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Magical Mess: My childhood was chaos, but is order really better?

I was vacuuming the other day when I found my daughter’s secret stash behind the sofa: two stuffed bears and a fist-sized backpack crammed with broken crayons, ribbon and a piece of wood painted to resemble a slice of cake. Next to these was an empty cardboard box, a handful of little people and a throw pillow. Immediately, I felt compelled to dive in, to sort, stack and tidy. Some mothers thrill at the opportunity to be useful, to have such clear and doable tasks to attend to. I am such a mother. Besides, dust collects in corners. Piles too long ignored become havens for bugs and mildew. But I resisted, I paused, feeling for a moment like an archaeologist discovering an ancient civilization.

I imagined for a moment my daughter had died. I often fantasize scenes involving the untimely demise of my children, imagining the worst so that the worst would be powerless against my advanced planning. If Annabel had died and I found her secret stash, I wouldn’t clear it out; I’d catalog and study it. The clutter is not random, despite appearances. It is the closest I will ever come to understanding the process of her imagination played out without the judging eye of an adult. What sort of meaning was she assigning to this assortment of things? What sort of world was she creating? This mess is peculiar to her, as original as a fingerprint, the product of her busy mind. How could I not love it?

But chaos is our undoing as a family. It’s the lost shoe searched for when we’re again late to school. It’s the angry father who trips over the empty cardboard box, curses the air, inviting my reproach – “Control your temper!” – which sparks another fight, sending the children cowering and me dialing the couples therapist. It’s the sink piled with yolk-stained dishes, the floor sticky with milk and smashed raisins that convinces me that nothing is working. We’re always behind. We should never have become parents. It’s these bad habits unattended that I fear will creep and take hold. If the kids grow up in a messy home they will inevitably become messy people. They won’t be able to hold down a job, and their marriages will be subject to the same fights that afflict mine.

It is the duty of a mother to clean up, to keep the trains running on time. We murder the magic, if only to keep the family functioning. J.M. Barrie knew this. That’s why his vision of a kids’ paradise, Neverland, involved no mothers. “One can get along quite well without a mother,” he wrote in Peter Pan. “It’s only the mothers who think you can’t.”

I grew up in a sort of Neverland: my own mother was dead before I was three, and my father a fairy who didn’t want to grow up. He, for one, always chose magical chaos over murderous order. Consider the title of one of his poems, written when I was seven years old: “It’s a Strange Day, Alysia Said. First, a Green Bug in my Room, and Now a Mushroom Growing in the Car.” I’m ashamed to admit that there is no metaphor in this title, no magical realism, just realism. Did my father attend to the conditions that brought about the green bug or the car-borne mushroom? Did he clean up behind the sofa or sweep the dust from under my bed? Did he clear out the damp newspapers and cigarette butts that littered the backseat of our Volkswagen Beetle? No. Nor did he wash out the bits of old banana from my lunch box, and their odor became the perfume of a traumatic childhood, able to conjure visions of bullies with a single whiff.

For my father, who himself grew up in an orderly 1950s home where no drink was without a coaster, no bed was unmade and no children spoke until they were spoken to, order was death. For my father, to be disordered was to be bohemian and vice versa. To quote again from his poem:

Maybe I should get a new car or at least clean it up, fix the windows like the kids say. But how can I do this & still talk to angels?

How indeed, Dad? So we lived among angels – very messy angels. My asthmatic best friend Kathy Moe reached for the inhaler whenever she entered our house. And I can’t remember a time the rug didn’t smell like cat pee. At seven, I innocently pointed out the wonder of the creatures and fungus that populated our domestic life – Alysia in Wonderland – but when I headed into the double digits, I became embarrassed to have friends over. I invented reasons to avoid my street. I marveled at clean homes, like Kathy’s, with the canopy-covered princess bed and the coordinating throw pillows. Her mother served pancakes every Saturday and waffles every Sunday. How these homes made me feel safe and secure! So I’d call Dad and ask permission to stay over for dinner or stay overnight – always fine with him, since he preferred a night off from parenting to attend to his dear angels.

My own angels are quiet today, another reason I’m troubled. I want to give Annabel the security of an orderly home, but how can I carry on a rich creative life when I have the responsibility of keeping house and the endless boring chores that entails? Perhaps I’m jealous. In Annabel’s world, magic waits around every corner. Behind the sofa is “the cave.” The cardboard box is “the secret music box.” Magical thinking is more elusive for me. Words are hard to find, though mess never is. J.M. Barrie was aware of adults’ painful yearnings for Neverland. As he wrote: “We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.”

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