The day after my nineteenth birthday, my mother woke me up in tears. She had to fly to Johannesburg to visit her mother, who was very sick. I said goodbye to her that day – and I never saw her again. She became ill with meningitis while in Johannesburg, and did not make it home. That was September. By December, our nuclear family had dispersed, my father going to live with his sister in Kimberley, and my seventeen-year old brother conscripted into the army. There I was, a sheltered girl who could not even read a bus timetable, living on my own in a Harfield Village flat and going to art school.
Most of the furniture and household goods which had accumulated in my parent’s twenty-year marriage accompanied me to the flat. There was my mother’s collection of Lladro porcelain figurines, still holding court in a large glass display cabinet; her sewing machine and all the patterns and materials she had collected; furniture inherited from my grandparents; huge paintings of South African landscapes; a book collection; a Royal Doulton coffee set and tea set; great amounts of kitchen accessories that I would never use – and the list goes on. I had never really thought about whether or not I liked these things. I had grown up with them; they were literally part of the furniture. Now I did not know whether they belonged to me or not. It did not feel right to get rid of them… yet I did not really want them either.
To further complicate this state of affairs, my housekeeping skills were practically non-existent. I had been raised in a house with a live-in maid and had never been taught to clean. By nature I was not a disordered person. I loved to tidy and organise my room as a child. For matric, I had created my own study timetable, and stuck to it religiously. But the weight of the circumstances I found myself in and my lack of life skills, overwhelmed me to the point that I was in a state of semi-helpless numbness. I hardly bothered to do my dishes, instead living on bread and strawberry jam. I had a kitten, which thank goodness I had the sense to give to a friend, as I certainly was not up to taking care of it properly. The top of my fridge was gummy, with an unused pile of Mystery Stuff on top, which could not fit anywhere because the kitchen cupboards were all full of items I never used.
One evening I paid a visit to my neighbours, a cheerful newlywed Afrikaans couple. We were standing in their kitchen and I saw the top of their fridge. It was snow white and gleaming. The only thing that interrupted its pristine expanse was a beautiful bowl of fresh fruit. Leaning against the fridge, was a clean squeegee mop and a spotless broom. How wonderful , I thought to myself. I wonder how they do that… If only I could do that… I admired this tableau with reverence. Not only did I have no concept of how to do what they had done, but I also had no hope that I ever could. Sadly, my question was purely rhetorical.
Usually we don’t remember the mental state we were in, because once our mind is clear, we cannot recreate the fog that surrounded us. We can only look back on specific incidents that act like markers, which tell us in retrospect how far we’ve come. This is the incident, the marker that sticks in my mind.
I am sharing this, because this kind of helpless numbness can happen to any of us, when the weight of particular circumstances is overwhelming. At the time, I did not realize that I needed help. Even if I had realized it, I would not have known whom to ask, or even how to ask.
In my case, I slowly groped my way out. An old family contact helped me get some things auctioned off. The real catalyst came at the end of a year, when my lease expired. I moved into a shared living situation with a friend and learned how to keep house. Slowly, I sold things that I would never use, and my own personal taste and sense of order asserted itself.
Sometimes all it takes is a change of location, a change of environment, to get us unstuck. Or we might need an advocate, a guardian angel, or a strong practical presence to put out a hand that we can grasp and then keep going. It is not a coincidence that I do the work I do now. I think how much easier things would have been, if I’d had someone like a professional organiser to help me.
Sometimes, when we don’t want to ask for help, those can be the times we most need it. And it is a reminder that if we need help, there is someone out there who wants to help us.