I have always stayed at my mom's for Thanksgiving. Sadly, I think this past weekend was my last night there.
Something clicked in me on this trip back home. As soon as I walked in the door, I wanted to turn around and walk back out.
On previous visits, I always just dealt with piled dishes and bugs scuttling. I just washed the sheets that had not been washed since the last holiday, and I just cooked around the smudged counters.
In fact, I hate to admit it, but it really didn’t bother me. I just knew to bring clothes I didn’t care about and to expect to do at least one load of laundry on a three-day trip.
This time though, I couldn’t just glaze over their mess. When I walked in the den where I would be sleeping, the smell of cat urine and poop from their four cats was so thick it was overwhelming. I opened the spiderweb-covered window and turned on the fan. I wanted to get the smell out, but the movement ended up blasting the inch-high layer of dust on all the surfaces into the air.
That night I slept with the fan on and the window open, but I still could not sleep. Throughout the night, I would wake up from the stench of cat excrement. Yes, they did empty the litter box before I went to bed. But that didn’t make up for the turds encrusted into the floor or the pee in the carpets.
For the next three days I slept with the window open (yes it does get cold in Arizona), the fan on and the blankets over my face. I could still smell it. I changed the litter box each night, but it only helped for a few hours until the smells started to creep back in while I slept.
I wanted so badly to leave but I had obligations to other family members, and really, I didn’t want to be rude to my mom.
On past visits, I’ve had glimpses of what was really going on, like the time I got out of the shower and used what I thought was a clean towel from the closet but ended up covered in wet animal hair. Then the dirt and grime from the bathroom floor stuck to my feet so when I put my clothes on, it balled up inside my pant legs. Or the time the entire kitchen was swarming with thousands of fruit flies, and everyone just cooked and ate around them. More incidents came and went through my consciousness, but none of it really got to me or made me angry. For some ingrained childhood reason, I have been able to ignore the disorder.
Growing up, I remember trails through the trash and rubble leading into the kitchen and living room. There were sections of the house you could not reach, and I had to step over at least a foot or two of stuff to get to my cereal boxes every morning. I remember rooms filled so deep in junk I couldn’t even see the floor. There were never cleaning days, never a mad dash to make sure guests were comfortable. In fact, there never really were guests.
Once, in high school, my best friend’s parents came over to drop me off. When they walked in, I remember them both with strained smiles just standing, because there was nowhere to sit, looking at the pile of garbage as tall as I was in the living room.
As a kid, it never really dawned on me that most people didn’t live like that or that any of it was disgusting or unsanitary. It just was. Bowls and cups rotting in my room for months was normal and bare insulation and dry wall was apart of the décor. Food was always decomposing in the back of the refrigerator and I thought the tub came with a hairy ring around it.
I am not a dirty person now; I am messy, but I clean when things start to pile. I try my best to just throw belongings away, even if I think someday I may just need those Blackberry chargers. But after this visit, I assure you, my boyfriend will never have to remind me to sweep the floors or wash the dishes again.
My mom had so much resistance to cleaning that it took her more effort to think of ways not to clean than to actually just pick up. When I told her the litter box needed to be cleaned out, instead of just taking action, she started spouting ways I could avoid cleaning it.
What horrifies me most is that I see those same patterns in me. I have tried to do things half way or tried to think of creative ways to not fold the laundry. I have made 100 excuses for why I can’t mop the floors or why I can’t just take trash out of my car.
This past weekend wasn’t anything new. It was my mom being my mom, unaware and clueless of how the environment she created affects those around her. Should I be mad at her for doing something that I have always known about? Should I be upset that one day when she is old, I will be the one cleaning out her lifetime of mess?
Honestly, making a choice to not take ownership for the space she has created communicates to me that she doesn’t care how others feel around her. I think it’s a defense, a way to keep people out. Yes, it’s upsetting and there is nothing I can do. Nothing I can say to her to bring some awareness around her lifestyle.
All I can do is continue to bring awareness to how growing up in that environment has influenced me. And hopefully in the future, my motivation to be clean won’t be because I don’t want to live like my mom but because I value and want to live in a clean home.