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Pillow Cases

January 31, 2011

When you are putting on a clean pillow case … do you hold the pillow under your chin and slide on the case?  Clench the pillow in your teeth?  Lay the pillow on the bed, sneak up and slide it on?

 My parents were the children of people who had grown up during the Great Depression.  I suppose I am like most everyone of my generation.  My parents just took their lessons learned a bit more seriously than some.  Use it up; wear it out; make it do; or do without.  That was the creed they lived by, and by which they continue to be guided today.  As a point of warning, such a philosophy can lead to a certain number of aberrations.

In my childhood home, we never threw anything away unless it was really and truly trash.  My father built the “barn” the year after I was born.  It was a large structure which housed the cars, trucks and campers on the lower level, and all of those items that we couldn’t part with on the upper beneath the gable roof.  As the years past, he added an addition on the back side to become the home to his workshop of machines and tools.  That space was heated.  Later, an addition was made to one side, taking up the area that formerly housed the tree house my brother had built.  Finally, a like space was created on the other side of the building too.  One would think, from the look of it, that a farmer with no less than 100 head of cattle once occupied the space, but as we all know:  looks are deceiving.

No, in my father’s barn, there is just a lot of stuff.  My father was forever bringing home extra building supplies from his various jobs.  It all had to have a place to go, so in to the barn it went.  We milled out our own lumber for trim and furniture pieces dad would eventually build.  We stored it all right there in the barn.

In 1984, some of those collections were “liberated” and became an integral part of my parents’ new home.  My father’s childhood friend, Dick Dunham, had seen my father collecting things for years.  Once when visiting the new house, Dick says to my dad, “So, Bob, what have you got invested in the place now… $10 or $12,000.”  While everyone laughed, it was a serious question.  And to be fair, it did save us a lot of money at the time.  Dick was truly jealous.

My mother is no better.  She has a room or two in the house now where her crap goes to die as well.  She now has two office spaces since the crap won in the room she was originally given for that purpose.  Her piles just grew and grew until there wasn’t enough space left for her to enjoy and so she moved to the back porch on the other side of her bedroom and started over.

My brother’s old room is a “library”, if you can get in past the stacks of stuff piled up in there.  Oh, there are a lot of books, but there is oh so much more.  My sister’s old room has two guest beds, one of which now serves the purpose of closet overflow.  I have managed over time (on my visits home) to keep the clutter at bay in that room.  My room, since I am the only one of the kids who comes home to visit and needs a place to stay, has been left alone for the most part.  That isn’t to say that they haven’t tried to fill that area too.  I have just had better luck at pushing back in there.  It is a never ending battle.

In and among all of my parents’ obsessively and compulsively saving everything, they never managed to find a system to organize it all.  They know where everything is, but one would not be able to tell just by looking at it.  My mother can send my father to the basement with a set of instructions to bring things back up stairs and he has no idea what to do.  She could give him a map and it wouldn’t help.  My father can send one of us to the barn with verbal clues as to the object in question’s whereabouts, and it will remain lost until he goes to lay his own hand on it.  They each have developed their own memory of where things went, but such a memory is impossible to describe to someone who does not share it.  God forbid one of them should die and take those memories with him or her.  We’ll all be lost.

But do you know what disturbs the incessant safe-guarders more than thinking something might be missing or that one of us might not be able to find this or that straight away?  What really sends them in to orbit?  I can tell you from experience that what really bothers them even more is when someone, let’s say for the sake of argument a youngest son, comes in and changes the organizational paradigm entirely.  I mean really gives it a kick in the pants.  At least they have learned over time that it is easier to go with the flow rather than to resist, so when something has moved, my mom will call and say, “James, do you remember what WE did with such and such?”  Just to screw with her, I sometimes respond, “It is right where it should be!”  Good as lost if I don’t eventually tell her to what shelf it moved.

While my parents never managed to find a system to organize all of their treasures, I grew up in an atmosphere seemingly chaotic.  It wasn’t truly chaos, since one or the other eventually held in their mind the key to figuring out the placement of stuff, but it was troubling enough that I over time have developed quite the opposite sense.

I had made early attempts to reign in the entropy around me.  One day, as a child, I had decided that I was going to HELP my father by “cleaning up the garage”.  I got two saw horses out, laid a 4X8 sheet of plywood across them, and proceeded to remove everything from his bench to the plywood.  I then reversed the process, putting all of the screw driver sets together, and all of the other like things next to other things just like them.  When I was done it was beautiful.  My father thanked me for my hard work but made me swear never to do it again.  He was years in finding everything, which was silly because if he had only given my system some thought, he would have agreed that it was superior.  (As a side note, he has told people that he is going to clean that area now that he is retired.  Everyone he has said this to has asked my mother if he had taken up drinking!)

I would say that my own neurosis really took hold when I was in college.  Not only was Middlebury an emotional awakening and an intellectual liberation, but it was also the first time I had been away from home for so long.  I was away from the source of life’s lessons in hoarding.  I had strayed.

I found myself at a school with the children of very wealthy people.  They didn’t always have to be mindful of their things, like I had to be.  If something were lost, stolen or broken, their parent’s would replace it.  They often had grown up with maids and had never done their own laundry even.  Possessions just weren’t very important to them because they were never at a loss of renewal.  These were luxuries that I had never known, and still can’t fully comprehend.  I grew to understand in those early days of college that if I kept things neat, then they wouldn’t get stepped on or broken by someone who didn’t understand.  I worked hard for what I had and it needed to last.

And a light went off in my head.  All of the outlines I created to organize my notes in classes could be used to reorganize the world around me.  I saw big roman numerals I, II, III, and sub sections A, B, C and even smaller divisions a, b, c.  It was all becoming clear now.  I could dominate my space in the same way that I dominated the main ideas of my lectures.  Every thing in its place and every place its thing.

None of this is to say that I took to ridding my self of clutter and junk.  No way.  I hate to throw things away, especially if they are useful for something else.  Socks are great dust rags, and rags for staining wood and such.  They go in to a bag and have their own spot.  Old binders, I might need one of those again some day.  They go in to another spot.  Everything has a spot.  It is just that the secret spots are far more orderly than the unidentifiable piles my parent’s created.

Some lessons from childhood are just too deeply ingrained to be a habit that can be broken with will power.  I still have this sick need, in fact, to save paper things especially.  Clippings from newspapers and magazines go in to piles which grow and grow, like mushrooms in a humid wood.  I don’t know what is wrong with me.  I never reread the stuff.  It just collects and I can’t seem to get over it.  At least, I couldn’t seem to get over it.  Then I got a scanner for the computer.  Put the document on the scanner bed.  File the image away in super anal-retentively organized file folders on the computer.  Throw the original away.  There.  I have satisfied my urge to save it while also controlling the beast of a pile it would eventually become.

My parents visited my Madison home a few years back.  They were astonished at how one could seriously eat off from every surface in the place.  Nothing is out of its spot ever.  Before going to bed, the remotes are back on the shelf next to the couch, where they belong.  Clothes are in the hamper.  Dishes are put away.  Everything is back to a state of zero before I close my eyes.  Every morning is like the first day we moved in here, that first day when everything is just so.

While my parents can no longer see disaster and its after effects, I can’t tolerate disorder.  If my desk top has something on it when I am trying to work, or write, I have to clean it off so that my mental eyes can stay focused on the job at hand.  I like things so neat, in fact, that at the end of the second year of my first job, I was at the point of resigning.  I took little by little all of my possessions out of my office and home with me after work.  A little each day.  By the time I tendered my resignation, I was fully moved home.  My supervisor at the time, a dreadful woman, snapped at me after I had resigned that she had known people who were fired before and who weren’t even able to return to their office for their belongings.  Proudly, and defiantly, I replied coldly, “Give it your best shot!”  With that I pulled open one of my empty desk drawers and walked out the door.  She spent the next few minutes opening the other drawers and cabinets, struggling to realize that she wasn’t going to win that argument either!

What I learned as a child of children of people who had grown up in the Depression was that everything has value.  Those life’s lessons are among the most valuable of all.  You can’t just throw away your past, but you can reign it in and dominate it so as to make your future more understandable.

When it comes to putting on a pillow case, you just have to hold the pillow under your chin and slide it on.  It is just as easy as that.  And if you do it just right every time, that pillow case will last a very long time.  In the eventual case where the pillow case isn’t pretty enough for the bed any longer, it can be used for many more years as a strainer for making crab apple jelly.  A good old pillow case works better than cheese cloth to hold all of the apple mash as it drains off its liquid to become the base for the jelly.  And, when that jelly sack becomes too thin for the task, you can always cut it up and use it in as a backing in a quilting project.  In the meantime, be sure it is stored where it belongs.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    February 1, 2011 2:25 pm

    I laughed so hard reading this. We never seem to use it up and always have extra in the back ground. It’s really too bad that i have come to a point in my life that I will never use up what I have saved so religiously all my adult life. I, unfortunately, still save but have come to the conclusion that “I don’t care any more” about what happens to stuff when I’m gone from this earth. It will, in fact, be up to you to use it up but god knows you will never do without. The stuff will, I assure you, never wear out. Stuff saved never wears out. It grows a life of its own like a planted garden with weeds in the middle of rows. Remember I used to “mow” the weeds in the middle of rows so the plants would overtake with the sunlight. Like the garden, it’s not really hoarding if you keep the piles separate from each other. There is nothing wrong with being neat. Just not to the point of being called “anal retentive”. LOL again!

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