We all allow our minds to wander to “what could have been.” Sometimes there’s “what should have been or would have been” as well.

I tend to do this in dreams. Wandering from one course of action to another. Dreaming about another outcome, not knowing really if one was better than the other.

Just different.

“History is a novel that has been lived, a novel is history that could have been.” ~ Edmond de Goncourt

I consciously thought more about this kind of thing when I was young and there was all the time in the world to change tracks. Now that I’m older, I have been winding down this road I’m on for quite some time.

But there were chapters in my life where nothing at all was written in stone. My whole life was ahead of me.

For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: “It might have been.” – John Greenleaf Whittier

So now when I have these dreams and wake up, I realize that my mind tricked me into thinking, just for a bit of time while I slept, that I took that other road.

Funny thing is, we can’t know what that other road would have been like.

One such experience happened after an accident I had. It changed the path I was walking on and swept me over to another. Much like a tornado that picks up entire houses and moves them a block away, still mostly intact.

At the time it seemed completely innocuous. It seemed ordinary and probably for the best. It seemed like the answer.

But like that mirage of water in the desert when you’re extremely thirsty, it morphed into something completely different.

When you’re young you look at people a certain way. A certain segment of the population seems safer than another, simply by virtue of their station in life.

This particular experience was with a minister and his family. I figured they’d be upstanding citizens. Good people. And to judge that, I guess it depends on what you’re hoping for.

Looks can be mighty deceiving. And to go further, I’ll say that you should never judge a book by its cover. These people; they were completely the opposite of who I thought they’d be.

Their home was always a filthy mess. My job was to take care of their two sons. And clean up their filth. I’ve never seen people who could tear up things and accumulate filth as fast as they could.

Trying not to breathe through my nose because my pregnant state made me a bit nauseous, I always went about putting things to order. Cleaning food off plates that had sat for days while I visited a relative.

They lived next door to the husband’s church.

You see I just could not understand how you could look so well put together and still live in the midst of filth.

I couldn’t see why you wouldn’t wash a few dishes before you had a completely noxious kitchen on your hands. It just didn’t make sense to me. Especially since I was the one who would be tasked with cleaning it all up.

This place had seemed like a peaceful haven at the beginning. From the outside I saw a nice house that would have a little room for me to sleep in. It looked safe and comfortable. Until you opened the door and went inside.

After living in that pig sty, having just lived in another one when an English teacher took me in when I was 15, I didn’t think anything else could shock me.

When you go to live with someone sight unseen, you don’t know what to expect. You get what you get. And if you’re underage, there’s not a lot you can do about it.

Because of who they are, a beloved teacher, well thought of minister, your brain selectively puts them into a box all tied up with a bow. Only to find out that the reality is much, much different.

Those were two of the filthiest families I ever came into contact with. And let me tell you, I knew right then that I’d never be like that.

I’m one of those people who constantly cleans while I cook so that when the meal is served, there’s little left to do afterwards. Doesn’t that seem like the easiest and most forthright path to take?

I’ve kind of gotten off topic, but did you know there are commonalities with hoarders:

From Psychology Today:

  • Age: While severe hoarding is most common in middle-aged adults around the age of 50, their hoarding tendencies began around ages 11 to 15. During these early teenage years, they typically saved broken toys, outdated school papers, and pencil nubs.
  • Personality: Oftentimes hoarders struggle with severe indecisiveness and anxiety.
  • Genetics: Although hoarding is not an entirely genetic disorder, there is some genetic predisposition involved in the disorder.
  • Trauma: Many hoarders experienced a stressful or traumatic event that propels them to hoard has a coping mechanism.
  • Social Isolation: Hoarders are often socially withdrawn and isolated, causing them to hoard as a way to find comfort.

Those two families I ended up living with for a time as a teen could have fallen under this criteria. They hoarded filth.

They thoughtlessly left plates of congealed food wherever they happened to eat. Disgusting.

In the earlier instance with the school teacher when I was 15, there was a ridiculous amount of cats living under her roof. And they were eating out of pots cooking on the stove. Who wants to eat the meal after seeing that?

There are so many reasons why we become who we ultimately become. As listed above, there is personality and genetics and often trauma intertwined to shape us.

But living like that for a few years of my earlier life instilled a whole different pathway I knew I’d follow. I would always keep things clean and tidy. I would organize and decorate and create a cozy home.

With those experiences in my rear view mirror, it was easy to see why creating a cozy home was so important to me. Because you see, I sometimes had little control over where I had to live for segments of time.

And so I think that’s why I am how I am today. It doesn’t matter if I have a broken down trailer with mice in the cabinets or live in a beautiful turn of the century home full of great architecture. I’ve lived in both.

Both were as cozy as I could make them with what I had to work with. It doesn’t always amount to how much money is in your checking account. Sometimes it’s just how you put the simplest of things together and the thought you put into arranging it.

As soon as I was married at age 20, I taught myself to sew simple curtains and put bookshelves up on the wall. I used color to evoke certain moods. I learned to sew quilts to layer at the end of the bed.

All these things were vitally important to me. Because I could look back in my rear view mirror to those two houses of filth and know that those experiences helped form me.

I might not yet have known what I wanted to be. But I surely knew what I didn’t want to be.

Well, I completely ended up writing about something that wasn’t even on my mind. I often do that. Start down one road and diverge onto another.

I suppose the moral of the story, if there is one, is that your early life experiences have much to do with who you become. Or not become, in my case.

I needed order and comfort around me. Simple things. A mug full of sharp pencils at the ready. Groupings of bottles or jars. A stack of books on my bedside table.

So live in peace with old memories but stay grounded in that place you call home.

“Mr. Meant-to has a friend, his name is Didn’t-Do. Have you met them? They live together in a house called Never-Win. And I am told that it is haunted by the Ghost of Might-have-Been.” – Marva Collins

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20 Comments

  1. Another outstanding read today. I once took a road trip with my GF to Seattle and we spent the night at her cousin’s house on the way to Seattle. She warned me in advance about the condition it might be in. Well, she was right. It was a mess. The kitchen sink was full of dirty dishes and my gf and I had to wash the dishes before dinner could be fixed. She never batted an eye when we set out to clean it up or said thanks.

    Like you I clean as I go fixing a meal so there’s not much left to do after it’s over. Your words just seemed to flow off the page so endlessly today. Enjoy your eeekend.

  2. Sometimes the best example is a bad example. You’ve beautifully illustrated that you can learn from any situation, good or bad. When I was growing up I had a friend whose family lived in a filthy home. Her bedroom was always clean (well, as clean as she could make it without the proper tools) but the rest of the house? Squalor. The family was the proverbial “pillars of society” as well. I learned from a young age that not all is what it seems from the outside. That lesson has served me well over the years.

  3. Hi Brenda. I’m glad for you that you were able to move on to better living conditions after these awful experiences. I’m no expert on the subject, but from my experience it seems to me that messy hoarders might fall into two categories. There are those who are depressed or have some other emotional issue that causes them to feel overwhelmed and unable to keep up with basic housekeeping tasks , and they deserve some sympathy. Then there are those people with big egos who think that they are too important to have to be bothered with mundane chores. I think the people you lived with were in the second category, and they don’t get my sympathy. They were using you, and yet they probably told themselves how generous they were to give you a place to live and thought you should be grateful to them! I have worked in a couple of offices where the bosses created messes they expected others to clean up — big piles of crusty, dirty pots and dishes in the office kitchen after the boss cooked lunch for herself, for instance, and one husband-and-wife set of bosses brought their two, sometimes three, Scottish terriers to work, and the dogs did their business on the office floor of the room where most staffers had their desks! Then the husband and wife — who had a different office away from the mess — would tell each other to go clean it up, but neither would do it, and eventually a staffer wouldn’t be able to stand the smell and would clean it up. I had a job that took me out of the office for awhile each day, so, I admit I used that as an excuse to get out of there and avoid having to deal with the smell and cleanup. I think Scottish terriers are great dogs, but whenever I see one, I get a bad memory of that smelly office! It wasn’t the dogs’ fault, their owners were the problem. I hope you enjoy your peaceful clean home with your pets today!

  4. Tomorrow I plan to finish cleaning my home. It is not dirty; it is cluttered because I have been ill for three years. Cleaning is fun in my opinion. I love my home more when everything is clean and in place. That makes my life easier and happier.

  5. Very intersting post. My father worked for many years in a job that required him to travel every day from dairy farm to dairy farm. And he commented that he was so surprised when he would see one of the families he knew leave their dirty unkempt home looking clean and spiffy and wondered how they managed to do so. My daughter-in-law works cleaning houses — many of which are very large and owned by very successful people — doctors, lawyers, business owners, etc. — and she says that those houses are the most filthy and hardest to clean. So what we see on the outside is just fluff (sometimes, maybe oftentimes).

    Cozy and comfortable and clean (hmmm … the 3 C’s) works best for me.

  6. Loved your post today. I grew up in a home with my mom, Dad, grandma and little brother. My Mom and grandma were two of the most accomplished ladies that I have ever known and I wanted to be just like them both. My Dad was a hard working man and I also loved him dearly. However, he became an alcoholic when I was a teenager and just worsened thru the years, But I knew that I would never be a drinker and I have not. Now looking back I can see that he was suffering from depression and trying to make himself feel better, which of course did just the opposite. I know that lots of people can have a glass of wine each day without becoming an alcoholic, however I did not want to take that chance. So yes we all are certainly a product of experiences from those growing up years. I feel sad for so many of your hurtful times but you are loved and admired by so many of your readers! Be blessed today Brenda. Carolyn

  7. Years ago I went over to a neighbor’s apt, a couple houses down from my house, that my kids played at with their kids. I walked into their kitchen and saw crusted plates with food on it and it grossed me out! The husband quickly started taking the plates off the table and washing the dishes! It didn’t faze the wife one bit bc she wasn’t even embarrassed at all! She cleaned at a hospital every day too! Go figure!
    Then when my kids got bugs in their hair, she told me, prob from her kids, that was it! I didn’t know what to do and she brought her kids over my house and did all their hair! Apparently her kids had it all the time! Gross! When they left at 9 pm I washed all the towels in hot water, stripped all the beds, sprayed all the mattresses down, couches, chairs, rugs, then vacuum top to bottom of my house! I was done at 3 am and had to get up at 6 am to get ready for work! My kids didn’t get much sleep either that night! When my daughter would go over there to play, then I would make everyone wash their hair with that special shampoo after! They were nice people and her sister and hubby lived in the same apt house and her apt was clean…spotless! I was a single Mom and my house was always clean, made home baked meals and baked all the time, plus worked 50 plus hrs! Thank God they moved to the next state a couple months after that!
    Looks can be deceiving…I never knew! After that my eyes were wide open and always would meet the parents in their house, before my kids could play there! Reading your post today, brought back this gross memory! I never went back in that apt again! Unfortunately, their friend told me, that it was nothing new…always like that!

    1. When I worked as a teacher’s aide in an elementary school, we would see the same kids with lice over and over. It didn’t matter that they had gotten the lice killed on their heads, as long as they remained somewhere in the house, on bed linens or in clothes for instance, then the kids would get them again and again. It was sad because the kids were just kids and had no way of preventing it if the parents weren’t doing anything about it. It sounds like you were a good neighbor to that family, which was a good thing for your kids to see.

  8. As usual, your writing is amazing! I can’t imagine how difficult it was for you. You’re a strong person to have built the life that you have now. You can be proud!

  9. It boggles the mind that the Minister, his wife and family’s pig-sty ways wouldn’t have been gossiped about in the church community. Did they never have anyone over for visits, supper, birthday parties? Or maybe most of the people they knew also lived like that and so they thought nothing of it? I can’t stand to live in what I consider a dirty house. We were poor when I was growing up – but then, a lot of babyboomer families were poor. We knew we were poor, but it didn’t matter. We had hand-me down clothes, got one pair of new shoes each year (no matter how much they wore out or pinched out feet in the meantime) and looked more like the dead-end kids with home-cut hair sticking out all over the place and our faces and clothes smeared with dirt, for we got really dirty when we played! But the places we lived in, while pretty dumpy because that’s all my parents could afford (they both worked, too) was always clean. Sure, nothing matched, and the furniture was old and frumpy, and we often had 1920s linoleum on the floors and peeling paint on cracked plaster walls that my mom would scrupulously wash every six weeks or so, but they were clean dumps. LOL! As kids, of course, we didn’t care if we had dirt behind our ears, but my mom sure did! More people need to learn that social class doesn’t necessarily dictate whether a person lives like a slob, or is thoughtless and cruel, or considerate and kind. to most everyone. And clean.

    1. Jan–I always seem to find so much in common with you. I’m from a family of seven children, so with my parents, we all lived in a tiny three bedroom home in the prairies of Illinois. My mother was meticulous and our house was always clean as a whistle. She made us do our part as well. She was also wise with money, and we had the most simplest of meals but they healthy and filling. My dad worked two jobs with only free time to sleep. Sometimes we just do what we have to do. I’ll always be grateful that my mom made sure to present us to the world as clean, well taken care of children so that we would never be ostracized or bullied. With her as my lifelong example, and with gratitude, I carry on her drive and focus to do and be the best I can. And I feel for Brenda, and know this, Brenda if you are reading. Your past certainly shaped you, but you also learned from it. I think it has made you stronger. And with that strength, I hope you remember you are still young and can climb any mountain if you are determined.

      Jane !

  10. I look forward to reading your blog and it often explains why I am who I am. We have gone down similar roads in our life , which is amazing because I always felt alone and thought no one had the same thoughts or ideas. I consider one of the nicest compliments I ever received was when a person who had never been in my house told me it was “cozy”. At the time , it wasn’t what I thought — mismatched furniture, dishes, glasses, you know what I mean , But my children were clean and feed and that was what was important to me. Thanks again for sharing your life and helping me to realize I’m not alone .

  11. I think a lot of our lives as we grow older is shaped by what we do not want to be instead of what we truly want to be. I think it is good when you can look at life as an ever changing journey until we take our last breath. There is always opportunities to grow and do more things.
    Great read.
    Hugs,
    Kris

  12. What a wonderfully written insightful intimate post. Your words had a beautiful flow today. It led me to reflect on paths taken/not taken and experiences that led to my current lifestyle. The simple life I lead today provides quietness and peaceful surroundings; I dislike conflict and drama and I know this is because there was quite a bit of it in my earlier life. Like you, my garden is my sanctuary; nature rarely disappoints…..

    Take care and enjoy your day.

  13. Brenda, I so admire your resilience and courage. The last sentence in this post sums it all up perfectly.

  14. it’s amazing how much or even when our early lives mold us as adults. I think it’s why I’m a minimalist. and have been all my life. way before it was even called that!
    but I always add the word ‘cozy’ to it too because I learned very early from my dear little mother how to make any place we lived pretty and inviting… with very little money. she worked with what she had. which wasn’t much. we moved every year because of my father’s job. instead of resenting her life and being envious she made it beautiful! at 16 I discovered Walden Pond by HD Thoreau and he sealed the nature loving minimalist in me! I suddenly didn’t feel like such an oddity. the world seems to love the clutter people accumulate. I never did. I can’t breathe in it! lol.
    I once babysat for a well to do doctor in a town where we lived. his house was similar to the minister you mention. a DOCTOR! I was incredulous! you just never know.

  15. Brenda, my earliest memory of hoarding was a neighbor who had an entire room of empty milk cartons and newspapers. I didn’t know what hoarding was at my young age, but I knew that I certainly didn’t want to live like that when I got older. I had a flea market booth before my husband passed away. I was always going to thrift stores, auctions, etc., accumulating items for my booth. One day, I asked my husband if I was a hoarder because I had so much stuff in my house which eventually went to the booth. He told me that I wasn’t because hoarders never get rid of anything, and I never kept anything. It was always going to the booth. When I watch the hoarding shows on TV, it makes me want to get up during a commercial and clean out the closets! (smiles)

  16. Nice.info, Brenda. Loved your thought that you didn’t know what you wanted to be, but you knew what you didn’t want to be. Hope you are feeling good today. Relax and have a good weekend with Charlie and Ivy.

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