The best way to begin this story—the way I planned to begin this story—would be (and was, in numerous drafts): It was the mice that pushed me over the edge.
That was what I always said, when I talked about it.
But the trouble with writing true stories, as opposed to telling them over dinner (or, in this case, avoiding telling the story over dinner—waiting until after the dishes have been cleared away before speaking a word of it), is that they are actually supposed to be true. And the truth is that the mice did not push me over the edge. The mice should have pushed me over the edge, and I am ashamed that they did not, which is one reason why, whenever I have told this story to friends—or acquaintances, or strangers—I have lied and said they did.
The other reason is that it makes a better story—and by “better” I just mean easier to tell, and easier to understand.
The messy, hard-to-tell, perplexing, shameful truth is that by the time I went over that edge, we’d had mice for months. By the time I went over the edge, we were overrun with mice: we had hundreds—perhaps thousands—of mice.
For months I heard them every night. I heard them all night long, scrambling around, scrabbling and chittering and crying, and I saw them, too, sometimes—and not only at night—and still I did nothing. I hung on to the edge for dear life.
And so, instead, I must begin this story with my willful self-deceit, and my paralysis. And my rationalization—which went something like this:
Mice? Of course we have mice! We live in an old house! How could we not have mice? Think of the cracks in the concrete walls of the basement that make little waterfalls when it rains! And the gaps around the floor molding in all the upstairs rooms! We might as well have a big VACANCY sign over the front door. (Come to think of it, we have the equivalent of such a sign! Instead of a front lawn, we have a wildflower meadow—a mouse paradise! We’re the most inviting looking place in the neighborhood!)
So we have mice—so what? We’ve had mice before. It’s not that big a deal.
Which is funny, because the first time I saw a mouse in my house, a decade or so before the all-out mouse invasion, I panicked. I’d never even seen a mouse before, except in pictures. (Cockroaches are more my speed—although I’d seen a rat or two in my day, on the subway tracks.) The mouse was so tiny, it was so fast, it was so creepy; it was more like a large bug—darting, practically flying across the kitchen floor from behind the refrigerator to behind the stove. I didn’t leap onto a chair, the way cartoon characters do; I fled from the room—and then from the house, to the hardware store, to buy an expensive “humane” trap. And then I set about trying to catch what I assumed (what, I have since learned, people always foolishly assume) was one mouse.
Every night “the mouse” would steal the cheese from the far end of the humane trap and run off with it, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night to what sounded like a party under the cedar chest in my bedroom. I’d listen, heart pounding, for a few minutes, and then I’d crawl across the bed to reach the phone and call my husband, Glen, who paints at night—his studio is right out back behind our house—and beg him to come in right away and catch “the mouse.” And he would come in and thrash around for a while and then declare that the mouse was gone, it must have gone back to where it came from—and the thrashing would scare the creature into another room, I suppose, because when Glen left (“Call me if it comes back”) and I turned the light off, things were quiet. After a long while, in which I’d lie there listening hard, my eyes wide open and my heart banging around, I’d finally go back to sleep.
After a couple of weeks of this, like everyone else who has ever had mice, I surrendered to the inevitable, put out half a dozen old-fashioned inhumane traps, baited them with peanut butter, and caught mice in all of them.
And evidently I caught all the mice there were, because after that—for a long while—I didn’t see or hear a thing.
The second and third times we had mice were easier—no screams, no tears, no middle-of-the-night phone calls; just traps and dead mouse bodies. Not pleasant, but not a crisis. I was used to it, I told myself. I could handle it. I did handle it.
The last time was different. The last time was completely different.
Because I didn’t handle it: I let things get completely out of hand.
And honestly—I can’t tell you why. That’s why this is such a messy story.
Well, that’s part of why this is such a messy story.
As I say, I knew we had mice again. I could hear them every night—and sometimes, as the weeks passed and they discovered that I wasn’t going after them, even during the day, scritch-scratching away at their mouse business—behind the piano, under my daughter Grace’s vanity table, in the closet in my study. And I would regularly catch a glance of something dark and small flashing by, racing from one dark hiding place to another.
It’s not that big a deal, I told myself. That was my mantra, all those months: It’s not that big a deal.
And: Oh, hell, it’s just mice.
And even: This house is big enough for all of us, isn’t it?
I told myself that sooner or later they would go away on their own—that they would get tired of my house and move on.
I told myself this, I think, because I was telling myself something like it about the mess the house was in, overall. I had the vague hope that if I closed my eyes and didn’t think about it, just waited it out, maybe the house would get tired of being such a mess and fix itself.
I’ve never been much of a housekeeper—I’ve always said it was the very lowest item on my priority list, and like a lot of women I have a very long priority list—but by that terrible spring, it had been years since I’d read far enough down the list to get to housekeeping. Except for the things a person needs to do to keep her family alive and non-naked (and even there I was cutting corners, stopping on my way home from teaching a class to buy more underwear for all of us because that seemed easier than doing laundry), I had given up keeping house altogether.
Well, not altogether. I was still making a token effort at tidying—making little (and sometimes big) stacks of manuscripts and schoolwork and CDs and books and magazines and the kind of junk mail that needs to be shredded (which I was going to do as soon as I could find a few spare minutes in which to do it), throwing small items—a watch with a broken strap, one earring, a battery, a stray key, a $25-off DSW coupon, hair clips, hair ties, change, packets of throat lozenges—into one big glass bowl or wicker basket or another. But the stacks were turning into heaps, and the bowls and baskets full of little things had begun to multiply, and by spring all the surfaces in all the rooms seemed to be covered. The top of the upright piano was piled high with books of sheet music, and next to the leaning towers of music, amid the framed photographs and my grandmother’s candlesticks, there was a hodgepodge of things I’d set down “just for now”—sunglasses, decks of cards, guitar picks, the Passover Haggadahs and the little plastic frogs (which we always tossed in the air at the mention of that particular plague) from our last seder (but which had been there when we needed them for the last seder, since I’d set them on top of the piano the year before), a pair of opera glasses, Playbills from the last few years of trips to New York.
In my study—once a sacrosanct place, a writer’s haven—there was so much stuff piled up everywhere I had to pick my way through to get to my desk. There were shopping bags that bulged with Grace’s outgrown clothes I meant to hand down to someone as soon as I found someone to hand them down to, and multiple baskets of unfolded laundry I had managed to wash and dry but not put away; there was an entire basket of unpaired socks from which all three of us would dig each morning (I couldn’t wait till summer so we could switch to sandals). There were all the toys (which is to say, all her toys) that Grace, at twelve and a half, had outgrown but wasn’t ready to part with, and were just waiting to be boxed and brought down to the basement as soon as I could find the time to get some more boxes. The closet in my study—a long, narrow affair, worthless for anything but this sort of storage—was already crammed with cardboard boxes full of memorabilia, manuscripts and letters, baby things of Grace’s that I couldn’t part with (like the laciest newborn dresses, worn once; a size 2T black suede fringed motorcycle jacket; and two “mommy and me” dresses folded together with the adult versions), and all of Grace’s schoolwork, artwork, and picture books. Et cetera.
And the study closet was just for the things I wanted to make absolutely sure stayed clean and dry. Everything else we were saving was in the basement, where I planned to put the Barbies and their clothes and accessories and Dream House, the American Girls and their clothes and furniture and wheelchair and horse, the My Twin doll, the magic set, the puppet theater (again: et cetera). But the truth was that I didn’t want to go down to the basement unless I had to. When I did have to—when I went down to put a load of laundry in, or cram another batch of clean, dry things into yet another basket, I kept my eyes focused straight ahead. I walked right by Glen’s bed from before he moved in with me, and the two sets of rusting darkroom equipment and sagging cardboard boxes full of bottles of seeping chemicals (his and mine, from the days, long before we knew each other, when we both did black-and-white photography). I didn’t even glance at Grace’s disassembled crib and changing table and high chair, every bike she’d ever owned starting with her tricycle, two car seats and two booster seats, a plastic potty, a playpen, three broken vacuum cleaners, a motorcycle helmet, a space heater, two window fans, and boxes and boxes full of toys and blankets and baby clothes that didn’t matter to me the way the things boxed in my study closet did. There were six or seven battered old suitcases, some with broken zippers, that I didn’t look at. An old tent. Countless dried-out cans of paint. Three coffee makers for which replacement carafes cannot be found. A grass skirt on a hanger, dangling from a pipe. A stick horse. Four glass aquarium tanks. A giant plastic bag full of clothes for Grace’s baby dolls. Another bag of baby dolls. The remains of three science fair projects. Grace’s stroller. Her doll stroller, and a doll carriage, made of wicker.
There were even two paper shopping bags full of empty baby food jars in which once upon a time I had frozen my breast milk before thawing it and pouring it into a sippy cup (because Grace had never taken a bottle). There was even a shopping bag full of the baby bottles I’d bought but had never used.
Later, when I hired someone to help me deal with all of this, she would look around the basement and ask me, genuinely curious, “Have you ever thrown anything out?”
“You mean, other than actual, you know, trash?” I said.
She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. Her eyes were full of pity.
By that spring—the spring of 2006—we’d reached the point where in order to eat dinner, we had to shove stacks of books and magazines and manuscripts and mail—opened and unopened, “real” and junk, both—aside just enough to make room for plates and elbows on the table. Mess doesn’t really do the situation justice. Untidy—yes. Disordered? Absolutely. Cluttered? Oh, yes. But the word that’s hard to say—hard even to think about, even now, when all of this is behind me—is dirty.
By late last spring, I not only wasn’t clearing off the table, I wasn’t sweeping the floor under it. I wasn’t vacuuming up the dust balls and dog hair on the stairway, or the cockatiel’s birdseed that somehow ended up all over the house. I wasn’t dusting the two thousand books in the bookcases or the tchochkes on the mantelpiece. I wasn’t scrubbing the tub, or the stove.
I was busy, yes. And my work—writing, teaching, various administrative duties—all came before dusting and mopping. As did taking Grace to her various lessons and practices. Sitting down with her at the end of the day to talk about her day, and mine. Running lines with her for the school play. Judging the science fair at her school, or taking her class to campus for a day. Cooking dinner every night and packing lunches every morning. Grocery shopping. Walking the dog…you know, everything.
Why wasn’t my husband doing the cleaning, then, you may ask? (That is, if you aren’t bent over double laughing at the idea.) The answer: housekeeping is even lower on his priority list than it is on mine. I’d venture to say that it isn’t even on his list—which means that, unlike me, he wasn’t walking around feeling guilty about not getting to it. Never mind that—like many men—he has far fewer items on his priority list (three or four, I believe). When Glen finished his twelve- or fourteen- or sixteen-hour day (or rather night) of painting in his studio, he would come in and sleep, and when he woke up, after he had done his portion of pick-up and drop-off duty or his stint of volunteer work at Grace’s school, teaching middle schoolers how to draw still lifes or paint landscapes, the last thing he wanted to do was clean—and who could blame him?
Well, I did, of course. I not only blamed him, but for years—fourteen years, to be exact—I waited for him to start doing the cleaning.
When he first moved in with me, I remembered very well, he’d explicitly said he would. It was only fair, he said, if he were going to be painting full time while I continued to split my time between writing and teaching. I agreed, ignoring the fact that before he moved in with me he’d lived in squalor, in an apartment with no furniture to speak of—just a couple of beds and a kitchen table and two chairs—that he shared with another artist who cared as little as he did about his surroundings and spent as little time at home. I also ignored the fact that even if he had cared about things being clean and tidy, he would have had no idea how to go about either cleaning or tidying. I didn’t think about the fact that when he’d first started spending time at my house, and I complained that he never put anything away when he was through with it, he had said, plaintively, “But where is ‘away’?”
Sometimes, years later, when I’d look around in despair at the mess our house was in, and remind him of his promise of so long ago, he would counter by pointing out that not everyone had an in-house plumber, electrician, carpenter, all-around repairman. True enough. My grandmother had always advised me to marry a handy man (although in her Yiddish accent, it came out hendy men, so when I was a child I couldn’t imagine what sort of person she was telling me to seek, or how many) and I had. But when I was feeling particularly aggrieved, I would point out that you can pay someone to fix your washing machine or put in a phone jack or replace the sagging porch steps—you can’t pay someone to mop up the spilled strawberry jam on the kitchen floor.
But of course you can. I knew it was possible to pay someone to mop the floor—and to dust, and scrub the kitchen and bathroom, and vacuum the stairs. But I told myself we couldn’t afford to, and I told myself we weren’t the sort of people who paid other people to do our dirty work, and I told myself it was cheating to hire someone. This was my job—or it was Glen’s job. Anyway, it was our job, and one of us would get it to it, eventually.
In the meantime, by that spring I had reached the point where even the small daily acts that keep a house livable—the daily triage of opening the mail and throwing the solicitations and Scientology brochures and Victoria’s Secret catalogs into the recycling bin and shredding the credit card offers; figuring out which of the detritus of my daughter’s day, or week, needs to be saved and which thrown away before it starts accumulating; sponging off the stove when something spilled; putting things away—must have seemed pointless, like Band-aids on compound fractures, or on bullet wounds.
By then we had so much stuff that even I didn’t know where “away” was (and if there was not a “place for everything,” how could everything ever be “in its place”?). It was so bad that even Glen began to feel oppressed by it. “You know, I’d clean,” he’d say from time to time, “but how can I? There’s just too much stuff everywhere. If you’ll put all this stuff away, I’ll do the floors.”
I would jump at the offer. “Just move everything out of the way, or clean around it. I’ll get it all put away later,” I’d promise, “when I have time.”
And sometimes he would move the piles of things out of the way, and swipe around on the floors with a sponge mop, and put them back. But afterwards the house didn’t seem any cleaner. And I never could seem to get around to finding places to put everything. There was nowhere to put it all, I was pretty sure. So what was I supposed to do?
Nothing—or at least that was what I did.
One of my oldest friends, my daughter’s godfather, Michael, visits us often, and right before things got so bad I had to admit how bad they were, he tried to talk to me about it. And this was before we had mice. He wasn’t delicate about it. He said, “You know, this clutter is pathological.”
But how could I take him seriously? He lives in a tiny apartment in New York, in the Village, that is so packed with stuff there’s only about a six-foot square area that a person can walk around in. He has a closet stuffed with every empty margarine tub he’s ever used. He has things tucked into every inch of space: books, magazines, cassette tapes, DVDs, letters, greeting cards, clippings from newspapers, manuscripts. A big drawer full of nothing but photographs he meant to put into albums someday. If he had a house as big as mine, I’ve always suspected, he’d just have more stuff.
But at least his apartment was clean—he had that on me.
My grandmother lived the way Michael did: every inch of her apartment packed with stuff, but—at least until the end—everything was clean. My grandmother was worse than Michael, though: she washed “tin foil” after she’d used it (I don’t think he does); she had a whole drawer full of paper bags. Unlike Michael, she also had decorative items: those awful little sculptural things that grandmothers have, and way too many lamps and way too many little tables. Crocheted doilies on the furniture, dozens of hard little pillows she’d made herself. Many, many framed photographs along with all the ones in albums and boxes. A lot of furniture. A lot of clothes.
Toward what she believed was the end of her life—although as it would turn out, she would live another fifteen years—she started going through her things and passing them out to her children and grandchildren. For years, no one left her apartment without something—“You always liked this, didn’t you? Take it.” This upset all of us. But I think we misread what she was doing. She wasn’t saying “I’m ready to go now,” and she wasn’t saying, “I have no interest in any of this anymore.” When she gave me the cookie tin full of buttons I’d played with in my childhood, she wasn’t saying she didn’t want to be reminded of the days we’d spent together twenty-five years before, her at her sewing machine, me on the floor beside the cast iron foot pedal. When she gave me the notebook she’d practiced writing English in, she wasn’t saying she wanted to forget the night school classes she’d finally had the time to take, the year I was thirteen. When she gave me my grandfather’s social security card, and the hats he’d made in his youth, she wasn’t saying she didn’t want to think about him anymore. Although what she said each time, brusquely, was, “I don’t need this, you take it,” as she thrust whatever it was into my hands, I believe now that she just wanted to make sure everything she’d saved got into the right hands, that it wasn’t discarded after she’d saved it for so long.
Fifteen years later, when she did die, well into her nineties, there was still plenty of stuff in her apartment. I had a newborn baby in Ohio; it was my mother and father who had the job of going into the apartment and figuring out what was worth saving. It was too much for my mother. She couldn’t bear to put her hands on everything her mother had held on to, to decide what was good, what was trash. She grabbed the jewelry that was left, and the photographs—the framed ones and the ones in albums—and she had my father call Jewish Humanities to take the rest. I was brokenhearted over the table around which we’d had so many holiday dinners, the “chiffarobe” that housed my grandfather’s clothes, even the ugly lamps (I would have taken them! I didn’t care that they were ugly! They were hers, and I remembered them so fondly), all my grandmother’s clothes and shoes—she’d kept her clothes and shoes from the fifties, from the forties, from the thirties. And letters, there must have been letters! Drawers full of treasures. I found myself weeping over my grandfather’s hammer—the only tool he’d had, and which I don’t think he knew how to use. Still, it was always called his hammer by my grandmother, who was the one who wielded it when a nail had to be driven into the wall to hang yet another picture on.
Lost, all lost forever.
The woman I ended up hiring to help me get control of my house does a lot of work cleaning houses after people have died. She told me that my mother did pretty well—and my grandmother very well indeed; she would sometimes go into people’s houses with their children, she said, and they’d look around and after a few minutes say, “Just throw it all away.” She can’t stand it when this happens—there are all those photographs everywhere, and she knows that buried in drawers, in cabinets, in boxes, there must be letters, truly meaningful things mixed in with the junk mail and the old magazines and receipts and grocery lists. But it’s too hard for people to sort out the meaningful from the meaningless—they’d rather let it all go.
I didn’t want that to happen to me. But I didn’t know it yet.
Memorial Day weekend—the official start of summer, after the spring the mice began to take over—my daughter and I were in Columbia, Missouri for the wedding of two of my former graduate students. Glen, who hates parties and hates to travel, was at home with the dog, the bird, and the guinea pigs. And the mess. One of my best friends from when I was in graduate school lives in Columbia, and Grace and I spent an afternoon with her. She invited us to her house—it was the first time in twenty years that I’d been in a house of hers—and I was struck by how pretty, how nice, it was. Not that I was surprised, because even when we were living in our little rented houses in Iowa City, on graduate student stipends, Marly’s house was nice. But then, mine was too. We both had Salvation Army furniture, furniture we’d found on the street, thrift store junk—but we managed to make our houses pretty, and interesting, in our own ways. Marly’s aesthetic hadn’t changed a bit over the years, I noticed, looking around: her living room was still an explosion of colors and textures, Indian scarves draped over the furniture, a fan of interesting magazines on the coffee table, Mexican rugs on the floor, a riot of abstract paintings on the walls. Everything was just nicer, better, than it had been in the mid-eighties, when she hadn’t had any money.
I was tearful, standing in her living room, but it wasn’t until I arrived back home in Columbus that I understood why. My aesthetic hadn’t changed over the years, either—I still loved the bright colors of a Fauve landscape, and flowers and stripes in rose and green that seem to speak to each other; I was still surrounded by family photographs and strange and beautiful things I’d picked up on my travels and collected over the years; I still loved a cozy room with lots of places to sit and talk or recline and read; I still thought of filled bookcases as essential to a room’s charm—but my house was worse, much worse, than my grad school house. The good furniture I’d bought in my first years as a college professor was buried amid all the piles of junk I was saving or couldn’t find the time to put away. The flowered couch was dirty. The coffee table was piled with papers. The family photographs weren’t in cheap plastic frames anymore, but the glass that covered them hadn’t been wiped off in ages. The books might be mostly hardcover instead of mostly paperback now—and I might have full sets of Henry James and Chekhov as I’d yearned for twenty years before—and the bookcases they were on weren’t brick-and-board now—but for a long time I’d been afraid to take a single volume down to read it, because I knew it would release a cloud of dust I’d have to do something about, and the shelves were all sagging under the weight of way too many books jammed in every which way, and bowls full of assorted, accumulated stuff.
“I can’t believe we live this way,” I told Glen, in despair.
“I can,” he said.
“I mean, I can believe I live this way. I just can’t believe you do.”
And it was as if a bomb went off in my head.
What I couldn’t believe, suddenly, was that I’d been waiting for him to take over the housekeeping I wasn’t doing—though I had to have known that would never happen—or for the house to somehow clean itself up—which I had to have known could never happen. Or for the mice to leave on their own—but why would they? How could I have imagined that would happen?
All this time, I realized, I’d been waiting for something to happen. But I had no idea what it was I’d imagined that might be.
So: it wasn’t the mice that did it; it was a conversation. Or, rather, a handful of words from my husband. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, he often says something I need to hear.
I made a phone call to a friend who has lived in Columbus all her life and always knows where to find the best of whatever I’m in need of. She gave me the phone number of a woman named Terra (Terror? Grace asked, alarmed. Someone named Terror is coming to clean our house? No, no, I told her, Terra, the earth. When I said this, it occurred to me that this reassured me disproportionately—that I was frightened too).
The next morning, when Terra came over and looked around, the first thing she said, matter-of-factly, was, “You realize that this house is infested with mice.”
Infested? I coughed out a laugh. Not infested. I knew we had mice, I said. I just hadn't gotten around to setting traps. But I would, right away.
It was much too late for traps, she said. There were too many mice to trap. She took me on a tour of my own house, from room to room, moving furniture, opening drawers, showing me the nests—I didn’t even know mice made nests—and all the things that they’d ruined (every single item in every one of Grace’s desk drawers, for example; an entire box of fabric—pale pink and salmon-colored raw silk, green linen—left over from when I’d had my couch and living room chairs and curtains made). I had to go out and buy poison, she told me gently, and put it down everywhere I could be sure the pets wouldn’t be able to get to.
I was stunned into obedience. I bought poison. I put it behind the stove and the refrigerator; moved heavy furniture and put packets down, then shoved the furniture back into place; I put it deep in closets, all over the basement—because the dog doesn’t go down there; she’s afraid of it—and everywhere else that I deemed safe for pets and humans, deadly to the mice.
It took five days for them all to die or flee (I’ll spare the gory—and they are very gory—details; but you can see why I don’t tell this story over dinner), and by then Terra and I had gotten started on what the mice were merely a symptom of. The terrible, the unbelievable, the overwhelming mess.
She and I worked side by side, ten hours a day—and then I kept at it even after she left each evening to go home to her own family, until I collapsed, at midnight or later: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Day after day, Terra was calm, systematic, patient, working room by room, sorting every single thing she saw into one of three categories: obviously trash, obviously good, and look it over and decide. While I did the looking over, she cleaned. When I finished sorting the look-it-over piles into one or the other of the first two categories, I hauled out trash and made a second set of decisions: good and keep, or good and give away? I filled bag after bag with clothes and toys and linens to donate, and bag after bag with trash. In my bedroom closet, I filled four enormous trash bags, and then I got down on my hands and knees and scrubbed, while Terra was at work in Grace’s room, bleaching the inside of her dresser drawers.
Everything I wanted to keep, Terra said, had to go into mouseproof, dampproof, clear plastic bins with lids. I went out to Odd Lots and bought bins. I did whatever she said. She could have told me to do anything, I think, and I would have done it.
But she was kind, and sensible. She didn’t tell me to get rid of anything, except the cardboard boxes I’d been storing things in. She didn’t tell me, for example, that I had too many books (I do, but that was beside the point; the books weren’t going anywhere, and Terra was experienced enough to know this without asking). She just took all the books in all the bookcases down and ran a damp cloth over them, dusted them, dusted the shelves, cleaned the shelves, and put the books all back. When she saw my record albums lined up in a sagging bookcase just outside the kitchen, the telephone resting on top of one row of them, she asked, politely, “Do you listen to these?” “Yes, absolutely,” I told her, although I wasn’t sure exactly when I had last listened to the Dead or Billie Holiday on vinyl (I hadn’t replaced the vinyl with CDs or downloads, mind you, but I had additional Dead and Billie Holliday—and everything else—on CDs or on my iPod. Still, I told myself, you never knew when you might feel like hearing Aoxomaxoa or Lady in Satin). Terra helped me figure out a place to store the records where I would be able to get to one easily whenever I wanted to, but where they wouldn’t collect dust or be in the way: on the shelf of the newly cleaned hall closet (nine old coats donated, everything else—everything that had been on the floor and on the shelf—thrown out, ruined by mice), which happened to be right around the corner from the stereo. My cookbooks took over the place where the albums had been, and so for the first time they were right where I needed them. The Haggadahs fit there, too. And the phone books. And the phone, and a message pad and a can of pens and pencils.
A place for everything, and everything in its place.
In my study, there were a lot of things that had been ruined by mice and had to be thrown away, but I still had to go through all the cardboard boxes that, miraculously, the mice hadn’t gotten to. Once again, the cardboard was discarded, and I filled plastic bins with the things I wanted to keep: the journal I kept in high school and the one I’d kept when I was pregnant; the journal, with illustrations, that Grace kept the year she was six; notes from my friend Amy, who died, and all my letters from my junior high school boyfriend; the novel I wrote when I was eleven, typed on yellow newsprint; cards and letters from Michael, Grace’s godfather, from when I first knew him in the mid-1970s; the postcards Glen sent from Europe in 1991, just a couple of months after we’d started dating; a few drawings of mine that my grandmother had saved and given me during those years of her own jettisoning, and the notebook in which she practiced her English. The cookie tin full of buttons.
If I didn’t do this, I told myself, eventually Grace would have to. Someone would have to. Or no one would—everything would be chucked. And that was what kept me going. I didn’t want anyone else to have to deal with all this stuff, and I didn’t want it all to be discarded as if it were all meaningless, because it wasn’t.
By Tuesday night I had filled twelve boxes of thirty-count fifty-gallon contractor’s trash bags—a third of them for charity, two-thirds with trash. And we hadn’t even gotten to the basement yet.
Terra hired a crew to clear out the basement. They came on Wednesday morning with a dumpster—a huge dumpster, a dumpster big enough for a construction site. There were a few things—a very few things: Grace’s bikes and stroller, the space heater, an assortment of toys—that were in good enough shape, even after years of storage in the damp, that they might be of use to others. Before the crew arrived I hauled them upstairs and out to the alley behind Glen’s studio, where I was sure someone would drive by and snatch them up. I was right, too: they were gone in under an hour, which made me nostalgic for the days of setting things out by the curb in New York (the little I had, then, to set out—paperback books and magazines I wanted to keep but had run out of room for, mostly) and picking things up from where they’d been set out by the curb in front of other people’s apartment buildings.
Almost everything I’d stored in the basement, though, was worthless now. The crib that certainly would have been useful to someone had I given it away even a few years after Grace was through with it was ruined after being in the wet basement for eleven years; the car seats were not only ruined, but obsolete. Then there were all the things that should never have been saved to begin with—the broken suitcases, the baby food jars.
I didn’t want to watch. I stayed upstairs, on the second floor, in my study, going through my file cabinets, filling bag after bag with paper to recycle—manuals for electronic devices I no longer had, long-outdated copies of my curriculum vitae, manuscripts of stories by people I hadn’t talked to in eighteen years, AAA TripTiks for trips I’d made in 1986, the contact sheets from rolls of film I shot in 1983.
When finally, unable to stand it anymore, I wandered downstairs, outside, the dumpster was full: a mound rose out of the center of it—a mountain of trash. I watched the men throw things on top of the mountain; I listened to glass break, to the thud of wood on wood, the clank of metal.
The leader of the little band of men, a great big man named Alan, sweating and breathing hard, came up to me as I stood outside and watched, and he put his hand on my shoulder. “This must be hard,” he said. I burst into tears.
I still can’t say exactly why I was saving all that stuff. Some of it, I suppose, was about a confusion of meaning—what matters and what doesn’t?—and my reluctance to make that distinction, or to take the time to distinguish shades of meaning. When I went down into the basement to survey what was there before Alan and his men arrived—to really look at it all for the first time in years—I found that I couldn’t. I started, but I couldn’t finish. I grabbed those few things that were obviously not beyond salvaging, but then I had to flee. I think it was the baby food jars that did me in. I knew it had been insane to save them. Even at the time, as I carried the bags full of jars downstairs, I knew it made no sense—I knew I wasn’t going to have another child. I might have thought, Oh, surely someone else will be able to use them…someday. But mostly, I’m pretty certain, it was that I just couldn’t stand the thought of discarding them. I had worked too hard to amass them in the first place. How could something associated with so much effort be thrown into the recycling bin?
We didn’t use much baby food—I tended to mash or grind up whatever Glen and I were eating, and give Grace some of that—but I had to freeze breast milk because Grace went through a period of refusing to nurse and refusing to take a bottle when she was still young enough to require breast milk; that is, well under a year old. She would, however, drink from a cup, and she would eat cereal into which breast milk had been mixed—and because glass is safer than plastic, and a baby food jar holds exactly the right amount of milk for one feeding, for several months I had a freezer full of my milk in baby food jars that I’d collected from everyone I knew who had a baby.
Then, when Grace outgrew the need for breast milk (which, naturally, was precisely when she began to be willing to nurse again—just as she turned a year old), I had all those empty jars. They were so small, so useless for any other purpose—but, oh, they had so much meaning shimmering around them! The many women I’d had to talk to about Grace’s “problem” when I’d asked—it wasn’t easy to ask—them to save their baby food jars for me. The visits to pick up the bags full of clanking jars. More conversation, sympathy, advice. Yes, thanks, I’ve got it under control. The time and trouble it took to pump the milk and put it into jars, and the way the jars themselves, stacked up in the freezer, reminded me of how I was failing my child. The pretense of cheer for Grace’s sake—Here you are, sweetie! Here’s a big girl cup of milk for you!—every four hours, every day.
How could I throw those jars away? I couldn’t. So I didn’t.
Everyone’s meaning threshold is different, I know. I know people who save nothing. I will never be among those people—nor will my daughter, or my husband. While it’s true that finally I was willing to give up the baby food jars—to watch one of Alan’s crew toss those bags onto the mountain of trash in the dumpster, because I could see clearly then, twelve years after I’d set them aside to keep, that they were not worth saving—I didn’t throw away, or give away, a single one of Grace’s picture books, though we don’t have anyplace to put them: her bookshelves are full; the picture books were put away long ago. All I did with them now was move them from cardboard boxes to plastic bins, and organize the bins, and stack them neatly.
I didn’t insist that Grace give away any of her stuffed animals. They have names. We used to make them talk to each other.
We kept the blocks she and her father used to build with every morning. We kept the Playmobil people and their belongings—the Victorian furniture, the outdoor market, the playground, the hospital beds and IV poles, the trees and bushes and musical instruments and minuscule books and Persian rugs and cups and saucers and kitchen sinks. Practically her whole childhood was about storytelling with Playmobil. We weren’t letting go of that, not even now.
What was meaningful, we’d keep. That was what I kept saying.
But what I could see now was that an awful lot of our saving—like a lot of people’s saving—hadn’t been about meaning so much as it had been about “just in case.” In case of emergency, some terrible misfortune. Another kind of meaning, actually: the fear of something going wrong and finding ourselves in need of an old space heater, a mildewed bed. A sense that it would be courting disaster to give up the suitcases with the broken zippers. What if someday we needed a suitcase and didn’t have one? Wouldn’t one with a broken zipper be better than none at all?
It’s not easy to stop thinking this way. When I hauled the space heater out of the basement and put it in the pile of things to be dragged out to the alley, Glen balked: “That’s a good space heater.”
But we didn’t need a space heater. Our house was adequately heated by a furnace. His studio was heated by a second, small furnace that he’d put in himself. If the power went off—as it does periodically, mysteriously—an electric space heater wouldn’t do us any good. So what were we saving it for?
Just in case.
It’s hard to turn your back on just in case.
I grew up watching my grandmother save everything, right down to every piece of “tin foil” and paper bag: “This is good, it can be used again.” My husband’s father has an entire building full of old junk he keeps “just in case.”
Glen and I come by our packratting honestly.
But there’s this, too: My parents didn’t save anything. None of my toys or clothes; not a single volume of The Bobbsey Twins or Nancy Drew. No doubt I’ve been reacting to this all my life, just as much as I’ve put into practice my grandmother’s lessons of thrift and preparations for emergency—saving everything of my daughter’s so that she, unlike her mother, will have things to hand down.
So: a combination of superstition (if you throw it away, you’ll end up needing it), training (it’s criminal to throw that out! That’s a good ), anxiety and fear (what if I were ever poor again, the way I was for years before I got this teaching job?), and overcorrection of the past (my daughter didn’t get my circa 1964 Barbies; her daughter will damn well get the circa 1998 ones).
A recipe for a house stuffed full, and a woman at the center of it, overwhelmed.
The dirt, the clutter, the old and broken things, the outgrown and long unneeded things, the superstitiously held-on-to things, the fear-driven, melodramatically sentimental, and just plain neurotic hoarding—the lack-of-time-to-sort, the despair of not knowing how or where to begin to sort, the dread of picking up and looking under, the determination not to be a “slave to housework,” the inertia, the surrender—the mice.
All of this, I think now, all mixed up together, led to a sort of generalized crisis, in which I had to look around and think not just about getting rid of the accumulated stuff—de-cluttering and making order of the clutter I was willing to live with—and not just about cleaning and how to keep things clean (when there was so little room for reordering items on that long, long list of priorities) and not just about the horror of the mouse infestation (not just about how to get rid of them, or how to deal with the mess they’d left behind, or my guilt over having let the situation get as bad as it did—my daughter sleeping in a room with mice! Pulling clothes out of drawers in which mice were nesting!), but also—inevitably, for me—the meaning of all of it.
Because a mess that’s this much of a mess isn’t only a mess. (Although it’s fair to say that, at least to my mind, no mess is only a mess. Nothing is only anything; everything we do tells us something about who we are.)
And much of this—the keeping of things, the filling up of my house with no-longer needed but mightn’t-I-need-someday? objects—was easy for me to understand, once I’d put the question to myself. I kept house, it occurred to me, the way I kept people; I was as sentimental about long-ago acquaintances as I was about long-ago things (unlike my husband, who easily gives up people, but cannot give up a space heater).
It’s always been hard for me to let go of people, even when they have no real place in my life anymore. Old boyfriends who—I can see only (or mostly) in retrospect—treated me badly; childhood friends with whom I have nothing in common, who have turned out to be people I would never choose as friends now (and whose phone calls weary or depress me, whose presence in my adult life is more burden than joy); childhood acquaintances—or people I knew slightly in my twenties—or men I dated twice and never saw again—it’s hard for me to jettison any of them. And the ones who’ve disappeared, the ones with whom I have lost contact, I think about—I wonder about; I go out of my way to find. Even though it’s nearly always disappointing when I do.
Why do I want to be in touch with the girl who was so disdainful of me in elementary school? If she wasn’t a benevolent presence in my life then, why would she be now? Why stay in touch with the man who broke my heart in 1989? He can’t un-break it.
But I am relentless. I hang on. I collect people. I still wish, with a fervor that surprises me when I let myself think about it—as I am doing now—to make contact with those among the still-missing, people who cannot be found even on Facebook: a spectrum that runs from my beloved ninth grade English teacher, who taught me to read Sons and Lovers and admired my writing, to the actor with whom I had a brief, intensely romantic, idiotic affair in the early eighties (I wrote an audition monologue for him! How can he not want to be in touch with me?), from my second-best junior high school friend (Maria, where are you?) to the dancer/aerobics teacher I had a foolish affair with and whose parting gesture was to throw a chair at me and tell me I had ruined his life.
Some of this, I think, has to do with simply wanting to know how the story ended—what happened to these people I have turned into characters in the ongoing Story of My Life (the one that plays out in my mind, whether I write it down or not). But more of it, I suspect, has to do with finding my own lost self—the girl who hung on every word Mr. Inemer uttered; the girl who fell in love so hard, so fast, so stupidly, she didn’t let herself stop to think what she was getting herself into, or reckon with how badly it would end; the girl who studied Maria’s handwriting and perfect “flip” and bangs that covered her eyebrows, and imitated them all, badly. Where is that girl? Does anyone remember her?
I think that saving all this stuff—my daughter’s stroller, those empty jars, clothes of mine I’ll never wear again, darkroom equipment I last used when I was thirty-one—isn’t all that different from hoarding all these memories, wondering longingly about those people, hanging on to most of them once (if) I find them, expecting them to help keep the person I was then alive.
But there’s more to it, too:
A magazine editor I’ve worked with, reading an early version of this essay, remarked that the revelation of my packrat tendencies was no surprise to her, that my particular “writer’s imagination,” she said, had always seemed to her the kind that found “everything, or nearly everything, relevant.” This sounded vaguely insulting, but since she and I have known each other for many years (and, like so many of the people I know, she is a former graduate student of mine, disinclined to insult me), and quite like and admire each other, I chose to believe she meant it as a compliment, as another editor might not have. In any case, I’d never thought about myself before as a packrat of a writer, I’d never thought of my “imagination” as of a different kind than anybody else’s—but it was true, I realized: virtually everything does seem relevant to me; I do pile up words, sentences, ideas; I am forever tucking away things that might be useful, hauling them out, moving them around; I use punctuation the way I’ve learned to use plastic storage bins.
Once I began to think about this, I thought about it a lot. I was still thinking about it a year later, when I was working side by side in my front yard with a young woman, a poet (yet another former student; when you have been teaching for as long as I have, this is how it goes) I had hired to help me try to beat back some of the jungle of the garden there. Andrea and I were weeding, filling paper yard bags with lamb’s quarters and nightshade and plantain and thistle, giving the rudbeckia and salvia and astilbe and dianthus and coreopsis and lobelia and vinca and “hens and chicks” some breathing room—and she had just made a tactful comment about the yard’s “abundance”—when I mentioned that it had been pointed out to me that my domestic style and writing style were of a piece. Andrea looked startled. She straightened up. “Oh, no!” she said. “Mine, too! I never thought of it before.”
She was, she said, “brutal” when it came to keeping house—“I get rid of things practically as fast as I acquire them,” she told me, “always throwing things out or giving them away, then finding that I need something, and then when I go to look for it, it’s gone, and I think, ‘Oh, no. That was a perfectly good ! I can’t believe I tossed it out!’”—and just as tough-minded when it came to her poems. “I just sent a friend a new poem I’d finished, and she’d read an early draft of it, and she called me up and said, ‘Where’s the rest of the poem? You got rid of most of what made it a good poem!’ I am way too ruthless—I don’t know when or where to stop throwing away.”
I almost asked her where she stood on the wallowing-in-the-past to never-look-back—or hang-on-to-everyone-you’ve-ever-known versus cut-and-run—spectrum, but I didn’t. I try not to probe too deeply into the lives of any of my students, past or present. One has to draw the line somewhere.
“It’s funny,” Andrea said, although she said it somberly. “Sometimes I think I’ll look around one day and there won’t be anything left in my house. And my poems keep getting shorter, so that I’m afraid that soon there’ll be nothing left to say—or maybe just one word.”
I wasn’t sure it would make her feel any better, but I told her that I’d once tried to write a villanelle, a verse form I especially love, but I found the structure too limiting. So finally I decided to keep the rules intact—that is, I kept the rhyme and word- and line-repetition scheme—but since I couldn’t possibly say what needed to be said in nineteen lines (five stanzas of three lines, the sixth stanza four lines), I tripled the form.
And nearly all the lines were so long they ran into a second line and had to be indented.
Andrea’s eyes grew wide.
“You should have seen my basement,” I told her
I still have a lot of stuff—I can’t imagine I will ever be the sort of person who lives a spare, clean, pared-down life—but I’ve made progress. I have put my hands on every single thing in the house—right down to all the clothes and linens that had to be laundered after the mice marched through them—and made a decision about it, piece by piece. I feel as if, with Terra’s help, I managed to wrestle my possessions, my house itself, to the ground. I feel, in fact, as if what I went through with her was therapy—house therapy.
And for a long time I continued to see her—my house-therapist—once every week. Because I wasn’t about to kid myself: I knew not only that I didn’t have the time or the inclination to keep the house as clean as Terra had gotten it on my own, but also that it would be easy to let myself slip back into keeping, hoarding, just-in-case-ing, hey-that’s-a-good-blank-ing. Did I have time to open the mail and sort it, recycle the junk and immediately take care of the rest? No? Well, then, make time, I would practically growl at myself. Terra is coming on Friday.
Knowing that she was coming (Dr. Terra: I said it as if it were a joke, but it was no joke) kept me vigilant until I was certain I could stay vigilant on my own. And I am vigilant, now. I make myself look—really look—at everything that comes into the house, and everything that passes through my hands, from the daily mail to the laundry to the detritus we all seem to drag in with us (multiple programs from Grace’s performances, her school papers, magazines and newspapers and notices of events on campus that come home with me) and if it’s not something we need (that we need now, not maybe someday, or what if….?) or something that should be saved for posterity, or it’s something that would be necessary if it were still in good working order but is clearly beyond affordable or reasonable repair, it’s discarded—either into the trash or the recycling bin or the bin I’ve designated for donating, or else it’s put out in the alley for someone with the inclination and the time and the ability to fix what’s broken.
This isn’t always easy for me. Sometimes I have to set something down and return to it—ask the questions again later. But I have taught myself to pause and ask Am I keeping this? Yes? Why? and I have tried to teach my daughter to do the same. The why is difficult for her (because I made it, because someone I know made it, because it exists—for her there is always a good reason to keep things); for Glen pausing to ask the questions at all is too much trouble—he can’t be bothered.
So it comes down to me. When hasn’t it? I ask myself.
Terra no longer visits, though I do have help keeping the house clean, once every two weeks. I keep things reasonably tidy; Carmen vacuums, sweeps, mops, dusts. Terra, with whom I have kept in touch, marvels. “Most people don’t follow through,” she says. She talks about me, she tells me, as a “good example.” She asks me—so that she can tell her other clients—how I was able to make such sweeping changes, so quickly and suddenly.
But this is how I am. I plod along doing things in precisely the wrong way, naggingly aware that something is wrong, naggingly aware that making a change would be not just difficult but overwhelmingly so—a complete upheaval—and so I can’t bring myself to do it. But then when something happens to force me to see it clearly, even for an instant, I act. Not in a small way but in a huge way. Thousands of pages abandoned, relationships dismantled and rebuilt, top to bottom. I reverse course: I’ve done it over and over again—I do it whenever I finally understand that it’s necessary.
Glen says that when this happens it’s like living with a tornado: I’m unstoppable, formidable, ferocious. This is not a compliment. But it’s the only way I can make any changes: I am not good at small steps, at adjustments, at let’s-try-a-little-bit-of-this.
But I have to be ready to swoop into action. Something has to make me ready.
So perhaps, in this case, it was the mice, after all—the straw that broke the camel’s back. It is never that straw, of course; it’s all the other straws. But that final one—if not for it, the poor camel’s back would be bowed but unbroken.
I should be grateful to the mice, then, if I can credit them with my unsticky floors, a tub I can sit down to take a bath in, books that can be taken off the shelves. I can credit the mice for the way I almost always pause now, and stop and think before I drop something into a desk or kitchen drawer, or set it down on the piano or the table. A snapshot of an old friend’s child, never seen in person, only in yearly photographs? A snapshot of an acquaintance’s child? A silver hair clip, a leopard-spotted Scrunchy hair tie, a peach-scented candle, a postcard from my daughter’s godfather, a thank-you note from a former student? Am I keeping this? I ask myself. Yes? Why?
And if it has passed muster, then: All right—where does it belong?
This will never be easy for me. It will never come automatically; I will never be organized, clever about this, efficient. I will always have to think hard; I will often find that there is no place for it.
And then I will have to make a place for it. I do that—I am forever making places for things now. It fascinates me, how many places are necessary if there is to be a place for everything and everything is to be in its place. I am constantly trying to work out new and clever ways to organize my belongings—all the things we need, all the things worth saving. Glen finds this silly; he watches me—head cocked, eyebrow raised—as I go about it. But unlike me, he does not (will not) contemplate what life will be like for the living after he is dead. What will it matter? he might be thinking. Or, more likely, Please—I’d rather not think about it.
And I—I cannot bear the thought of anyone else holding each object and deciding: this goes, this stays. Or giving it all up—it’s impossible, it’s too much. Or clucking over a drawerful of papers (She saved this? And this? Was she insane?).
It will be apparent why I saved what I saved. That’s what I’m hoping. And everything I saved will be organized in categories—perhaps even clever ones. The task of going through it all will be interesting, not daunting.
That is what I tell myself. That is what—so far, so good—has kept me keeping house, more days than not. And if I have not become the sort of person who has no trouble giving things up, the sort who doesn’t “sentimentalize objects”—as yet another former student of mine described it—the sort who never thinks “but just in case…” and stashes something useless, something broken, something that no one has touched for years; if I will never be the sort of person whose house is perfectly clean at all times, or who has any bare surfaces in any rooms, whose garden is tidy, with flowers arranged by size (with flowers arranged at all, instead of seeds of all kinds dropped willy nilly everywhere), I will be the sort of person who has learned to keep herself in check.
Or—who has learned to keep her house in check. The “writer’s imagination”—as you see—is another matter.
|No. 12 - Fall 2013
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