Recently, I made a casual remark to my current boss, Joanne, about my being organized and detail oriented. Her immediate reply,
“I don’t think of you as organized and detail oriented.”
Now before the swell of that big, collective “Ouch,” she didn’t mean it like that. Well, actually she did. And what’s more, she’s right. That’s one benefit of working with an effective communicator. Because without her pithy observation, I might not have seen the truth peeking out from under the comment.
Throughout my life, I’ve slapped on the name tag “Good Girl.” Rule follower. Drawer organizer. You get my drift. I could have a religious experience at The Container Store — all that possibility makes me weak in the knees. But as soon as Joanne muttered her simple, declarative sentence, everything changed.
I grew up in a household where order and convention were key. My parents were incredibly successful at branding us for public consumption. Everything — the house, the yard, the kids, themselves — were coordinated, tasteful and ironed. Especially ironed (see below.)
Even our playclothes matched. Around child number three (brother Mark), Mom did relax her grip and allow jeans. For the boys. This is not to imply I popped from some plastic personality prison. In truth, both of my parents were fun and incredibly creative. Just very focused on the visual.
Mark and Jan were both amateur painters who always colored within the lines (i.e., more still life than Jackson Pollock.) Their two biggest passions were landscaping and interior design and they excelled at both. They had many palettes. Every house we lived in (there were four) eventually resembled the tear sheets from an issue of House & Garden (that Condé Nast bible was always artfully displayed on our tasteful living room coffee table.)
In our house, at any given time at least one room was in the process a makeover. I can mark my childhood years by the changing bedroom decor. The primary colors and cinderblock bookcases of kindergarten (much more successful than it sounds!) The middle-school girl’s fairytale four-poster, all violet and viole (even then, a bit much for my tastes.) High school brought sophisticated green toile wallpaper and antiqued wood — very English country garden. We Kenna Kids learned all about restaging, long before the advent of HGTV. (M&J’s favorite channel, by the by. Scripps missed the opportunity of a lifetime not having them host their own show.)
And the decorating didn’t stop at the front door. We had more decks and patios, pools and pathways, arbors and stone walks than the Gardens at Versailles. But never too many or much. My parents had taste. In fact, I believe my mother deserved the Pulitzer Prize for Rock Garden Design (what do you mean they don’t have one?) Or maybe for that bi-level herringbone brick patio she laid by hand over several summer weeks. I’m sure it continues to provide respite for the current residents of that colonial garrison on Birchwood Drive.
And while it appeared to everyone (including me!) that we were loaded, this was all done on a dime. (Hittin’ the HGTV sweet spot again – PING!) Is there anyone out there who also played the cherished childhood game “To the Dump, to the Dump, to the Dump with Dad?” Nothing was more exciting that piling into the car for a trip to the mountain of misfit joys. My Dad was a genius with other people’s cast-offs. A chair, a broken lamp, an injured table. He’d strip, sand, apply his magical brushes — et voila! True beauty and purpose revealed. A favorite memory is his transformation of my grandparent’s broken-down RCA Victor combo TV/Radio cabinet. He tricked that baby out as a liquor cabinet so fine that, when first revealed, it prompted me to order a whiskey sour straight up. I was seven. They declined to serve.
And Jan — no slouch — was a demon on the Singer. She tailored slipcovers and draperies, complete bed ensembles and table linens, then kept on going. Throughout our early childhood, my mom designed and created coordinated Easter outfits for herself, my sister, Gina and me — right down to the hats. That’s right, we greeted the Easter Bunny dyed to a family palette. Go ahead, call Tim Gunn. We made it work.
But perhaps their biggest joy, the bond that kept them closest, was worshiping at the Cathedral of Clean. My parents were zealots with their own front pew. And the true saints in our little Catholic household? That holy trinity: bleach, ammonia and an old toothbrush.
Anything that could be laundered, was. There was rinsing, and hosing, and scrubbing and the ever present bar of Fels-Naptha brown soap. Shoes stood at attention in every closet, hangers saluted like Marines. To this day, any time I use a bath towel, I have to snap it sharply before folding it and placing it back on the rack. (Any hotel maid worth her salt knows if you plump the pile, the towel dries better…) Need I mention this terry cloth was color coordinated? Didn’t think so.
So of course, I grew up assuming those were my natural inclinations. Guess what, THEY’RE NOT!!!
I admit: I can meditate while folding clothes warm from the dryer. I delight to freshly laundered sheets. And not to make you blush, but washing dishes in hot, soapy water can be positively orgasmic. Yes, I can organize a closet within an inch of its life and rearrange a room in a heartbeat. But I’m finally embracing the truth. My truth. My natural tendency is to plop. To place. To let it all pile up. Read any TO DO list I’ve authored in the past 30 years. GET ORGANIZED stands near the top. Oh, there’s a message there, girlie…
Joanne’s comment tapped me on the shoulder, so I turned and looked back. Despite my childhood of artistic alignment, I live in a land of creative mess. I have architected a virtual archipelago from the landfill of my uncloseted sweaters, buildings of books and incomplete projects. Be they physical, mental, emotional — these dumpsites have grown to demand their own zip code. Every so often I haul out the garden implements and prune the jungle foliage. Occasionally I manage to release a few of the smaller islands back into the sea. But always they remain, firm as bedrock.
Hauling this around for years has been exhausting. So my thanks to Joanne (with the requisite nod to Oprah) for my “Aha!” moment. Seems I’m not detail oriented. But I’ll eagerly dive into piles of detail and roll around in the lint. I am organized, just not in the linear sense. I like to chunk my stuff. In different ways and in multiple locations. I’m not my parents, but I am their daughter. I appreciate the sleek, but I dive into the eclectic.
And that, I’ve decided, is not only okay, but FANTASTIC! Because you know those islands I’ve been dragging around behind me all these years. Those little mocking mountains of mayhem? Guess what!!! I suddenly realized, they’re mine to use as I wish. That’s right. So I’ve decided I’ll drop anchor and sit back and relax on this— my personally crafted beachfront. It’s all bought and paid for. I’m finally a property owner!!!
So with thanks to Joanne I think it’s time to say —
“Yoo-hoo, cabana boy!! Fetch me a chaise lounge and umbrella, please. ‘Cause this water’s looking mighty fine!”