The card taunted her. Kaye froze for the first time since stepping up on that stage. Values. The memory of those times assaulted her and choked her with emotion. “I—sorry.” The conference assistant rose as if to try to find a way to help. Kaye shook her head.
“Are you okay?” the woman hissed.
“I will be,” she said at last. Several long, slow, deep breaths of air preceded several false starts. “Odd,” Kaye mused as she regained some control. “I’m not usually so emotional—not like this anyway,” she amended as a few amused chuckles hinted that the rest of the room might not agree. “It’s pride, I suppose, but I usually keep falling apart over things limited to stuff at home. I’ll tell you I did, but I usually won’t let you see it.”
Kaye waved the card. “This card hurts. It says ‘values.’” She stared down at her Bible, trying to remember the passage she’d planned to read. “Stuff—” Rolling her eyes at herself, Kaye groaned. “See, even talking about it requires words like ‘stuff.’ I mean, c’mon!”
Uncertain laughter sputtered in various places across the room and then died an awkward death. Kaye, for reasons she’d never be able to articulate, found that inordinately hilarious and gripped the podium as she erupted in helpless laughter. “So—sorry. I—” Another round burst forth before she finally managed to contain herself.
“Okay, let’s try this again. This part here—this is why I was really asked to speak.” The group collectively leaned forward as she added, “The coordinators just don’t know it.” Bodies sank back against their chairs again. “You see, I want to talk a little about extremes.”
One woman in the dead center of the room winced. Even from as far away as she was, the bug-eyed grimace told Kaye that she’d struck home. A second later the woman said, “Ouch.”
“Right? Exactly. So let’s talk about this. See, the coordinators here thought it might be encouraging for women to hear how one hopeless shopper learned to control the clutter in her life rather than the other way around. But I think I’m supposed to share what this experience taught me.”
The room quieted in a new and unique way. The air sizzled with unexpected anticipation. Kaye swallowed, choked down her pride, and began what would probably be the most difficult confession of her life—much worse than the time she admitted to her junior high best friend that she had agreed to be said friend’s boyfriend’s new girlfriend.
“Have you ever watched a clock—you know, the old kind with a pendulum? Maybe at Grandma’s house with the big clock in the hall? My grandma had one. I used to call it the ‘hickory dickory clock.’ In fact, I used to think that nursery rhyme was written about Grammy’s clock.” She snickered. “Then again, I thought the Grammys were named after Grammy. I guess you could say—” she choked back a deprecatory laugh at herself, “—I was, or am, a bit self-centered.”
This time the room exploded in laughter. “You laugh,” she shook her head as the laughter drowned her out. “You laugh, but the sad thing is it’s true. Anyway,” Kaye snickered as a few more chuckles erupted. “See, you’re laughing because you know it’s true—and you identify with me, don’t you?”
Nods encouraged her to continue. “Okay, so what about this pendulum? Why am I talking about pendulums when we’re here to talk about ‘de-junking,’ as Jacob calls it? Am I telling everyone to chuck all the pendulum-powered clocks?” She frowned. “Is that what you call it? Are they pendulum powered? Okay… anyway, you know what I mean.”
She took a breath. “Man, I keep avoiding this. It’s like if I ramble about inconsequential stuff long enough, I won’t have time to say what I need to say, so here goes. People are extreme. Or a lot of people are, anyway. They start at one side of the pendulum, and when it’s time to go down, they don’t hover at the bottom, they swing waaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyy over to the other side.”
From the expressions on the faces before her, she had their attention. “Have you ever noticed that someone who loses a hundred pounds tends to go a bit crazy? Suddenly they become the food police—for everyone? Or, or someone who starts selling designer nail polish for polish parties. Have you ever notice how obsessed they become? You can’t ask what color you should paint the outside of your house without Debbie Demonstrator saying, ‘Oh, you need Sumptuous Silver! It would be amazing!’”
Nods and understanding chuckles filled the room. “You know what I’m talking about. Like someone would buy the four point six million bottles and spend the hours it would take to paint their house with those little bottles.”
Kaye paused, shaking her head at the mental picture of her boys trying to paint their house with bottles of nail polish. “Anyway. We go to extremes, and I did. That’s why I call myself a ‘Junkie.’ I’m addicted to the eradication of excess stuff from my home—my life. And that comes with a price.”
A lump filled her throat, but Kaye washed it down with another gulp of water. “Extreme. I became extreme. And I hurt people with that. You saw what I did to my son—to my husband. You saw what God had to do to my foot to slow me down before I mowed over anyone else in the process.” She shook her head. “Okay, so maybe not, but it sounds good. It just feels wrong to say ‘God made me do it.’”
“Mmm hmmm.” The harmonic murmur of agreement from the left buoyed her.
“So, this is why I really think I’m here. I’m here to tell you that we’ve heard a lot of great things today. We’ve heard about embracing life as the gift it is and living it with all the beauty and joy we can. We’ve heard about how God is faithful even when we’ve lost a huge part of ourselves. We’ve heard how God can take people broken and abused by His own people and draw them back to Himself through the love and faithfulness of others.”
The nods from around the room told her she’d recaptured the attention of those who had begun to languish. “Don’t take what you learn today to unhealthy extremes. Don’t go home and paint flowers all over every surface of your home. You might love it, but your husband might not like the new ‘Sharpie tattoo’ on his cheek or the daisies scattered on his boxers.” Laughter erupted. “Don’t go there. Don’t show so much so-called ‘love’ for your brothers in an attempt to avoid hurting one another that you don’t confront someone in genuine sin. James says, ‘My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.’ We like to pretend that this is talking about non-Christians, but it isn’t. It says, ‘My brethren.’ It says if ‘any of you strays from the truth.’ Any of you! Me. Willow. Ella. Lane. Lisa Lanzo or any of us. We are called to do that. Don’t let the fear of one extreme push us into another.”
She swallowed hard and gripped the podium. “Don’t let the joy of a lighter house drive you to lighten your friends load or your family load. Don’t let empty spaces on your bookshelves become more important than the joy your family gets from the books that once resided there.”
Tears stung Kaye’s eyes and she took a deep, cleansing breath before she gasped out in a ragged whisper. “Don’t let yourself wound people. Just don’t…”
The joy of seeing her children home lasted exactly thirty-two point four seconds. Miles managed to hug her before Trent let out a roar of protest. “Dad said I got to hug her first!”
“Well you’re slow. Deal with it.” Miles dumped his backpack on the floor and reached for game controllers under the coffee table.
“Put away your backpack first,” Kaye said automatically.
Miles tossed a lackadaisical glance over his shoulder. “Grandma always—”
Jacob snapped. “Excuse me?”
In a rare lapse of perception, Miles missed the not-so-subtle-nuance of his father’s ire. “Yeah. Grandma always puts the stuff away—makes our beds too. Not like here where we’re slaves—”
Without a word, Jacob pointed to the hall. Miles, his attention distracted by the TV remote, didn’t see. Jacob jerked the remote from Miles’ hand and pointed again. Protesting, Miles started to stomp off to his room, but Kaye called him back. “You forgot the backpack.”
“I—what is this?”
“Home,” Jacob muttered.
“Yeah, well I like Grandma’s. She actually likes having us around. She said that picking up after us was a joy. She doesn’t expect us to slave away at school and then come home and work more.”
Kaye watched as Jacob laughed. His shoulders shook, tears ran down the sides of his face, and Sophie clapped in time to the cadence of his guffaws. “That’s rich.”
“What?” the remaining Harpers echoed in unison.
“Mom. She did everything with them she never would have done when we were home. I can still hear her extolling the virtues of chores, hear her reminding us that she is a mother, not our slave, and flipping out if we were ‘underfoot.’ That’s just—that’s rich.”
Trent, who had been listening to the exchange with more interest than Kaye would have expected, now piped up with an insightful observation. “Grandma got soft.”
“You’re not kidding,” Jacob agreed. To Miles he added, “You’re home now. In the eloquent words of my eldest son, ‘Deal with it.’ Get in there, put away your backpack, and sit on that bed until I’m ready to deal with you.” At Miles’ fainthearted final protest, Jacob pointed again and both raised and deepened his voice. “Go.”
Kaye stared at the departing back of her son before switching her attention to Jacob. He stood with arms crossed gazing down at her. “Jacob?”
Before he answered, he pointed to Trent’s backpack still hanging from the boy’s shoulder. “You hang yours up, too.”
“Can I play Mario when I’m done?” To his credit, Trent asked as he moved toward the hallway—and to his advantage.
Jacob picked up the remote, punched the power button, and raised the volume to levels Kaye cringed to imagine. He waited, still not answering her question, until Trent returned and popped the disk in the game console. Music blared into the room, piercing their eardrums. Kaye counted down in her head. Five, four, three, two— On two, Trent reached for the remote, but Jacob stopped him. “Leave it.”
“But it’s so loud.”
Jacob shook his head and picked up Sophie. “This one needs a diaper.”
Kaye and Trent exchanged glances before Kaye adjusted her crutches and did her new hobble-shuffle down the hall, after him, and into their room where Jacob already had Sophie half-changed. “Isn’t that ‘exasperating’ him a bit?”
“It’s reminding him that actions have consequences,” Jacob said with a finality in his tone that she’d rarely heard outside one or another child’s misbehavior.
“So why are you sorry exactly? I mean, I don’t want to be a nuisance about it, but it’s not like that’s something I hear often—especially when I have no clue why.”
“Because…” Jacob crept to the door and peered around the corner. “Now I see why you get so frustrated. I never got it before—not really. I thought it was all you—that you’d just let them get away with stuff—”
“But I did—we talked about that.”
“Yeah, well, I think you had help. Probably with all of us undermining you without even realizing we were doing it. Kids pick up on that stuff.” Jacob dove for Sophie as she decided to flip herself off the bed, sans diaper.
As he finished redressing Sophie, Kaye mulled over his words. The baby crawled to her lap, snuggled up against her, and promptly sneezed, splattering her with the contents of a very snotty nose. “Ugh!”
Jacob closed his eyes and muttered, “Home sweet home, eh?”
Purrlock’s apparent truce lasted less than a day. In the week since his momentary lapse of hostility, he had become more—if such a thing were possible—malevolent than ever. Kaye, irritated to find him underfoot and ever-present at all the wrong times, took to calling him “that Trojan cat.” Her insult, however, did little to deter Purrlock, and the Monday following Kaye’s arrival at home began a fresh campaign to drive her completely out of her mind.
It started with a trip to the freezer. She’d avoided it since that fateful morning; just looking in the general direction of the fridge sent the same waves of pain-induced nausea over her, but Jacob had forgotten to take out something for dinner, and Kaye knew they couldn’t afford any more take-out. Forget that, we can’t afford all we’ve had. I don’t even want to know what the budget looks like.
So, with Sophie engrossed in a new stacking toy that seemed much too similar to several she’d already relegated to the garage sale boxes, Kaye fumbled for her crutches. Such an innocent idea—toss a roast in the crockpot and let it cook all day.
Purrlock jumped from his perch atop the back of the couch the moment she reached for those crutches. Kaye eyed him warily but took a step—and another. He wove between legs, crutches, and back to legs again until she knew he’d end up tripping her. Leaning on one leg, she tried to swing the crutch outward to shoo him away, but it caught on the area rug. She tugged. It flew outward and whacked the cat in the side.
With a yowl of pain and protest, Purrlock ran. Guilt-riddled, Kaye fumbled to the fridge, opened the freezer door, and stared into it. A roast sat exactly at eye level. A big, solid, hard, frozen eye-level hunk of foot-crushable meat. Thin sliced pork chops on the shelf below called to her with their lighter weight and Styrofoam tray. No pain, all gain. Definitely pork chops. Her eyes slid toward the basement door. What will I do when I have to face the frozen behemoth?
From somewhere, Kaye was certain she heard Purrlock laugh.
Kaye stared at the mess before her, leaning over to push Sophie’s hand away every fourth second. “No, Sophie. Play with your dollies.”
The child reached for one and plopped it in the middle of the coffee table. “Ahee.”
Kaye groaned and removed it. Whatever made me think that doing this with her up—and me still on crutches!—was a good idea?
As if an answer to the unspoken question, Sophie pulled herself up to the table’s edge and dove for a pile of ribbon. “No! Sophie, no. Oh, man. C’moooon…” She piled things into stacks as she fought off Sophie’s marauding fingers. “Argh. Again I ask, why did I think I could do this?”
Ignoring the mess Sophie made of her ribbons, Kaye grabbed the crutches and wrestled herself back out of the couch. She hobbled to the kitchen and grabbed an animal cracker from the box in the pantry. “Cookie?”
With speed that belonged in a super hero tagline, Sophie crawled for the treat. Encouraged, Kaye fished a few more from the box and waved them at the munching child. “Let’s go play in Sophie’s room.” Kaye frowned as she hobbled away, glancing back to ensure the child followed, “In ‘Sophie’s room?’ Really? Why are we talking in the third person?” With a roll of the eye she added, “And why are we using the very royal ‘we’ instead of me slash I? Ugh!”
Still, bribery pays. The moment Sophie crawled into her room and snatched a cookie from Kaye’s hand, Kaye pushed the door shut behind them. “We’ll just play in here. Blocks?”
Sophie pointed to the door. Kaye shook her head. Sophie screeched. Kaye offered another cookie. Another extortionist appeased—for now.
While Sophie played with the toys on the floor—scattered everything she could touch being more like it—Kaye tried to unpack the large bag of clothes Jacob had dumped inside the door. “Your mom said they’re all clean. She washed the last of them this morning.”
“Sophie, Grandma has been shopping. I don’t recognize half of these. What on earth—” Kaye held up a dress so short even Shirley Temple would have objected. “Well, Mommy’s mommy sure did lose her sense of appropriateness!”
By the time Kaye finished, she had a stack of clothes that wouldn’t fit in the drawers. Kaye stashed them atop the changing table and tossed the empty back pack out the door. Sophie handed her a ball. Kaye tossed it across the room and a game of fetch commenced. As her mind screamed for something else to do—something to accomplish—Sophie enjoyed a game of “wear out Mom as fast as possible.”
She never remembered who fell asleep first, but she did awaken first. Lying on the floor, her arm flung across the baby’s belly, Kaye’s eyes flew open at the sound of a roar of protest coming from somewhere in the general direction of the family room. Why didn’t I put a clock in here? her inner self protested.
Sophie slept, blissfully unaware that her brothers seemed to have returned already. With the door cracked open, Kaye adjusted her crutches and swung herself down the hall with only two wobbles. I’ll never get the hang of these things. I don’t think they fit right or something.
The empty coffee table mocked her. Why does an empty table look wrong? It should look right, shouldn’t it? I don’t keep art books or magazines there. I mean, Sophie would destroy ‘em before the boys hand a chance.
“What time is it?”
Miles blinked once and deigned to raise his eyes to her general direction. “Oh, you’re home.”
“Of course, I’m home. Where else would I be?”
“Maybe somewhere we could see you? You weren’t in your room, you weren’t in here, you weren’t in the laundry room, you—”
“She was in Sophi—”
“Shh!” Miles growled, giving Trent a look that clearly said, You’re so dead.
Kaye held out her hand. “Controller.”
“You’re not talking to me like that. Give me the controller and go to your room.” As she spoke, Kaye’s nerves shot from danger level yellow to red without bothering to hover anywhere near orange. “Now.”
“No way! I didn’t do any—”
“Where’s my stuff?” Kaye glanced around the room, suddenly remembering what should have been on the coffee table. “I had—”
“A pile of junk, yeah.”
Trent jabbed Miles and hissed, “Are you trying to get yourself grounded for the next year?”
“Oh, it won’t be a year,” Kaye said. The cool, calm that washed over her made her feel as nervous as Trent looked. “But he is grounded until Sunday night.”
“No way! That’s not fair! I—”
“Monday night then. I agree. Sunday was too soon.”
She leaned forward, almost toppling herself as her crutches tried to slide out behind her. “Tuesday is a better day. I agree. Tuesday night. Would you like to try for Wednesday? Maybe two full weeks? I could go with a month. Or perhaps Trent’s year is a better option. I’ll let you decide.”
Kay felt sorry for the kid—almost. He stared at her as if she’d lost her senses. “So, what’ll it be? The controller now and Wednesday or the controller in five minutes and a month of homework and housework? Take your pick.”
Miles tossed the controller in her general direction and jerked himself from the couch. “Those drugs they put you on totally messed with you. I don’t know who you are anymore.”
“I do,” Kaye said, nudging the controller with her crutch. “I’m the mom who won’t put up with being treated like a replaceable maid.” She eyed the controller and then her son. “Pick it up and hand it to me.”
“I want to go back to Grandma’s.”
“So sad you can’t. You’re stuck with the Mom God gave you instead. Got a problem with it? Take it up with Him. Hand. Me. The. Controller.” Kaye smiled. “Nicely.”
A change came over Miles. She should have felt victorious as he picked up the controller, handed it to her, and muttered something about being sorry, but Kaye knew her son too well. Something wasn’t right. Did I draw the line too soon? He’s just not the sweet kid he was before this accident. He’s—sullen. Before, he didn’t respect me, but he did at least show some respect for the fact that I am his mom. Now he’s just rude.
The moment that thought hobbled across the worn-out corner of her mind that had room for it, Kaye knew what was coming. Before she could turn to chase after him, the boys’ bedroom door slammed and Sophie, startled from sleep, screamed. Trent stared at her, stunned.
“He’s got a death wish or something.”
“Or something.” She sighed. “Can you go get Sophie? Give her a cracker or something?”
“Sure. Did you know Grandma says that crackers are the worst things for her teeth? They just sit in those little cracks and eat away at them. Who knew?”
That’s why you give her lots of water after and brush ‘em now and then. I’m not an idiot, contrary to your brother’s opinion.
She hesitated at Miles’ door, uncertain if she should warn him she was coming in or if she should make sure he wasn’t being sneaky about something else. Who is this kid that I even have to ask this? Miles is the perfect little kid who doesn’t get in trouble. That’s Trent’s job. What’s going on here?
As a compromise, she did both—knocked and entered immediately—and found Miles seated against his headboard, his knees drawn up to his chest and his chin resting on them. “Wanna tell me what’s going on?”
“Why? So you can ground me until I’m sixty?”
“So I can figure out what happened to my son. I don’t recognize you.”
“You might if you were ever around anymore…”
Kaye opted to ignore the rude tone and the backtalk. “Well, that’s funny. I’ve felt trapped here for the past several weeks. You’re the ones who haven’t been around. I missed you guys.”
“You never came over…”
“You know I couldn’t, right? Grandma brought you here as often as she could, but I didn’t avoid you guys. The doctor almost didn’t let me get up to go to the bathroom, and when I went to appointments, they made me use a wheelchair.”
“Really?” Miles’ astonishment disappeared behind a wall of disinterest almost as fast as it appeared. “That’s dumb.”
“It wasn’t a lot of fun getting yelled at for having to go to the bathroom or get a clean shirt because I stank.”
Comprehension hit in a visible flash. “And you couldn’t take a shower. That takes longer.”
It was almost cruel to do it, but Kaye found herself saying, “Yep. I could only take a shower when Dad had time to help me.”
“Ew! Gross!” Before she had a chance to toss an eye-waggle capable of sending him into a fit of gagging, he added, “I’m sorry.”
“That must have been awful.”
Kaye coughed. No reason to torture him any more than necessary. “Yeah. Awful. I like my daily hot shower.” She nudged him with the padded portion of her crutch. “So is this kid logic for ‘I feel abandoned by my mom, so I’ll be a jerk and make her really want to stay away?’”
Miles’ giggle assured her she’d made a solid breakthrough. “Dad’s gonna kill me, isn’t he?”
“Not if I beat him to it—” As Miles’ eyes widened and he swallowed hard—twice—Kaye took pity. “Or if I tell him I’ve got it covered.”
“You never do that,” he sighed. “We always get it twice—first from you and then the punishinator.”
“The punishinator?” Kaye shook her head. “Dare I ask?”
“Trent says you warm us up and then bring in the ‘big guns—the punishinator.’”
Sounds like him. She didn’t speak—not for several seconds as she mulled Miles’ words. “You know something?”
“That’s wrong of me.”
Her son’s eyes bored into hers. “What’s wrong?”
“Bringing Dad into it. Once I deal with something, it should be over.”
“Yeah, well, you’re just a softy. We’d never learn anything if it wasn’t for Dad. That’s what Gra—”
“Grandma says, I know.” Kaye bit her lip as she considered the wisdom of sharing her faults with her kid. “But I just need to take care of things right the first time. It would be like if a criminal stole something from the store. I’d be the judge who tells him what a bad thing he did is and make him go apologize before I send him onto the real judge who gives him a just sentence. I need to do it all myself.”
“So I’m grounded until Monday, huh?”
Kaye raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms. “Tuesday.”
“A kid’s gotta try.” Miles stared at his shoes and kicked them off. “Sorry.”
“I’d say you forgot—”
“Well, that too—” He stared at the shoes now littering his floor before carrying them to the closet. When he returned he hugged her. “But I’m sorry I was rude.” The suspicion of a choked voice followed. “Why am I so angry all the time?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” Kaye admitted, “but I suspect that it’s got something to do with not knowing what’s going on. I think you just want to know that life is back to normal.”
“Is it?” He stepped back and gazed somewhere in the vicinity of her knees.
“A new normal, but yeah.”
“What’s new about it?” Miles now looked nervous. Guilt for enjoying his discomfiture tried to take root in Kaye’s heart, but her amusement drove it away again.
“From now on, as much as I can remember to, I’m dealing with problems I have with you guys. No more double jeopardy in this house.”
Kaye shrugged. “Getting in trouble twice for the same thing—sort of.”
Confessions of a De-cluttering Junkie
All things in moderation. Kaye's family is considering hanging a plaque with those words in her clutter-free bedroom. Kaye tries to play nice... But then there's Purrlock.
Kaye has had it–utterly fed up with the constant junk that clutters her life. So, armed with a stack of books that each guarantee to teach her the secret to living a clutter-free life, Kaye embarks on a journey that takes her from clutter bug to clutter free–and beyond.
Her family doesn’t know what to think of her and her. While Jacob does enjoy the streamlined beauty of his new life, he is also just as frustrated as their sons as Kaye goes from clean up to clear out–including treasured possessions.
Who knew that what started out as a survival technique would become an addiction?
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