never did at home. My grandmother kept some decorative, feminine, pretty ornaments in her room where they wouldn’t annoy him but they were still kept very neat.

What my mother’s excuse is, I have no idea. My maternal grandfather died before I was born but my maternal grandmother also kept a tidy, if arty, house and she too made sure my sister and I cleaned up after ourselves when we stayed. A recent TV programme showed young girls in the 1940s and 50s being chained to the home, training up as housewives. My mother just laughed. “Never happened to me!” she said cheerfully.

So I assume that my mother had either not picked up any wifey skills before her marriage at twenty-three or lost interest in the face of my father’s consequent refusal to do anything except horde and live in chaos. Possibly a combination of both. He wasn’t a man to be argued with, and I speak as one who tried. Dad regarded any sort of tidying, cataloging, organising or (heaven forbid) reducing the volume of stuff as a dark art. When I mentioned the fact that I was doing my biennial book sort, culling the ones I didn’t want and putting the remainder back into some sort of order by genre and author, he visibly shuddered, as if I was describing the slaughter of kittens with a pickaxe. Mum did try. She once took a mass of long unread science fiction books to a charity shop only for my father to buy them back a week later because “I seem to have lost the ones I thought I had.”

She didn’t pass on many home-making skills to me or my sister either. Both of us regard housework as a sort of Sisyphean task which has been set to punish us for something. On the other hand, Mum and Dad between them showed us how to be creative. There were story competitions and painting and papier-mâché and lino cutting. Every holiday Dad would try out some new craft with varying success: corn dollies, soap carving, pottery. There just wasn’t much time for nonsense like dusting or vacuuming.

Long long after my sister and I had left, my parents finally moved from the family home and into a bungalow, manfully trying to force nearly forty years of stuff into somewhere half the size of the place they were leaving and pretty nearly managing it, if you didn’t mind the fact that there wasn’t much floor. Recently, the old family home came up on the market and we looked in astonishment at the interior shots on the estate agent’s website. It was impossible to recognise anything, including my old room, where latter owners had put a spiral staircase into the attic which was now a light filled spacious room rather than a dark glory hole reminiscent of a junk shop.

In 2012, when my sister and I stayed for the last week of Dad’s life as he lay unconscious in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, we reorganised some of the stuff just so that I had somewhere to sleep and tried to create some sort of sense out of the remainder. We felt like traitors and we would have given anything for him to wake up and tell us to stop interfering and that no reasonable person needed more than six inches of horizontal surface visible at any given time.

He died without knowing that we’d started organising the mess and boxing up things for charity or to put into storage. Ruefully we laughed when we found half a five pound note in between two dusty books, saying it was our fitting inheritance. We never did find the other half. A little under a year later, my mother moved out of the bungalow to be near me and this time, the decluttering, which had been slowly progressing for nine months, had to be finished in the space of two weeks. There would be no room in the flat at the sheltered complex.

That was three years ago and I still feel scarred by the experience of disposing of so much so quickly. My mother’s flat is now tidy in an untidy sort of way and most of the retained boxes of stuff are in our garage, although periodically she kidnaps one to rummage through. She misses the clutter of fifty-one years of marriage to a hoarder.

In the process of helping her move from bungalow to flat, I unearthed a tin (yes a tin) of furniture polish from the kitchen and said to my mother, “er… isn’t this the same tin you had when I was a little girl?”

“Probably,” she said. “The thing is,” she added with much wisdom, “there’s always something much more interesting to do than housework.”

mess2

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

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