I have a box where I keep all of the holiday and birthday and just-because cards that my friends and family send me. They are memories, tokens of love and thoughtfulness, and there is a part of me that can’t bear to throw them out.
I don’t need these cards. I hardly ever open that box, and so they don’t add anything to my life, but there is a part of me that thinks that maybe, just maybe, one day I will need to remember the moments and people they represent.
This is as close as I can come to understanding the way my father thinks. He loves paper and pens and radios and things that are broken and things that are cheap and things that remind him of things that he once liked and things that remind him of me and of things that I once liked — in that same can’t-bear-to-let-it-go way I feel about those cards. He sees a thousand tangential futures for a broken radio, articles he has yet to read in a nine-year-old issue of the New York Times, and one specific memory for that glittery purple pencil he writes notes in his planner with. He used a similarly purple pencil that one time I came home crying from school because I couldn’t write a lowercase A. I sat on his lap and we spent what felt like hours writing little Os with tails until I finally mastered the art of the a.
My father is a hoarder. I can say that now, and people’s eyes widen in understanding. Maybe they know someone who is a hoarder, or maybe they throw that word around to describe their messy roommate, but hoarder is now a part of our common vernacular.
As ubiquitous as it may seem, it’s still a relatively new word. When I was growing up, there was no defining term for why my father loved stuff so much. I certainly couldn’t imagine anyone else in the world living the way my family did. None of my friends abandoned entire rooms of their house to the things that lived there. They weren’t pushed off couches or beds by piles of clothes and papers and knickknacks, with the resolution to find somewhere else to sit or sleep in the future.
I stopped thinking about the house I grew up in almost as soon as I left it at eighteen. I didn’t forget or block it out; I just simply decided not to remember. By that time my parents were in a new home — a messy, more than messy, but not as messy home. And then eight years of not-remembering later, in the middle of my clean little grown-up life, I started having nightmares.
In these dreams I am always gearing up to clean. I don’t know where to start and so I do what I always do when I want to avoid work: I go get a snack. In one particular dream I am trudging barefoot through the downstairs hallway, then the den, and eventually the kitchen. I can feel the wet mashed newspapers between my toes, not so different from the way sand feels as you inch closer to the ocean. I tiptoe around the debris in my path, conscious that there is probably something sharp amidst the sludge, paper, and old clothing. As I rummage through the kitchen I am keenly aware that I do not want to open the refrigerator. It has been abandoned for years, and what exists inside is a soupy mess of rotting food. Instead, I scour the counter for packaged foods. In the bread box there is what was once a loaf of Wonder Bread, but is now a shrunken heap of moss and maggots. Ramen soup is safe, I think, but when I open the package there are bugs inside that, too.
The bugs don’t faze me in my dream, as they didn’t faze me in my adolescence, and I put the bug-infested bag of soup mix back on the counter. I don’t throw it out because there’s really no point anymore.
It’s not always the kitchen. Sometimes I’m in the bathroom, or the hallway, or the living room. Each room has its own particular flavor of squalor, but what remains constant is that I am always trying to figure out where and how to start to fix it.
These are the kind of dreams that jar me from my sleep in the middle of the night. My mind doesn’t always catch up with my body, and it takes me a minute or so to realize that I’m not at the house in the middle-class suburbs of Long Island that I grew up in but the small, neat Brooklyn apartment I have called home for the whole of my adult life. My first instinct, once my bearings have been located, is to call my mom. She is quite possibly the only person who understands how deeply these scars run, and I need her to tell me that this is not my life anymore, and that it never will be again. I know she will, and then she will apologize, as she always does. She has been apologizing for as long as I can remember, but I can never forgive her enough for her to forgive herself. She has always been afraid of dreams like these, afraid that a last straw would come along and I would stop loving her. She has warned me, “One day you won’t be able to pretend everything was okay, and you’re going to hate us.”
My mother is right more often than not, and she is right that everything was not okay. The memories are still there in the place in my mind I put them years ago, but the person in them doesn’t feel like me at all. She feels like a younger sister, someone close to me, someone I want to reach out to, to tell her that her world will be better. And cleaner. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, and it turns out normally ever after for her.
But my mother is wrong about one thing: I do not hate her or my father. Sure, I remember the dirt and the rats and the squalor, but I also remember parents who loved me. Doting, fallible people who gave me everything they had, and a whole lot more.
“Mrs. and Mr. Miller, thank you for coming in,” Ms. Angela, my nursery school teacher said. She shifted in her seat, leaning forward to deliver the bad news in a nose-scrunching whisper. “Kimberly has been excusing herself to go to the bathroom to masturbate.”
Earlier that week, Ms. A had come into the bathroom only to find me shoving a blue plastic soda bottle into my underpants.
My father choked on his tea, holding back a laugh, and then raised an eyebrow in my direction; my mother didn’t flinch. She knew exactly what was happening. “She’s not masturbating. She’s robbing you.”
I feigned distraction. While the grown-ups talked, I placed myself at the toy station most convenient for eavesdropping, occupying my hands with Weeble Wobbles, but soaking in everything being said about me. I needed to gauge what kind of trouble I was going to be in. I wasn’t particularly concerned with my parents; at most, we’d sit down when we got home and have a tedious conversation about why my little problem was unhygienic, immoral, and unfair to the other preschoolers in my class. Ms. Angela and the rest of the nursery school staff were my concern; I wanted them to like me.
My logic was simple. If I put something that I wanted in my underpants, even if I was caught, I’d be allowed to keep it. It had my vagina germs on it.
“Kimberly, were you putting toys in your underpants?” Ms. Angela asked me sweetly.
“No?” Acting innocent and confused was my general strategy for adult confrontations. That, or blaming a dog. This time, there were no dogs around. It was my word against my mother’s.
She turned back to my parents and, as if she were informing them that the sky was blue, said, “Mr. and Mrs. Miller, children don’t lie.”
I liked that Ms. A had my back, but knew my parents weren’t buying it. My attention shifted to the parking lot. Outside the big glass doors was a Jeep, the kind that on top is a normal-sized truck, but on bottom has giant wheels. I wanted that truck. If that were our truck, all the other kids would be jealous. People would stare at us, they’d want to be us, and then we could run over their cars.
“We have a Monster Truck,” I announced to no one in particular. I wanted to try on what it felt like to say that.
As the opportunity to prove her point arose, my mother schooled my teacher. “We drive a Mercury, Ms. Angela. A Mercury on Mercury-sized tires. She’s lying, because that’s what children do.”
We left before Ms. Angela could come up with some sort of retort. In the parking lot, my mother informed me that I would have to give back everything I’d taken, and “Stop putting things in your underpants!”
My dad just grinned, and sipped his tea.
I was allowed back to nursery school the following week, but my credibility and access to the toy box were shot. Luckily, kindergarten was starting in a month, and I’d have new toys to pilfer.
My parents both took the day off from work to see me off on my first day of real school, armed with cameras and tissues and supportive smiles. While other kids cried outside our classroom, holding onto their mothers, I refused my parents entry into the school and assured them I’d see them afterward. New school. New toy box. I was ready. But once I was inside Mrs. White’s kindergarten classroom, the anxiety started to settle in.
I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know how to know anyone. In nursery school, I’d had Jacob. His parents were friends with mine, so we were friends by default. Since he was the only boy I knew, I planned on marrying him.
Jacob agreed, but only if he could also marry his friend Joanna. Because she had sisters, she’d inherited the motherlode of Barbie clothes. Since I figured this arrangement could only serve to benefit my Barbies, I agreed to a life of polygamy.
There was no Jacob in kindergarten. Without a preexisting friend in place, I realized that I had nothing to say to the other kids. I liked grown-ups. Grown-ups and I had an understanding; they lavished me with attention, and I accepted it. Kids, on the other hand, just thought I was weird.
My parents didn’t believe in baby talk. Instead they spoke to me like they would a well-educated yet slightly confused forty-year-old. While my vocabulary never ceased to impress their peers, my own looked at me as if I were speaking Farsi. I would often announce to the class that I had an “urgent need to urinate,” or complain that I’d “suffered an abrasion” on the playground. I tried to blend in, but I could never bring myself to say “pee-pee” and “boo-boo” like my classmates did. It felt degrading. So I was mostly left to my own devices unless a game of house was short a person to act as the husband when all the more covetable roles in the family hierarchy had been doled out.
The first month of kindergarten was not everything I had dreamed it would be; for the most part, I was bored with the monotony of arts and crafts projects and rote recitations of numbers and letters. That is, until the day a month or so into the school year, when it was announced that each student would be meeting with the school’s social worker.
I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to spend an afternoon. An opportunity to do what I did best: Impress a grown-up.
One by one, my classmates were called to the front of the classroom, where they were whisked away by a smiling woman with long curly brown hair and two layers of bangs: one that lay flat across her forehead and another that fanned out on top of her head. I had no idea who she was, or how she got her hair to do that, but I had no doubt that we would get along smashingly.
While we recited the alphabet and listened to stories about friendly dinosaurs, my attention wandered endlessly back to the door. I imagined that each successive child was being escorted to some sort of exclusive club. A club where adults and children socialized as equals. A club where one could drink as much soda and eat as much candy as they wanted. A club that as of yet I had not been invited to join.
“Kimberly Miller?” a voice finally called. I immediately jumped up, and then, not to seem too excited, walked leisurely to the front door.
“I’m Kimberly Miller,” I said quietly, and looked back at my class to see if anyone was looking at me. They weren’t.
In the hallway, the woman with the bangs told me that her name was Ms. Russo and that she worked for the school, and just wanted to ask me some questions, “If that’s okay?”
Not what I had been planning, but still better than coloring by myself. I immediately started going through my repertoire of crowd-pleasers in preparation to wow her and make her my friend; my dad had just taught me to spell “antidisestablishmentarianism,” which never failed to impress, so I could do that, and I was taking karate so I could perform my kata for her. And if there was room enough, I could show her what I was learning in dance school. She could then tell me how smart and pretty I was. This was going to be fun.
Ms. Russo and I walked through a part of the school I had never seen before. This was big-kid territory, and intimidating. The paintings that lined the walls here were neater; these were kids who had mastered the art of coloring within the confines of the lines or, even more awe-inspiring, without any lines at all. The unfamiliar setting and the fact that our conversation seemed to have hit a standstill started to make me antsy.
Our walk ended when we arrived at a small brick room with gray painted walls. Ms. Russo ushered me inside and sat across from me at the tyke-sized table, opened a manila folder, and as if on cue, smiled again.
With her knees bent high into her torso, Ms. Russo started to ask me questions about life as a five-year-old. Did I know my address? Did I have a bedtime? Did I have any pets?
I answered, but with each question I elaborated a bit more, trying to get a conversation going: Someone had been murdered on my block. I got to hold a newborn puppy once. In Alaska, nighttime can last for twenty-four hours, and Eskimos eat a lot of fat to stay warm in the winter, but my mom cut the fat off of my meat because we aren’t Eskimos. But each time Ms. Russo would just smile and then curtly ask me another pointed question.
My efforts to impress her appeared to be failing miserably. And then the topic of siblings came up. “Yes, I have a sister. Her name is Sheryl.”
The more questions she asked about Sheryl, the more I told her.
I wasn’t sure how old Sheryl was. She was a baby, I guessed. She was often naked, I explained, because there was only one dress that fit her, and sometimes it had to be sacrificed to the greater good of my stuffed panda named Male Panda or one of my cocker spaniels.
Ms. Russo’s initial indifference toward me was transforming into undivided attention.
“Tell me more about Sheryl.”
“Dad puts her in the trunk when we go shopping,” I vented. This had been a point of contention in our family for some time now, or at least the last few weeks. I wanted Sheryl to go with me everywhere, but my parents wanted to stop going on Sheryl scavenger hunts when I would inevitably lose her somewhere.
It was obvious by her disapproving looks and spirited scribbling that Ms. Russo agreed with me. My parents were being completely unreasonable.
The more intently my new friend listened to my stories, the more I continued to divulge my exasperation toward my parents’ handling of my little sister.
“Faith urinated on her.”
“Who is Faith, Kimberly?”
“Our dog.” Ms. Russo was not keeping up with the conversation.
I told her about the long night Sheryl had spent soaking in a suds-bath in the bathroom sink and continued from there to air my most recent grievance: Sheryl had been taken away from me as punishment for stealing those toys from the nursery school.
My enthusiasm eventually waned. This wasn’t quite as fun as I’d imagined, and I didn’t want to be late for the milk lady, lest all the chocolate milk be taken. Ms. Russo walked me back to my classroom. She took my kindergarten teacher aside while I joined the rest of the class in playtime. I was sure she was explaining how gifted I was.
That day, when my babysitter came to pick me up from school, her infant daughter Kaitlynn on her hip, my teacher came running out and demanded to know if the little girl was Sheryl.
Within days of my meeting with Ms. Russo, the mood at home changed. My parents started fighting more, taking days at a time off from work, and cleaning well past the time that I went to bed. My father was messy. So messy I didn’t know the color of our carpets. Paper covered the dining room table, the couch, the bathroom floor. Old newspapers lined the floor of my bedroom. And now, according to my mother, someone was coming to the house to check on me and Sheryl, someone who would see how messy he was.
Our home was of the ticky-tacky Levitt variety. Every house on our block looked the same — except we never opened our shades, our plants were a little more unkempt, and the neighbors never came over for a cup of coffee.
Our house was two stories tall, but the second floor was like a forbidden wonderland to me. We didn’t use it. In fact, I often forgot it was there. One room was dubbed the Bird Room because it was filled with birds: cockatiels, parakeets, and English budgies, all housed with another of their kind in arranged marriages, with the hope that nature would prevail and tiny featherless offspring would be produced.
My parents would then sell the baby birds at local pet stores and flea markets. The brown carpets of the Bird Room were covered in bird seed, discarded feathers, and puffs of down that had come loose when the birds squawked and jumped around to protest the intrusion of their living space by the pesky humans who lived downstairs. I rarely went into the Bird Room — I hated the smell and the noise and the unaffectionate nature of the birds — and instead focused my upstairs adventures on the room next door: an abandoned bathroom where spiders had long woven their webs from the faucet and around the nozzles of the sink and bathtub. It was by far the most interesting of these forsaken spaces. The tub was lined with long-dried bars of soap and rusty razors. I liked to sneak up there with a fork and steak knife and practice my cutting skills on old bars of Ivory soap. I hated the indignity of my mother cutting all my food for me. I figured I’d watch what my parents did at dinner, practice, and then surprise them one night when I could premiere my newfangled ability to cut my own food.
The third upstairs room was by all accounts the master bedroom; it was the largest in the house, but my parents had moved out of it when I was born, taking over a downstairs bedroom closer to my room. The only things that lived there now were a bed frame, a broken mirror, some newspapers from before I was born, and cat feces. It was the cleanest room in our house.
Our entire existence revolved around the kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms downstairs. The kitchen and living room took over half of the first floor and bled into one another, with the exception of a small aimless wall in the middle of the room. Against the dividing wall in the living room were a breakfront that housed porcelain Lladró figurines, dishes we never used, and an old black-and-white photograph of my mother. When I first discovered this photo, I asked why we had a picture of Aunt Lee naked and hiding behind a pillow. My mother and her sister looked so similar even I had a hard time telling them apart, the only real difference between them being that Lee was tall and my mother tiny. When my mother defensively announced that the sexy young woman in the photo was her, an obsession was born.
I couldn’t imagine that my mother was ever the glamorous and coy woman looking back at me seductively while wearing nothing but a couch cushion. My mother wore her hair in a braid every day, had giant round glasses that dwarfed her skinny face and drank a glass of chocolate milk for breakfast every morning. My mother read Madeline in a French accent at bedtime and played my heavily scripted game of “mermaids” during bath time. The woman in the picture didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would do those things, and I wanted to know everything about her. When no one was watching, I would climb atop the piles of yard sale finds and yellowing newspapers that took up the majority of the living room to get to that picture, so that I could inspect it tirelessly for signs of the mommy that I knew in the naked-pillow-wearing woman she once was.
There was a television in the living room, but because the three-seater brown couch with a tropical leaf pattern usually only had room for one adult at a time, most of our time spent as a family was spent on my parents’ bed.
The kitchen was the room in the house that changed the most on a daily basis. At least, that is, the kitchen table. The table seemed to be in a constant state of flux between clean and piled high with my father’s latest finds. My mother would indignantly tell my father that she wasn’t going to clean up after him but would crack after a week or so of family meals at the foot of their bed, and the table would be cleared off for a few weeks before the stuff could take over again.
My bedroom was next to my parents’. My mother couldn’t part with my crib when I outgrew it, and there was no room in the garage to store it, so it remained next to my twin-size bed. It became my de facto toy box; I would climb from my mattress over the wall of the crib to surround myself with the stuffed animals and dolls that made up the majority of my social life. At night, Cara, our German shepherd, would sleep under the crib. She had been doing it since my parents brought me home from the hospital.
My parents’ bedroom was the center of life in our house. We ate our meals there on strategically placed folding tables when the kitchen became too messy. Their bed rested in the middle of the room, but both sides of the bed had become storage for the piles of old newspapers, worn and forgotten clothing, and must-have purchases that never needed to be had, trapping the beautiful antique armoires that once held neatly folded sweaters and carefully hung suits behind their mass. The surrounding trove only seemed to make the bed look bigger, as if it spread from wall to wall, the piles becoming makeshift closets and nightstands.
Inevitably I would wake up in the middle of the night, roused by my father’s clamorous snoring, and stumble my way to their bedroom, where my mother would almost always already be awake to welcome me into a spot between her and my father.
My job was to wake my father up, so I would tap him on the head until his eyes opened.
“Why, hello there,” was his usual answer.
To which I would reply, “Hello, you’re snoring.”
He would then roll over and the three of us would fall back to sleep.
“Are you mad at me?” I asked my mom when she put me to bed one night. We only had one more day to learn to be clean before our visitor came, and her exhaustion had taken a serious toll on her bedtime story enthusiasm.
“I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at what you did.” This was my mother’s standard-issue response, and this time I wasn’t sure that I believed her. She was certainly mad at my father. After she turned my light off and closed my door, I heard the shouting start.
They had been fighting all week, but this was different; this time she sounded scared. “She’s going to be taken away from us, is that what you want?” I heard her say. “You’re going to lose your daughter because you can’t get rid of a fucking newspaper.”
My father didn’t sound scared, he didn’t sound like anything at all. He never answered my mother, at least not that I could hear from my bedroom. What I did hear was a door slam.
The house was silent until I woke up the next morning.
Each morning I would wake up amazed at the transformations that had happened while I was in bed, and each morning the barricade of black garbage bags in front of our home seemed to have grown exponentially.
I was excited for the social worker’s visit. We had never had anyone to our house before, and I spent the morning of the visit anxiously dividing my time between standing in front of the door waiting to let him in and peeking out the front window for signs of incoming cars.
When the doorbell finally rang, I opened the door to a slim man with a bald head and gray moustache, wearing a short-sleeved button-down shirt. I introduced myself and invited him in. The house was cleaner than I had ever seen it, which only added to my excitement.
My parents introduced themselves and excused the remaining mess, and then my mom said, “Kim, why don’t you go get Sheryl.”
The previous night I had carefully planned out Sheryl’s outfit. She would wear a purple and white corduroy dress that I had outgrown. The dress was too big for her, but it was my favorite. I carefully picked out a white undershirt for underneath the thin tie-straps. I didn’t like when the cloth part of her body showed.
Sheryl was a gigantic Thumbelina doll. Unlike her thumb-sized literary namesake, Sheryl was two feet tall, only slightly shorter than I was when I started kindergarten, and until something better came along, she was my sister.
Earlier that day I had been anticipating this moment, but as I left my room I started to feel nervous. What if the social worker was mad at me? What if he took Sheryl away or took me to jail?
I made my way slowly down our now clean hallway and introduced the thin man with the short-sleeved shirt to my baby sister. When it became obvious that he wasn’t going to take me to prison, I crawled up on his lap and asked if he would play hide-and-seek with me.
“You go hide, and when I’m finished talking to your parents, I’ll come find you.”
I loved hide-and-seek, but the only person who ever played it with me was my dad. He was terrible at finding me. I knew this because he would spend the majority of the game declaring aloud how baffled he was and what an “efficient absconder” I was. Eventually he would find me, though, and a new game of tag would ensue.
Since I had a new playmate to impress that day, I went to my favorite hiding place of all. In my bedroom there was a bookshelf, the bottom of which was always empty. When I wanted to go somewhere clean, I would curl up and lie there.
I must have fallen asleep, because when I woke up it was dark in my room. I crawled out, figuring it was about time to surrender my spot.
“Mommy, where’s the man?”
My mother was in the kitchen making dinner. “He left.”
“Did he even look for me?” I was hoping that my hiding spot was so good that he finally had to give up, but I had a sneaking suspicion that that was not the case.
“No, honey, he left a few minutes after you hid.”
The fact that an adult would lie to me was painful. Sure, I lied all the time, but adults weren’t supposed to lie. My parents never lied.
“It was good that you crawled up on his lap. If you were an abused child you wouldn’t have done that,” my mother told me. I appreciated what I assumed was a compliment but was eager to get life back to normal. “Where’s Daddy?”
“I don’t know where your father is.” This meant that they’d fought. I didn’t know why. Aside from the CPS guy abandoning our game, I’d thought the day went pretty well. Which meant that my mom should have stopped yelling and my dad should have stopped storming off.
“We need to talk about something, Kim.” My mom said. I was pretty sure that I was going to be in trouble. Usually when I did something bad, my mom would give me a countdown, but I would always acquiesce before she got to one. I wasn’t sure what would happen at the end of the countdown, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to find out. This didn’t seem to be that kind of trouble.
“Do you know what that man was doing here today?” My mom was always way calmer when I was in trouble than when Dad was.
“I lied and said Sheryl was my sister.”
“Yes, and they believed you, which just goes to show that some people aren’t too bright. Do you know why Daddy and I were so scared this week?”
I just shook my head. I had an idea, but I figured I’d wait for her to tell me in case I was wrong.
“Because our house is messier than other houses, and we were afraid that the man who came here today would take you away from us.”
My friends lived in clean houses; I lived in a dirty one. I’d always known we were different, but until now I didn’t know that different was bad. Until now I hadn’t known that there were people who could take me away from my parents. There was something wrong with us, and now that I knew it I couldn’t unknow it. I loved my parents, and I loved my dogs, and my cats, and my panda, and my Sheryl, and I didn’t want to leave any of them. My mom didn’t have to finish the lecture.
“I won’t tell anyone about Daddy.”
Excerpted from Coming Clean: A Memoir by Kimberly Rae Miller, with permission from Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. ©2013 by Kimberly Rae Miller. On-sale July 23, 2013. All Rights Reserved.