I have now been in this apartment for about 29 days. It’s hard to remember exact numbers because I was between bouts of near-vomiting when I moved, but that’s pretty close. Yet, I am still not completely unpacked and my bedroom looks like it belongs to someone on “Hoarders.” Does it bother me? No, because a hideous dachshund taught me a valuable lesson in my younger days that I’ve not forgotten. Of course, this story involves my mother.
Although my mom embarrassed me daily during my childhood with things like: unplanned girdle displays, picking dandelions in the front yard, and her thick Italian accent (to name a few) we almost never fought. I was more a mediator, like my dad. Actually, my father was a mediator poised for sainthood. His interactions with my mother left him at a level of martyrdom I couldn’t begin to approach. I learned to hide my eye-rolling and imitations of her until she was out of range, so I seemed like a good daughter. But I’ll never forget the one fight we did have.
I was home for the summer after my freshman year of college and decided that, on my only day off hard labor at the local Tastee Freeze, I would help my mother get organized. Did she ask for this? No.
I rationalized that I was doing it for her, but in retrospect it was clearly for me. I had the misfortune to be the only one in my family born with the cleaning and organization gene. People like me are now classified as obsessive compulsive. If I’d remained single, I’d be a librarian with color-coded hangers and alphabetical spice drawers. Luckily my family and friends keep my obsession under control by mocking me and being disorganized slobs.
The cleaning and organization gene goes nicely hand-in-hand with the “Suffering Mediterranean Woman Syndrome.” I didn’t even know I had it, until a few years ago when my kid’s sweet, Jewish pediatrician diagnosed it. He said he’d had plenty of experience with it, knew I was a sufferer, and wasn’t buying any of it. He took all the fun out of shameless, self-sacrifice.
So, there I was – on my only day off – in my mom’s kitchen, making the ultimate sacrifice and cleaning out her cupboards. (The Suffering Mediterranean Woman Syndrome begins innocently with phrases like that.)
I was nineteen and am certain it had been at least that many years since her cupboards had been cleaned out. My mother would cook until she dropped, but cleaning was never high on her priority list. “Honey,” she’d say, “Wenna you die, da howse a work willa stilla be dare. Da hell a witta da howse a work!”
So, I dove in, pulling things out of drawers that hadn’t seen the light of day in almost two decades. I cleaned crumbs from corners and scrubbed and cleaned everything I deemed salvageable. Old, broken items I hadn’t seen used in years I tossed into three large trash bags and put them in the back yard near the garbage cans. I knew my mother had so much junk in her cupboards that I could have taken out a plastic bag full of broken or unused items every couple of weeks and she would have never noticed. Or so I thought.
I was just about finished when, through the kitchen window, I noticed Mom in the back yard scavenging through the plastic bags to see what precious items I had thrown away. I strode outside to meet her, head high, indignant that she would have so little faith in my good judgment that she had to check the bags to see what I threw out.
And what made her the angriest?
It was a dark brown, glazed, ceramic dachshund that stood upright on his hind legs and had a perky gold bow-tie painted around his neck. Mr. Whiskey was a decanter with a head that twisted off and three hooks that ran down his back on both sides holding little, brown, pail-shaped shot glasses with dog faces on them. At one time he held six pails, but over the years pails were lost and broken, so he was down to one pathetic pail.
I’d placed him at the bottom of plastic bag number two, hoping she might not spot him there, but as I marched toward her I could see it was too late. She reached her heavy arm in and plucked him out with a look of fury on her scarlet face.
“Ha dare a you trow dis away!” she yelled. “Dis issa good a stoff, whad else a you gatta inna a here?”
“What do you mean good stuff, Ma? That dog’s ugly, he only has one pail left — and besides, I’ve never seen you use him,” I countered.
“I don’d geeve a damn Frenzy, I like it and I wanna keep it! Dis issa my howse and you’re notta gonna trow away everyting I like a.”
“But Ma, everything you like is old broken junk. If you want to keep it fine, but this is the last time I’m ever gonna try and help you out. I use my only day off work to try and help you clean and this is what I get? Clean your house yourself next time!” I screeched with excellent 19 year-old, novice suffering.
Then I stomped back into the house, livid that my mother cared more about a stupid, ugly, almost pail-less dachshund than she did her own daughter. (Notice, ease of slide right into perceived victimization.)
I grabbed the car keys, took off in the family car and headed to my best friend, Carolyn’s house. I ended up bursting into tears at the local gas station when I realized I was on empty and had no money. The attendant gave me two dollars worth because the poor kid didn’t know what to do with a sobbing teenage girl at his pumps.
Carolyn’s mom listened to my story, gave me a hug and said, “Now Frances, you know your mother loves you!” She voted for keeping Mr. Whiskey for the sake of family harmony and apologizing.
Later that night I returned home, but wouldn’t eat or speak to my mother; the Italian version of shunning. I went to my room and stayed there until my dad, the mediator/saint, came in. He sat on the bed and quietly said, “I hear you and your mother had a little disagreement today — what happened?” I dramatically recounted my great sacrifice and her ungrateful response as he sat and listened. When I was done, he said, “You and your mother have always gotten along and I hate to see you fight like this.”
I maturely replied, “We’re not fighting, I’m just not speaking to her.” He said, “Well, that’s no way to be. I know what she’s like, I know she can be tough, but I think you’re just gonna have to let it go. If she likes that junk, just let her keep it, we have enough room. This fighting’s not necessary. You know she cares a heck of a lot about you. Just drop it for now.”
When I think back on that day, it’s his conversation that I recall the most clearly and how he sat quietly and just listened to me. I guess after years of being married to my mom, pride wasn’t as much of a problem for him as it was for me. He always said, “You gotta give and take.”
After my talk with Dad, I realized I was going to have to give on this one. I remember coming into the kitchen from my room, crying and hugging my mom but have conveniently blanked on the apologizing part. We smoothed things over somehow and that was that. There was only room for one alpha female in that house and I knew who she was.
After that, when I couldn’t find things in my mom’s drawers and got disgusted, I thought about the day I’d be able to throw out anything I wanted. I knew, when that day came, I’d give anything to have her, her ugly whiskey decanter and her chaos back.
Mr. Whiskey now sits in my office, sporting that smug smile and holding his solitary shot glass. He sits in front of windows that need to be sanded and painted, surrounded by all my disorganized crap and unopened boxes, as a constant reminder that organization and perfection are highly overrated. And every so often, I swear I hear him say, “Hey, you need a pail of whiskey.”