The Junk Pile

Romance authors figure out fairly quickly that readers will forgive a hero much more than they will a heroine. No matter how pig-headed, stuck, or dense the hero is, the reviewers will not slap the label, “Too stupid to live” on him, while any number of stubborn, timid, naive, determined [adjective of choice] heroines are accused of that failing.

I am guilty of this hypocrisy myself, in that I was very slow to develop compassion for my own mother. Not until I had a child–and was a single parent–did I begin to perceive the forces aligned against Mom’s autonomy, freedom, and happiness. From Irish immigrant culture, to her religious affiliation, to societal limitations in general, she would have been hard put to make any but the choices she did.

As as child, though, I could not understand her fanatical need to control the appearance of our home. A glass could not be left in the living room, dishes did not accumulate in the sink. She ironed pillowcases (or had her daughters iron them, in a very specific method), and mitered the corners of sheets on nine beds.

As a kid, I did not understand why anybody would miter a corner when the next thing you do is toss a bedspread over it. Nobody sees that tidy linen, nobody knows if a pillow case has been ironed 24 hours after it has gone on the pillow. What did it matter if you ate salad first or after the main course? Madness, to my way of thinking, to fixate on inanities like that.

Mom was, of course, controlling what few domains she had power in, and such was her need to be regarded as competent (I don’t know anybody else like that), if all society left her was pillowcases and tossed salads, she would subsist on them and find meaning in them. My reaction as a child though, was a resounding, “I don’t want to be like her.”

What I probably meant was, “I do not want to be frustrated and dis-empowered like her,” but what I did was avoid the areas where she thrived. She was a great cook. I don’t cook to speak of. She was always entertaining. I… well, nope. Not in my home, anyway. She made her house a show place. While… I just last week got around to having a really disgusting junk pile hauled away, after years of simply tossing my dead furniture behind the summer kitchen.

In later life, I am left with a puzzle. What parts of me did I toss out in an over-reaction to my mother’s home-bound, economically dependent, reproductively powerless fate? I like walking into a pretty, tidy, house that smells good. I like good food. I don’t expect I’ll ever throw the kind of parties my parents did, but neither–I hope–will I ever again let a junk pile sit for years because… well, I’m not sure why I did that, but I don’t feel good about it.

Are you still negotiating boundaries set earlier in life? Are you still gaining insight into choices you made as a kid or choices your parents made? Any do-overs come to mind?

To three commenters, I’ll send e-ARC files of Erica Ridley’s novella An Affair by the Sea, which goes on sale this week!



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14 comments on “The Junk Pile

  1. I was the oldest of six and my Mom was a fussy housekeeper. By that I mean every cleaning task delegated to one of the three older girls had to be done HER way or NO way. And if it was NO way, she made you pay.

    Every Saturday morning, until I was in college, was spent dusting and vacuuming. Each girl had one section of the living areas of the house–the living room and family room, the dining room or the staircase and upper and lower hallways. We rotated sections after Sissy G had a temper tantrum about dusting the china cabinet. Everyone wanted the stairs because it was so straight forward, if awkward.

    I learned how to properly dust and vacuum–dust first, starting at the top, then vacuum–and what tasks I absolutely loathed. I vowed to never expect my own kids to clean the house, other than their own bedrooms–I actually think that was a mistake. They’ve had to find their own way and level of acceptable cleanliness and it’s been a struggle for them.

    I do get some satisfaction from cleaning certain things but I DO have a cleaning lady every four weeks. That was my 25th anniversary present from my Hubby.

  2. My mother was a complex person— she played favorites and liked it best when my brother sister and I were at odds. I decided many years ado not to play and she was not amused.

    I have one child so favorite playing does not apply. I don’t judge my friends and see the best in people. And I try my best to see the best in every situation.

    My daughters boyfriend describes my home as friendly. He said he feels comfortable with us. That made me happy. There might be a bit of dust and dog hair here and there but my door is open and there room at my table.

    I think as we we reach our 50’s and 60’s , we reflect on our childhood and choices that were made for us. I chose to support my daughter and to help her with college and law school. I provided positive support during Covid and was thrilled to pieces when she got her job and won her case. I wonder I’d my relationship with my mom would have been different and she made the same choices?

    Family relationship are different, eh?

    I think we make choices based on our experiences and we make the best decisions we can at the time. I think of my Nana Molly when I bake bread, brownies and enjoy a cup of tea. My Nana Peg taught me how to set a table , make scrambled eggs, cook chicken and to listen. All good life lessons!

  3. I honestly can’t remember any boundaries I’ve set. I live with two adult men so there is that. I suppose I do enough so that the environment is livable enough for me.

    I remember ironing sheets and pillowcases in the long-ago time before permanent press.

    My hat is off to your Mama who found a way to cope, even if it annoyed most members of her family. I’m impressed that your mother had children and also had time to care about how the table was set. She must have been a strong woman. I have four sisters, and they had some legendary fights with my mother, mostly over dating. She and I got along better.

  4. I inherited some very unpleasant boundaries from my family having to do with working hard to prevent loved ones from feeling any sort of emotional pain and not being a burden of any sort to anyone ever. As I have grown older it has become painfully clear how I have limited myself by honoring these rather erroneous expectations. I too resented my mother and I think that is where the “never be a burden” edict came from. And even though I could plainly see the inappropriateness of the “never allow emotional pain” edict I still managed to behave that way while raising my own family.

    I wonder if cleaning out all the physical junk (a legacy from my depression/WWII surviving parents would offer some cathartic healing in the emotional areas so I can live my dwindling remaining years in the sunshine?

  5. I don’t know if it’s because I’m an eldest child, but I feel as though I’ve pretty much chosen my own path and it wasn’t in opposition or agreement with the paths my parents took. However, I have followed their examples in some things. My Mom had 5 children is less than 6 years (no multiples) so housekeeping wasn’t much of a priority and though I live with only my partner, I don’t care much about it either (and neither does he). Though the dishes get done daily and the laundry gets done weekly, dusting hardly ever happens, for example. My Dad was a laid back Southern boy and I never had the level of ambition that people told me my intellect deserved. I did finally decide to go to grad school but that was as much vanity (“I’m too smart not to have an advanced degree”) as anything else. I prefer to do what I want and not what everybody else thinks I should do and I always said “I work to live. I don’t live to work.” Basically, I have come to terms with my selfishness, though I try not to hurt other people because of it.
    I really look forward to your thoughts every week, Grace, but I’m not sure I always answer the question you’re asking. Oh, well, at least I’m thinking.

  6. Oh gosh yes! I ironed pillowcases but I kind of enjoyed that. And I didn’t mind the dusting/vacuuming/dish washing chores. But what I absolutely hated was draperies! They had to be taken down twice a year and cleaned and then rehung. They smelled funny, and they were a very formal slick cloth. There were odd hooks that skewered through the drapery at the back and then the drape had to be lifted onto the rod. I swore I would never have draperies and I never have. I have miniblinds that cost $2.50 at Walmart and when they get dusty and ugly I throw them out and get new ones. On a more serious note I sometimes think that part of the reason I never had children was that I didn’t want to be defined by motherhood/wifehood/other people’s needs and expectations. My parents had a generally happy marriage and we had a good childhood, but I always wondered if they were truly fulfilled in those roles or if they had just made the best of things after the Depression and WW II and then the societal expectations of the 1950s.

  7. Any and all of my boundaries got busted when I was five.
    Now as a middle-aged person, I am learning to build them back up! Learning to know what’s mine and what I feel (body, mind, and soul.)
    So, heck ya! I’d love a complete do-over! With lots of different, more insightful and kinder people. 😀
    I’m learning to understand when the voice in my head is someone else’s compulsion. If I want to keep the compulsion, that’s one thing… but, if I only complete a task because someone else told me I had to, then I now try to think about it first.

  8. Oh yes. Mothers and Daughters. Mothers can do so much good–and so much damage. But we all do what we think is the best we can at that moment in time, I guess. Sometimes, the fallout is not realized until years later. What an absolute horrible realization it is that relationships– mothers, fathers, brothers & sisters, husbands & children, and bffs) were not the absolute bedrock you thought they were. Leaves one VERY skittish and slow to trust.

    REALLY enjoyed reading yours and other readers’ experiences with their mothers, Grace. So many of our little “weirdnesses” like your junk pile, or my inability to let go of unnecessary “things” resulting in clutter, are the result of unresolved issues in our pasts, I think. Deep-seated unhappiness, disappointment, or trauma, even when unacknowledged and thrust back in the deepest recesses of our being, find a way to outwardly manifest.

  9. As I age I feel like I understand my mother in a new way. I remember what I thought of her decisions when she was my current age, and I don’t necessarily agree any more than I did, but I now have more insight into what her life was really like. Four kids and an absent, workaholic husband with no extended family around, by the time we were all out of the house no wonder she was full of resentment and went a little overboard in changing her life. I have a lot of compassion for her now even though over the course of my childhood she made some choices I can not forgive. Especially as a mother myself, I know how hard it is and how unavoidable mistakes are even when you have support. I wish I had additional skillsets, among them that I knew how to keep house well, but I would rather be clueless in some ways than have my world forcibly narrowed to just those things like hers was.

  10. I about had a nervous breakdown attending the state school my parents chose, taking one of the 3 majors they approved and paying for it.

    My husband’s parents didn’t (and don’t) believe that anything good comes of post secondary education, so my husband’s came here a little, there a little.

    We made a point of paying for our children’s undergraduate degrees. We also allowed them to choose their fields of study. Our son does 180s every so often, but it’s on him now and he is very relieved not to have student debt. Could they have both used a little more parental input? Maybe.

    My aunt is married to a psychiatrist. Her comment is “It’s always Ma’s fault.”

  11. What I picked up from my family was the need to be right! Oh Boy! Could I argue to the death about utterly meaningless things! My new husband — as in first married we are in year 63 now — had a midnight blue suit. I told him it was black! How we argued!!!

    So just recently it came to me that I could give up “Being Right” for Lent. What a wonderful gift to me!!! Almost like that pile of dead furniture behind your summer kitchen. I’m not sure my husband has noticed yet….but I sure have❤️

  12. I’m such a hypocrite when it comes to what kind of heroine I like to read. I know some people cannot stand a quiet, shy, introspective, or timid and overly cautious heroine. Some (I’m guilty) can’t stand the what they label as too stupid to live, or the way out of reality for the times-firebrand, braver than brave, take on the world kind of girl. I’ve read and liked or didn’t like them based on the frame of the story. I think there are far more timid introverts…for whatever reason…out there in the world, in those times and just as many in our times. I have a lot more instant connection to the shy introvert. Now, the too stupid to live?? I will like/not like her based on her upbringing and personal circumstances. Jilted by some previous handsome, silver-tongued rogue? Unreliable parents, friends, relatives, suitors…? Or spoiled and overindulged?

    Oh boy, I remember ironing pillowcases and sheets, and more. But, because those things were were one of the very few things that pleased my Mom, I kind of enjoyed those things. I kept that fondness for ironing for many years but I think ironing my 6’5″ 2XL husband’s shirts killed it finally. The day I decided to take them to the cleaners was a Hallelujah moment, not that we could really afford it, but…

    The things that I disliked about my mother the most were not always evident in my early years, but most were. There was a really valid reason for most of these things on her part, but some took me years to discover. I vowed for the longest time I would never even own a television set, but cracked when my husband and I wanted to watch an important mini-series on T.V. but then I vowed it would never ever stay on all day. I maintain that now, but now when our son was younger before going off to school. I vowed I would never disapprove of any chore my son chose to do for me, or I asked him to do. ‘Please fold some towels for me,’ (and however he wanted to fold them was fine with me, who really cares??) Seriously, is it the end of the freaking world in I folded the length wise then again twice? They fit in the cupboard either way, nobody sees them. This is just one example. Besides, he figured out they stacked better all the same size eventually and asked. I vowed I would open my house and arms to any of his friends he invited home and make them feel welcome. I have repeatedly been thanked over the years that I did that and was so different from his friends’ houses and parents. AND by his friends! They are all in their 40’s now. One of my favorites of his friends was best man for my son at his wedding last summer. Jake’s wife (the salt of the earth, I adore her) told me multiple times how he remembers me as being so kind to him and went out of my way to help when he was younger. I vowed that if we would ever have another child I would never play favorites. I would keep a cleaner house, I wouldn’t hold on to stupid junk (oh what a hypocrite!!) I would never stay married to an abusive man. Fortunately that was never tested.

    Now. My Mom was basically an invalid, great difficultly walking, and increasingly other activities which only got worse as the years past. Keeping control of things in her world naturally was important, but it took me years to understand the why of some of those things. Why did she play her kids off one another and continued to do that until the end. It took me years to converse enough with my sisters individually to realize why is had become impossible to befriend them as adults. Oh boy oh boy what a can of worms that could open.

    Her physical limitations on the other hand, freed me in ways that gave me confidence doing things most kids never did. I was very young, 7th grade?, when she let me paint my room, because I wanted it a different color. She bought me the paint, ‘talked me through how to get started’ but basically I was on my own. She would come see the results (not easy for her) and say a matter-of-fact ‘good job.’ I grew up loving to paint. She also talked me through cooking and baking, anything I got into my head she’d talk me through the recipe if there was one, and whatever equipment and method needed…from the next room. I’ve always loved cooking. I get tired of it at times when I’m pressed, or just tired but always go back to the creative outlet of trying new recipes. Or these days, modifying older favorites to be a lot healthier.

    I wish I could say that I did everything right by our son, I didn’t. I pushed him to do things that I probably shouldn’t have. Some things he thanked me for later, others not. But I let him try a lot of things for awhile that he wanted to try, some sparks lasted some didn’t.

    Yes, boundaries. Whew, what a subject. I applaud you, Grace. For so many reasons. Hang in there.

  13. Yes, I used to say to a dear friend that it was too bad that my mom had good taste because I rebelled against that too. My mom was militant about all the things you mentioned and my appearance. I was shocked to learn that hospitals didn’t have hospital corners on their beds. I laugh as I recognize that I don’t like dishes in the sink the next morning. I don’t do many of the things she was excellent at; sewing, knitting, play bridge…. the list goes on.

  14. Mothers and sons. Fathers and daughters. Don’t know why. Doesn’t mean mother and daughters can’t be close. But there’s a comfortableness between the opposites that just is. Maybe it’s competition.