Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Growing Up with a Hoarder

Ah, Step Four. Does it ever end? I've been thinking today about why I've spent a good part of my life being somewhat impressionable. If someone's in a position of power over me, sometimes I'll have way more patience than perhaps is good for me in accepting without question their directions. This, in turn, took me back to my childhood and when I ran into that age-old problem that all kids run into at some point: realizing that your parents aren't always right. And then what do you do? For me, the dilemma was a little more complicated because it also involved my realizing that my stepmother was a little off her rocker. Or maybe a lot off her rocker. As an adult, many years later, I, of course, understand that she was a troubled person. But as a teenager, I didn't understand her obstinance in adhering to "rules" she set that made no sense to me whatsoever. Yet if I dared break them, there was the belt, or the switch from the forsythia bush, or the back of her hand, or writing a thousand times "I must not ..."

She was a hoarder. Not like the hoarders on A&E, but an animal hoarder and a food hoarder. We had exactly fourteen cats living in our house, in addition to occasional strays that knew to come by. This wouldn't be so odd if she were, say, in animal rescue and the animals would be there only temporarily while new homes for them were sought. Nope, these cats were there for the duration. They never went outside (except for two of them) and she paid absolutely no attention to them. There were four show cats, Persians, that stayed shut in a tiny guest room, and she never brushed them. Consequently they got horrible mats, which, whenever it occurred to her to give them some attention, would involve me having to hold them while she scissored the mats out. These show Persians she'd spent hundreds of dollars apiece on (meanwhile Wayne and I are decked out in polyester clothes from K-Mart and being teased mercilessly at school) were covered in bald patches and grossly obese from the lack of exercise. The guest room bedspread was a solid sea of cat hair. It was a room that was otherwise unusable.

It was my job to stave off the damage to the house as much as one teenager can do. Every day, I emptied the four litter boxes (this was before scoopable cat litter), so changing each box involved taking it outside to dump in the garbage, then around to the side of the house to rinse out with the hose, then down into the basement to fill the box with clay litter, then back upstairs to whatever room it belonged in. Four times. It was also my job to put fresh newspaper under each box, to change the waterbowls, and to feed the cats twice a day (wet food in four rooms once a day; dry food topped off in four rooms twice a day).

Though the cats were all neutered or spayed (eventually, after several litters of unwanted kittens), two of the males got into a battle of spraying to mark territory, and no amount of scrubbing the rugs or wiping off the walls could put an end to that. I tried, but the house stank. I stopped inviting friends over after I opened the front door once to two buddies from school. They set foot into the house, stopped, looked at each other, and finally one said, apologetically, "I'm sorry, it really stinks. Can we just hang out on the porch?"

The only two cats of the fourteen in that house that ever went outdoors were two of mine, Felix and Boots. But they weren't allowed to run free. To this day I have no clue why these two were singled out, but it was the job of my brother Wayne and me to walk these cats on leashes every day when we got home from school. The leashes proved too short, so eventually Lois had Dad rig up long chains with clips on the end that we could hook to the clothesline. Then our job was to hook the cats up and sit on the back porch and watch them, going over to untangle their chains whenever they got wrapped around a pole or around each other. Every day, we did this. For. Hours. On. End. Until Lois got home from work.

Otherwise, all the cats stayed inside, cooped up in rooms. Lois and Dad had three cats in their room; I had five cats in mine; Wayne had two cats in his; and the four Persians were in the guest room. During the day, I was allowed to open the door to my room and let my cats have the run of the house. At night, I shut them up in the room with me and would open the door to Dad and Lois's room so their cats would have the evening shift.

Now, I'm describing this in such detail not because I want you to feel sorry for me; on the contrary, I describe it so you can appreciate how truly absurd it all was! But now let me move on to the food hoarding.

I'll preface this by saying that Lois was anorexic/bulimic. In the 1970s, this was a little-known condition, so I didn't even have a name for what she was until I became aware of the condition in the mid-80s. Apparently, before she met my father and married him, she'd weighed well over 300 pounds and then made up her mind to lose it. Lost it she did, sticking her finger down her throat and puking so often that when she married Dad at age 35, she already had false teeth. She didn't vomit while she lived with us; her method over the years I knew her was using laxatives and eating very little. She'd sit there at dinner and pick at her plate, barely eating two or three bites (meanwhile, Wayne and I were expected to clean our plates, even the one time she put frog legs in front of us--oh, my god--but that's another story.) It was routine for me to be in the bathroom in the morning brushing my teeth and Lois would pound on the door to be let in. She'd run to the toilet, flip up the lid, and sit there and squirt out the foulest ... well, you get the idea. Too much Ex-Lax. She bought the little chocolate candy-like ones by the gross, I think.

It killed her, her disease. Eventually her kidneys were destroyed, she had to go on dialysis, and ultimately her kidneys failed altogether. She was 48.

(Damn. I'll be 48 in June. Life is weird sometimes.)

Anyway, to get back to hoarding. Despite her illness, Lois hoarded food like someone who was afraid we might someday run out. We had a pantry off the kitchen that had three rows of shelving along two walls, and these shelves were loaded with various everyday types of foodstuffs (flour, shortening, cereal, canned goods--let's not forget cat food--sugar, boxed food like spaghetti, Hamburger Helper, etc). And there was a refrigerator full of the usual stuff.

But. In the basement, there was an extra freezer crammed full of frozen meat. You could not have shoved another thing in there if you wanted to. The entire time I lived there, not once do I ever remember something being taken out of that freezer and being thawed to eat.

And then one wall of the entire basement had about five to six three-shelf shelving units, all packed to the gills with canned goods. Soups. Vegetables. Tuna. Fruits. None of it was ever touched.

Every week, Lois would go on a big grocery trip and she'd always buy a few extra canned items to be stored downstairs in the basement. Sometimes cans down there would get so old and rusted they'd start leaking, but she'd simply have me throw it away, clean up the mess, and it would all serve as an excuse to buy a few more cans of that same item the next time she was at the grocery store. I just didn't understand it. She wouldn't eat it. We'd never eat it. Why on earth did she keep buying more?

I guess I took my cue from my Dad. For whatever reason, he accommodated her in her bizarre behavior. He's the one who built the shelving units in the basement. He's the one who fashioned the cat chains. He didn't put his foot down when Lois wanted to bring yet another cat into the house. I suppose he humored her because he didn't think these things were worth the fight. I was never witness to their private conversations, so who knows how irrational Lois would get if he tried to put a spoke in the wheel of her anxieties? I guess he just gave up, checked out, passively did as she asked in the name of household peace. And in the process, his children didn't learn how to deal with confrontation. I grew up fearing confrontation and conflict of any kind. It's been a real battle learning how to stand up for myself. As an adult, I've had to stumble my way through and learn (or not learn) from my mistakes in conflicts with people, from trial-and-error.

On the flip side, I can be quite diplomatic. In a given situation, I don't automatically think I'm right. I don't run roughshod over people. I can admit when I'm wrong. So as with anything, there are positives if you look for them. And yeah, I've been called "Pollyanna," too.

But one thing's for sure. Whenever God slams a door shut, a window opens. You just need to look for it. Sometimes it feels like it takes forever to find it.

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