You don’t have to be a parent for long to realize that, for kids, the main rule of possession is “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.” From their earliest days, they have a way of taking over and no matter how hard you try to preserve your personal space, at some point you’re left wondering where all of that cool stuff you once had has gone. But in realizing that nothing will really ever be “mine” again, at least not while my kids are in the house, I’ve also gained a little perspective.
Growing up, my dad had only one rule. Don’t take anything from the top of his dresser. It was that simple.
In a house teeming with five children, personal space was at a premium. We didn’t have a garage that could be converted to a man cave. There certainly weren’t any extra bedrooms. And the backyard wasn’t a retreat for a tired dad at the end of a long day unless you found it relaxing to trip over bikes, step over abandoned sports equipment or creep around ninja-style to avoid the really large holes that my older brother and I really liked to dig.
His bedroom had laundry piles everywhere, because my parents’ room was Laundry Ground Zero. He had at least one child in his bed at all times because, of course, sick kids got to sleep with mom and dad and someone was always sick. The kitchen was my mother’s domain, a) because his culinary skills start and stop with pasta, and b) for years, she ran a bakery and catering business from home. This, of course, meant that the dining room was also off-limits thanks to stacks of cakes and pies waiting to be picked up. The “den” was where teenagers went to mull over their angst with friends, and naturally, he didn’t go in there.
So really, his dresser was all he had.
His dresser is a tall, heavy, dark wooden piece that has stood in the corner of my parents’ room for as long as I can remember. Sitting on its weathered top is his collection. His pens (he’s very particular about writing utensils), his nail clippers (another neurotic obsession), his hairbrush, and his guitar picks. These were his sacred totems and to take one was strictly forbidden. If you did, and most definitely if you forgot to put it back, all hell would break loose.
As a kid, I thought this was completely irrational behavior. I mean, really. It’s just a pen. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized it wasn’t about the pen — and it never had been. What he was raging against was the fact that he no longer had anything that was truly just his.
The other day, I had about 15 minutes to get ready to be at yet another school function. I like to save up showers for these occasions – that way people will be fooled into thinking I actually manage to take one every day. Halfway through the shower, I realized that despite the fact that I have purchased at least 5,000 razors over the last few years, there was not one to be found in my bathroom – anywhere. But, fine. I could move past that. I would just wear long pants.
Next step: condition my hair. No conditioner. I had LITERALLY purchased a new bottle of conditioner the day before and personally placed it in my shower. Again, fine. My hair would be frizzy. I would survive. And not to worry, I had one last trick up my sleeve.
According to my 15-year old daughter, eyebrows are apparently very important. Something about framing the eyes? At that moment mine were more like curtains than frames, so in a last-ditch effort to salvage my “not pajamas” look, I figured I could do a little eyebrow shaping and draw people’s eyes away from my frizzy hair. But, of course, no tweezers. Not even my back up pair.
Off I went to the school, furry, frizzy-haired, and with caterpillar eyebrows. Naturally, later that night, I found approximately nine razors in my kids’ bathroom. And my conditioner. And my tweezers. And some of my make-up. And my flat iron.
But these are just the things I have found. I still have a running list of missing things that I’ve more or less given up as a complete loss. I imagine one day knocking a hole in the wall and finding piles of missing things hidden in the gaps like a scene from “The Borrowers.” I envision an entire functioning society of people living in the walls and one of them is wearing the sandals that I paid a fortune for but haven’t found since last summer, others will be wearing my favorite socks, and that one shirt I really loved but haven’t seen since 2015? That will probably be their flag.
The irony is that within the strict socio-political structure that my kids run among themselves, if you DREAM of touching something that’s not yours, someone WILL come after you..and the consequences will be dire. A sweater goes missing or is spotted on a body it does not belong to it’s game on. It starts with a Braveheart battle cry, then all the demons of hell are unleashed until I resolve the issue by reminding them that I, in fact, own everything in this house, including their souls.
Of course, that’s not to say that things can’t be borrowed. And sometimes, one of my kids will even ask the other if they can use something (which I believe is the technical definition of borrowing). But, while it does happen on occasion, the negotiations, contractual obligations, and disclaimers in the event of default on any of the aforementioned conditions usually take longer than the average Supreme Court case – and usually with higher punitive consequences. I assume that at some point, it just seems easier to ask for forgiveness than permission and we’re back to street brawling over a sweater that I bought in the first place.
And I get that between sisters. But what about me? I generously let them borrow things all of the time. I even offer things. I only ask that they be returned within a reasonable time and in reasonable condition…which rarely happens. What typically happens instead is that on the rare occasion that they clean their rooms, I find many of the things I have (knowingly) let them borrow on the hall floor. This is due to one simple reason. My kids have divided the entire house into spaces labeled “their room” and “not their room.” As borrowed items don’t belong in their room, they are relegated to “not their room,” i.e., the hall floor. So really, I’m like Cinderella. I just walk around gathering ruined castoffs in a house that was mine to begin with but that I am now responsible for cleaning.
And it’s not just the things that go missing or are borrowed. It’s really more just the assumption that what’s mine is theirs and what’s theirs is theirs. I walked into my room the other day and it looked like a crack den. There were dirty dishes on the bedside table, discarded socks on the floor, blankets thrown in a pile, pillows scattered everywhere and not a TV remote for miles. Clearly, someone had decided that the two common spaces in our house, also equipped with TVs, were insufficient – and so my room became Disney Channel headquarters.
The worst part is that I only got this TV recently after vowing for 20 years to never to have a TV in the bedroom. I gave in, because like my dad so long ago, I needed something to do and somewhere to go on the nights that teens are sitting in the den mulling over their angst and the rest of the house is covered in noise and books and toys. It sits on my dresser and it is my sacred totem. It is the one thing, in the one space, that is all mine. And like magic, all I have to do is click a little remote and it will let me watch anything I want. Anytime I want. In silence. Sometimes I don’t even turn it on. I just look at it and smile.
I finally understand why my dad went crazy whenever we touched his stuff. He didn’t start off as an irrational being. We drove him to it. He had no choice but to fiercely guard his one remaining sanctum, even if it was only the battered top of an old dresser.
I know that the time will come when The Borrowers will leave my house. I’ll have no one to blame but myself for a missing phone charger, no one to lecture when I’m out of conditioner, and I will have killer eyebrows because my good tweezers will always be right where I left them. I might even be sad that everyone is gone. Or I might just make a giant pile of all of my remaining possessions and roll around in it.
Either way, for now, nothing is sacred. And that’s ok. One day they’ll need to move me into a nursing home and not only can they have all my things, they’ll actually have to take them. Sometimes, while searching for a missing necklace or scarf or my one and only decent make-up brush, I daydream about how, one day, one of my girls will say to the other, “Here, you can have mom’s good tweezers.” The other will say, “No thanks, I don’t need them.” And the third will only sigh, and while thinking of her own daughters, resignedly say, “I’ll take them. I haven’t seen mine in years.”