We did not intend to hoard the feces, but once a home gets beyond a certain point in terms of filth, you cease to be repulsed. It was simply our reality.
Our situation had become so bad that Mom and I cleaned the house in a near panic the day the assessor came to inspect the house for tax valuation purposes. We feared the horrid conditions could be reported to child protective services, with me ultimately being removed from the home. Right up to the moment the gentleman knocked at the door, with no time to resolve the full extent of the problem, I was sweeping a significant supply of dried dog poop behind an open door. It had piled up in our hot and sunny laundry room, dried to a crisp, for months on end. The doggy doo was Death-Valley-dry and had turned white, which is the calcium left over after all the water evaporates. It crunched into hundreds of shards of smithereens when stepped on.
The chaotic and confusing state of my house mirrored my childhood. The word messy doesn’t begin to describe the situation. My mother and I lived in a small house on a concrete slab without a basement or attic, but we had more junk packed into that place than the total accumulation of ten average homes. No doors could open all the way, and on some occasions one was reduced to sliding through a doorway sideways in order to fit through a 10 – 12 inch gap. It was abject squalor, filth, and a sub-human existence brought on by obsessive hoarding of the most extreme variety that I have come across.
Piles reaching to the ceiling behaved like landfills as long forgotten items molded and rotted away deep within. The effluent produced from decomposing and festering food, dog excrement and urine, layered within these archaeological-like dumping grounds kept the carpet continually moist. If I made the mistake of walking in bare feet my soles turned as black as night.
To this day, I have difficulty walking in any home without slippers. I routinely carry them with me in my jacket pockets while walking a mile through snow and ice to watch Packers’ games with a friend. I believe I will bring them along if I’m ever invited to visit with the First Family at the White House. An unexpected step into a small spill of water immediately reminds me of squishing onto a carpet drenched in dog pee. Since our carpets were laid directly onto the concrete slab without a pad of any sort, it became especially gross like a puddle in places. Years of this rendered our carpet a biohazard.
The landscape of each room varied, but each was marked by similar undulations between the towering peaks, which occasionally collapsed as an avalanche of detritus on me or Mom. Typically we’d be sitting in the one or two open spots eating dinner in front of the television when gravity came calling.
Throughout my early childhood the house was messy, but livable. However, Mom seems to have coped with the stress of caring for me with minuscule resources by nurturing a hoarding habit that eventually overwhelmed her. Her hoarding has behaved like Seymour, the flesh-eating plant from the cult classic movie Little Shop of Horrors. I imagine that it seemed like a harmless idiosyncrasy at first. After all, she could not afford to be wasteful of anything. The habit eventually took on a life of its own, consuming everything around it, including me.
There were only a few unavoidable instances when unsuspecting members of the human race unknowingly crossed the threshold into bizarro world. On one occasion I was humiliated when my paper route manager came in to change his pants after a coffee spill. His expression said it all, as he had to change three feet from the opening of the front door. The shame and self-loathing felt in such a circumstance is difficult to describe, and impossible to quantify. These were unthinkable instances to avoid at all costs. By way of comparison, I was far less embarrassed—though the experience came complete with pointing and laughing—when my babysitter’s daughters got a clear, unobstructed view of my ding-a-ling one afternoon. The importance of wearing underwear underneath shorts hadn’t been communicated to me. This also was a problem in school with a pair of overalls once, but we need not go down that path yet.
My babysitter was a raging bitch. There is no other word for it. I have never met another individual in my entire life who was as persistently mean to kids. She was horribly cruel to her stepdaughters, whom she belittled and insulted to the point of Cinderella-like abuse. Two of them were referred to as ugly on a daily basis. She brought the eldest girl in middle school to tears on multiple occasions by publicly calling her flat-chested. I witnessed this at least 50 times.
On one occasion it was necessary for me to dine with the entire family at the table. The experience was miserable, as it ushered me further into the torture chamber of abuse that these poor girls were forced to endure. Sitting at the table was horrible. Normally we were kept outside to fend for ourselves. Being confined to the kitchen, unable to escape, was frightening. You were exposed to obsessive, ever-watchful, vigilant eyes that were demonic in intensity. The atmosphere caused you to huddle into your shell while keeping your eyes on your food to escape notice. Speaking, and thus drawing attention to yourself, was as unthinkable and potentially fatal as if doing so in a North Korean prison camp. On this particular evening one of the girls apparently succumbed to a lapse in judgment by politely remarking in a mouse-like voice that the butter on her potatoes was moldy.
The stepmother flew into a rage reminiscent of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, who would have decreed judgment saying, “Off with her head!” Her screaming and devilish looking eyes fixated on the poor girl still stand out in my memory, as does the child’s unending weeping afterwards. Suffice it to say, the defenseless adolescent ate her potato. She was forced to scrape up every last bit of mold, grease, skin, globs of fat from the rest of the meal, and shove it down her gullet. That plate was wiped clean, and she can count herself lucky for not having her mouth washed out with soap. Palmolive dish soap was the usual soap du jour for any backtalk, and it would have been swallowed afterward. I am quite certain this was a normal course of events at the dinner table. The real crime of it all was that the disengaged father failed to intervene in the least. The child was thoroughly broken, and came undone with sobs that would not cease. After the “Queen’s” hollering to shut up failed to deliver the desired effect, she ordered her to “Get out of my face!”
For some reason she generally left the pretty one alone, aside from the occasional snide remark like, “She thinks her shit don’t stink.” This wicked stepmother ruled the house with an iron fist. Her husband was largely withdrawn, an apparent alcoholic, and was typically away at work, sleeping, fishing, or drinking. He seemed to be most engaged when disciplining his three daughters from another marriage, which always came in the form of a fit of rage with his leather belt. The girls would tell me how many times they were hit with it, which was frankly a whip, and sometimes the belt buckle delivered the entry point of the blow.
When this woman, my alleged “care-giver” while my mom was at work, stopped over to speak with my mom on one occasion, she blamed me for the condition of the house. Though Mom was standing next to me, she peered quizzically into my eyes—a little kid in third or fourth grade—and said, “Why don’t you clean this shit up?”
I must say, however, that there was great good that came out of being mired within the “care” of this family for five long years. It helped me see that things could always be worse. It doesn’t seem possible, but the babysitter’s extended family actually was worse. It was riddled with ignorance, alcoholism, endless profanity, screaming, and abuse. Amidst 110-decibel-level screaming strewn with obscenities (like abandoned tires along a polluted, muddy river), the large hulk of a stepdad repeatedly slammed a difficult third grade boy into a wall with such force that the child’s body broke the wall between the studs. His full body left an indentation in the interior wall, as he violently cried from the overwhelming stress and pain.
This family originally lived a half-hour north of us in Milwaukee, and I vividly remember the long trip to visit them. The drive was an unending purgatory-like experience. All the kids were crammed into the back seat of the hot car, and I secretly enjoyed sitting on the lap of one of the older girls during the journey. Three adults chain-smoked in the front seat with the windows closed. I sat on a bony lap while struggling to breathe with my t-shirt and hands cupped over my mouth and nose in order to somehow avoid the dense eye-burning cigarette smoke. This enraged my babysitter. She demanded that I breathe normally. It was unwise to sass back or question a direct order from her.
Arriving in the scary inner city of Milwaukee continued to add to the general anxiety. The day dragged on forever amidst the yelling, drinking, and scant shade of a tiny backyard that was dominated by a cracked and weedy concrete patio. I tried to put myself in a happier place by studying any insects I could find while turning over every conceivable stone or scrap of wood. I left them untouched and imagined the world from their view. At the time I was grateful this family lived so far away, but the next year they moved into my little neighborhood of Caddy Vista out in the country. I swear the property values of the neighboring homes must have dropped in half, as did any serenity the poor occupants once enjoyed.
Though my parents had their problems, I never wanted to trade them in for the alternatives I was exposed to. This was a worthwhile lesson that continues to benefit me today.
Mom will read this recollection of my childhood. The prospect frightens me because I genuinely love and care for her. The intent here is not to engage in a slash-and-burn style rant. I am merely telling my story as it happened. I have come to the conclusion that the burden should not be on me to remain silent. I have learned a great deal from my past experiences, and continue to do so in fact. They are foundational to what I need to convey here. My mother is no different from other parents, in that she wants the best for me. As a child I never doubted her love. I knew from an early age that she experienced significant problems in her past that she has never been able to overcome. Life has never been easy for her. I don’t blame her, or Dad for that matter, for my difficult childhood. It is simply my story. I have learned to accept it for what it is, and glean important pearls of wisdom that I believe most people take for granted.
The memoir goes into significant detail from there, and is tentatively split into two sections: “Lost,” and “Found.” The latter part is filled with adventure as my entire being was torn down and rebuilt in a grand adventure. The work going on in my life was so complete and total that it was necessary to stay out of college for a full 9 months in what I consider to be a gestational period that led to my rebirth. At that time I lived and thrived in a cabin in the wilderness of northern Minnesota near the Canadian border while I learned to be fully human. This is not an overstatement. I had spent most of my life alone and lost in the mess. Throughout the entire work, however, I introspectively look into how my experiences ultimately made me a better person. Simple joys, such as a peaceful dinner around a well apportioned table, are never taken for granted. More on this another day. Be watching for the book and excerpts at eddygilmore.com
Resting following an exhausting day of cleaning….