"I had no use for nostalgia if it took up space"

This past weekend I exchanged a war romance novel in the free little library for Coming Clean, a memoir by Kimberly Rae Miller. Dodger, the Border Terrier sitting guard by the structure in the fenced front yard, wagged his tail and furrowed his sun kissed brows as I opened the little wooden door to swap the books. The title written in black chalk on the spine caught my attention. The cover has a small paper heart in gradual stages of crumpling, laid out in a grid of twelve against a white background. It leads to believe two scenarios, either the paper heart was whole and crumpled into a tiny ball by the time it reached the top of the left corner or it started out crumpled and was unfolded and made whole again- the smoothed heart bearing the words "a memoir" on the bottom right corner. I see it this way: No matter what happens, the creases and wrinkles can be carefully undone to restore the heart to its original shape.

I read the book in almost one sitting. The writing style isn't remarkable, but the story is captivating and kept me alert and wanting to know what comes next. It is a coming of age story unfolding in chronological order about growing up in a household drowning in material possessions and shame. Kimberly's father barricades himself behind towers of papers and knick-knacks. Her mother follows in the same footsteps, buying products from infomercials that serve as a boxed surface to stack more objects that are never used. The living conditions she describes are horrible and brought up images I had seen in documentaries and films featuring hoarding and homelessness. 

She tells her story with utmost honesty, and humor at times. The experiences she went through made her grow up fast, and certain memories she unveiled made me feel conflicted with stifling a laugh while simultaneously feeling incredibly sad. The problem with hoarding is there is no end to it. It is a mountain of stuff covering undealt with emotions and trauma, building more trauma in the endless cycle of collecting and cleaning, like coming up for air to rapidly descend to the bottom over and over. I often felt claustrophobic reading about the condition of her childhood homes, the despair she felt living with her parents and taking care of them in her adult life. 

Thin pink strips of sticky notes pop out from the fore-edge like a fan. There were so many passages that questioned and answered each other. Her father's eyes looking out in the distance, somewhere out of reach. She writes he "wandered off" buried in the ceiling high piles of accumulated stuff, "his body just hadn't gone anywhere" (p. 40). Observing him sitting in the hospital waiting room when her mom was in a life saving surgery, he was holding onto a newspaper but instead of reading it, "running his fingers through the pages, touching the corners, feeling around the headlines, the paper soothing him" (p. 173). After their first house burned down and her parents purchased a larger house, she "was sure there was no way [they] would be able to find enough paper to fill it up with" (p. 57). But they did, time and time again, and she came to clean it up over and over because they were too ashamed to ask anyone else for help. 

She managed to keep the hoarding a secret throughout her childhood and teenage years, even through college, but the secrecy of her family's shame haunted her adulthood and manifested itself in PTSD-like nightmares. When she was living with her parents, she bought them wedding bands for their anniversary and they lost them immediately. "Things were always getting lost," she writes, "it was never worth the trouble looking for them for fear of what else we might find" (p. 175). Looking that fear in the eye and coming clean, as the title suggests, is what it takes to move forward. 


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