Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Okay, I'm going to dive right in to what is arguably some of the nastiest stuff about growing up in a hoarder's house: the plumbing problems when I was growing up. Having bummed around with other children of hoarders recently I was shocked to find that plumbing problems were distressingly common. Because when something breaks in a hoarder's house, it does not get fixed. Either there is no money (an excuse, by the way, not necessarily a reality), or the hoarder can do it himself so won't let anyone else (but then never gets around to it, natch), or it's about some sort of mean-spirited control. All of the above, I think, in my father's case. At any rate it is rooted in the perverse perfectionism of the hoarder, or the person with OCPD; nothing can ever be done quite to the hoarder's standards, therefore nothing ever gets done.

First, let's make this clear, to myself, at least: it was not my fault. I was a child. The situation here was not, is not, and never will be a reflection on me or my character or worth as a person. It was humiliating, and embarrassing, and even sometimes physically dangerous, as well as something that was just not talked about. That kind of thing is so hard to bear, as a child, and as the adult who was that child (still is, in a lot of ways, unsurprisingly). But the bottom line is: it was not me. The responsibility lies entirely with my father. There was nothing, absolutely nothing I could have done to affect the situation. And trust me, I tried, even though I was a child.

Ugh. So. I will write as much of it as I can remember, here. As a purge, for my own health. Here goes:

When I was very young, young enough that the memory is a little hazy, the toilet didn't quite flush. At least I remembered that flushing the toilet was something the grown-ups did. I don't know quite what was wrong with the thing, but I'm pretty sure the grown-ups would periodically dump a pail of water in it to flush it. Which now of course makes me think it was something ridiculously simple—like a broken chain or the handle simply having come unattached. I wouldn't be surprised, you know.

There was supposed to be a toilet downstairs, too, in the crazy tiny little half-bath in the cellar; but that didn't get installed/working until I was out of college.

The faucets were spotty at best; I don't remember getting them all in working order till, honestly, I was in my thirties. The kitchen faucet, pretty much, did always work; but the bathtub, the upstairs bathroom sink, and the downstairs bathroom sink didn't, or only did so sporadically. If something leaked, my father just shut off the water to it. And then didn't fix it, and then, and this is key, wouldn't allow anyone else to fix it. On a couple of occasions when we got up the nerve to go against what he wanted, he would actually undo someone else's work.

There was no hot water here most of the time. (This automatically means that half the faucets didn't work, doesn't it?) There might have been when I was very young, but for pretty much all my school years there wasn't. Which meant:

That to get hot water for a bath it had to be heated on the stove and then brought upstairs (through several rooms) to the bathtub. When I was young I suppose my mother did it; but when I got to be a teenager I did it. Which means I was carrying pans of near to boiling water up a flight of stairs, through the piano room, through the living room, and through a hallway to the bathtub. And somehow (fear for my life, probably) I never spilled a drop. Even though the biggest (and so most useful one, as far as volume went) pan we had was some dump-picked thing with a broken handle, meaning on one side all I had to hold onto (with potholders) was the screw sticking out.

Someone somewhere along the line actually gave my father a water heater, a nice stainless steel number, which the original owner had had to get rid of since it was intended for a restaurant but didn't get the water quite hot enough to meet the board of health's standards for restaurant dish-washing. It was okay for a residential house, though, and so we got it. And then, of course, it sat there for years. There was always some reason for not installing it—the elements (it's an electric one) weren't quite the right size (and don't ask me how that worked, since as far as I know it was given him in working condition), or the entire house had to be re-plumbed before the thing could be installed. I remember great and incredibly frustrating arguments with my father where he absolutely insisted the pipes had to be done his way. They were copper, with brass fittings. But that was expensive and we didn't have the money. Or they had to be fitted together with the old-fashioned flare fittings, and they tended to leak, so he was the only one who could do it. Of course by that time the rest of the world had moved on to sweat-soldering copper pipes together, but my dad adamantly would not do that—what if he had to get into the pipe? Of course it's supposed to be a closed system and who the fuck needs to get into the pipes once it's all sealed off anyway?

The well tended to go dry in the summer, too. This is an old house—a 250-year old New England colonial, to be exact, and while it is itself a perfectly fine house, and quite excellently restored by, to give him credit, my father with the help from my grandfather, his father-in-law—the well is probably nearly as old as the house. If you look down it you can see it is not very deep, and is made of layers of stones set on top of each other, like the foundation of the house, and like the walls in the neighborhood. So it's quaint, I suppose. But often it was quite non-functional. We would go to the state forest up the street, where they had an artesian well, and fill milk bottles every few days in the summer.

And then there was the septic system. I am, frankly, embarrassed to talk about it because it was just so horrible. Like, puddle of horrible squishy stuff that no one wanted to acknowledge or deal with. Just mow around it. The grass around it was always really lush, of course, what with feeding on the raw sewage. And of course it smelled lovely, too. Only a very few select friends ever came over. Only one, for me.

I suppose this is a bit rambly, but it is what it is. Mainly it's about the absolute adamantine impossibility of my father, the amount of control he had over us, and the utter illogic of it all. There was no understanding it. He has always seemed to me to be completely opaque, and that one friend of mine, who was quite familiar with him, would get the same look of confusion and speechlessness I would when someone who didn't know him would ask us to describe him. Or it made no sense, at least, until I found out about OCPD, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. I spent so much time as a kid and young adult trying to talk to him. I learned all his patterns, and all the ways of getting him to open up just a little, and somehow I had the patience of a saint; but in the end it did little good. Really, I could probably qualify as a diplomat with all that practice. I mean, if I actually had any patience left for it, which I don't.

As for the state of the house now: I still live here, with Mom, who, though she will deny it, is 83 and could use a hand; and it's now all in good working order. Well, the faucet in the kitchen is a bit drippy but that just needs a washer or something, and it's a refreshingly ordinary problem, all told. Otherwise, all the faucets are hooked up, both toilets work, there is a lovely (courtesy of Tara one Christmas) new faucet with one of those old-fashioned looking hand-held shower head attachments in the tub, we have city water so the well is no longer an issue, and several years back we actually qualified for a grant to get a whole new septic system installed. When they put it in the guy with the bucket loader just matter-of-factly filled in the old horrible wet spot, then drove over it. In about a minute in a half, with heavy equipment. Bless him.

And bless us, myself and my sister and my mother, for enduring all of this. It was not our fault.


clutter anon said...

Not only was it not your fault, as soon as you had the power, you fixed it. That's totally above and beyond.

We are the people a hoarder friend lets in the house to do things; my husband has fixed toilets, handrails, sinks, and drains. It's ordinary, doing favors back and forth, we're friends. But I'm not sure it would get done if we didn't do it.

Anonymous said...

God. I never thought I would see my own childhood so clearly in another person's experiances. My father was great at starting home projects. He would tear things down in a second, start to rebuild them, get bored and walk away. Forever. I slept in a bedroom with holes in the walls, showered in a bathtub with no tile, just unexposed cement board. Anytime family members wanted to fix a project he would scream about how he was going to do it. Only he never, ever did.