How Martha Stewart shaped my life

Confessions of a neat freak

I grew up in a very, very clean house.

The only way to truly describe it would be country-home-antique-showroom-meets-Nazi-clean. Everything had a place. My mother fluffed couch pillows — and not just before someone came over, but every time we stood up to leave the living room. Strategic piles of Martha Stewart Living and Vogue were angled just so in order to match the slightly off-kilter design of the antique chest that our television sat on. And even the remote control had a proper resting place that fit with the feng-shui of the rest of the antique exhibit. There was no room for error. There was no room to be a kid. (I mean, there was, but it was called “The Playroom,” or “Outside.”)

I remember leaving an empty juice glass on the coffee table one night before going to sleep. My father (who got up every morning at 6 a.m. to go to work) came into my room in the morning, slammed the cup down on my bedside table and said, “Clean this and put it away.” This was par for the course in the antique exhibit.

My parents are collectors, but unlike hoarders they have a very strict order to their belongings. “Martha and Marty Stewart” are big fans of order.

Some of my earliest childhood memories involved being dragged to antique show after antique show, shop after shop, barn after barn so my parents could carefully examine old wooden carvings and armoires that were constructed years before my grandparents were born. As a kid, antiquing is boring. You are told to pretend your arms are glued to your thighs and to not touch anything. Even things that could be considered toys at an antique shop were not to be played with. I remember my brother fawning over an airplane made of Coca Cola cans. My parents bought it for him and hung it so high in the playroom that none of us could reach it. It wasn’t really for my brother, but for their “collection.” Even when my mother bought my young sister and I a few Spice Girls Barbie dolls for Christmas, she convinced us to keep them in the box because they would be “collectors items and worth something some day.”

The obsessive cleanliness, however, was a battle when I was a kid. My father used to freak out and bend over when he saw a “quat” (his made-up word for crumb) on the floor, and lick his finger, pick it up and rub the spot clean. Every night us kids would clear the table and do the dishes, and then my father would re-clean whatever he thought we did not do correctly. This went the same for the bathroom, the vacuuming or the yard work. We would clean it then he would go back, yell, mutter to himself and re-clean it. His muttering and spazzing became a running joke between all of us, including my mother’s sisters, who called him “Ricky Rouge” because he’d flip out so easily and turn beat red.

“If you want something done right you have to do it yourself,” he’d say as we watched his face burn while he scrubbed the oven so hard it looked like his arm would break off. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was frightening. Often it caused fighting.

So, I understand how my boyfriend feels now when I’m doing the same thing my father once did to me. Scrubbing, relentlessly, muttering about cleanliness. Like most people in their mid-20s, I had the realization that I have become my parents.

My apartment is a graveyard of my parent’s antique exhibit. It’s a duplication of the house I grew up in. It’s got the same feng-shui and I have the same anal precision about the way things should be. It’s illogical and insane, but it makes sense in my brain. Sometimes my boyfriend will purposely try to mess with my head by slightly moving a magazine or end table, and then he’ll watch me move it back into place. Then, he’ll do this again and again until I completely blow.

I’m the “clean cup Nazi” now. I’m the one rearranging items of clothing in the closet so they’re colour co-ordinated. I’m the one re-fluffing pillows when a guest gets up to use the washroom. I’m the one who is glad those Spice Girls dolls are, in fact, untouched in the original packaging. It would feel insane to have those dolls outside of the boxes.

We all become our parents. It’s just the way it goes. I’m not so bad, but only because my parents — although totally, totally crazy — are pretty amazing people.


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