"Corinne Grant's writing is readable, entertaining, often funny, and sometimes poignant." —LuxuryReading.com
Lessons in Letting Go: Confessions of a Hoarderby Corinne Grant
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An honest, uproariously funny, sometimes moving memoir of the year in which Corinne Grant decides to do something about her hoarding It took a year to drag myself out of the mess. A year in which I lost my dearest friend and then promptly lost my way. A year in which I ran away overseas, came back and then ran away again. A year in which I learnt to let go, learnt to forgive and learnt to grow up. It was a big year. It was a lot of work. And I head-butted two people. Accidentally. This is the big-hearted story of how one of Australia's leading comic talents learned to reconcile love, loss, lack of closet space, and far too much stuff. From every scrunchie she's ever owned, to every pencil case and magazine, it's time for it all to go. The problem is, getting rid of the stuff turns out to be much harder than she initially thought. This delightful memoir is about hoarding and about how the things we hold on to can end up dictating our lives. Warm, hilarious, candid, and insightful, Grant's tale is about the pain—but also the necessity and the joy—in learning to let go.
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Lessons in Letting Go
Confessions of a Hoarder
By Corinne Grant
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2010 Corinne Grant
All rights reserved.
I was in Albury–Wodonga the first time I experienced regret. I was eight years old. I was standing next to another little girl in Waltons department store, looking down through the railings of the first floor to the toy section below. The other girl was the same height as me and had dark hair and a red pinafore. She turned her head, looked right at me and asked which I liked better, bears or dolls. I was so overcome by terror that instead of answering, I ran away.
The reason I was so terrified in the first place had a lot more to do with Albury–Wodonga than the little girl in the red pinafore. I grew up in Corryong, which was (and still is) one hundred and twenty-four kilometres to the east of Albury–Wodonga. We didn't have department stores, or roundabouts or traffic lights or our very own Darrell Lea. Instead, we had a guy we claimed was the Man From Snowy River buried in our cemetery. We also had two supermarkets, two butchers, two banks and a swimming pool so iridescently blue you needed a welding mask to look at it directly. We had eleven hundred people. We also had two pubs: the Top Pub, which was at the top end of town, and the Bottom Pub, which wasn't. Apart from that, there wasn't much else. It was a beautiful, friendly, perfect town in which to grow up but it wasn't a fancy town. And I was definitely not a fancy kid.
We were Top Pub folk and every Friday night we would go there for what we called 'tea' but city folk probably called 'dinner'. Mum, Dad, my sister Wendy and I would sit in the ladies' lounge in front of the giant TV screen and us kids would watch our favourite programme, The Dukes of Hazzard. I loved Bo Duke so hard it made my eyes water.
We knew everyone else in the Top Pub and if we didn't know them by name, we could pick which family they belonged to from their physical traits. That blond guy with the big head sitting near the fernery? Had to be a Smithton. That woman with the low-slung backside and curly hair? Definitely a Framer. That skinny red-headed kid screaming and racing around the condiments table with a fork? That was one of the Tully boys. Run.
Occasionally there would be a family from out of town and all us kids, sitting quietly with our parents, hands folded in our laps or placed carefully on the tops of the faux-wood laminate tables, would watch them out of the corners of our eyes, secretly hoping these strangers might be the drama we were looking for. We were watching to see if they ordered the same food as us and if they didn't it would be the topic of conversation in the playground for days to come. 'They let their kids order from the adult menu! She was my age and she had a whole Chicken Maryland to herself.' Everyone would get in on the act and it would become a running joke: 'Hey, Tony, what have you got for lunch? Bet it's not a whole Chicken Maryland.' 'What are you drawing, Virginia? Is it a whole Chicken Maryland?' 'Burke and Wills would have survived if their parents had given them a whole Chicken Maryland.' Strangers were something to be discussed and dissected, like rumours of ghosts, or aliens, or kidnappers leaping straight from the pages of an Enid Blyton book. No wonder I was so overwhelmed by that little girl in Albury–Wodonga; I'd never had contact with people I had not known my whole life.
We went to Albury–Wodonga every couple of months to see dentists or doctors and to buy all the things we couldn't get in our own small town. Albury–Wodonga had fluorescent socks, hyper-colour T-shirts and shops that sold just one thing, like cassette tapes or underwear or ice-cream. In my town, we had a hairdresser that doubled as a trophy engraver and tripled as a gun dealer. (It was probably the only shop in the world where you could get a freshly shot duck not only professionally mounted but permed at the same time.) Albury–Wodonga had streets and streets and floors and floors of novelty and speciality and single-purpose stores. The fact that the townsfolk did not walk their own streets slack-jawed in wonder at the sheer amount on offer was very impressive and very cool. These people were way out of my league. They probably ate Chicken Maryland every night.
We would drive down to Albury–Wodonga in Nanna's '66 Holden Special. My grandmother didn't drive so the car was rarely used and consequently, more than a decade after its purchase, still smelt new. The seats were leather, the little hand straps that hung from the roof in lieu of seatbelts smelt like leather, even the floor smelt like leather. It also had a white venetian blind on the rear windscreen that crinkled with a tinny sound every time I touched it.
Nanna used to pack a little waterproof purse with two wet face washers and it would sit on the sill behind the back seats, warming in the sun for the entire trip. When we got to the city we would use the cloths to wipe down our faces and hands and any detritus we had managed to spill on ourselves during the trip. The face washers were hot and sun-warmed and smelt like the inside of the purse. To this day, the slightly toxic and suffocating smell of hot plastic comforts me.
Halfway through our day trip we would inevitably wind up in Waltons department store for lunch. Waltons had automatic sliding doors that looked like real doors because they were made out of wood, which proved to me that it was definitely a posh shop. It sold everything, from clothes to furniture to appliances and it had a cafeteria on the top level overlooking the floors below. For some peculiar reason they did not have prawn cutlets on their menu, so I always ordered the second most sophisticated meal I could imagine: ham, cheese and pineapple on toast.
On the day that would turn out to be my last without regret, I was on tiptoes at the balustrade, looking straight down. Years later, Waltons would shut down, the toy section would become a nightclub and I would go there and consume vastly injurious quantities of raspberry-flavoured lemonade and vodka, but for now I was eight, looking at toys and wondering if I could convince my mother that we should go down the stairs for a closer look. As I was daydreaming, the little girl in the red pinafore came and stood beside me. Then she spoke to me. I froze. This city girl, this fancy city girl with her shops full of stuff and her traffic lights and cinemas and Daisy's Baked Potatoes was actually standing right there and talking. To. Me.
A big part of me wanted to answer her — I was imagining the thrill of going to school the next day and announcing I had made a new friend that nobody else knew — but an even bigger part of me was scared. I had no idea how to speak to someone I had never met. This girl was obviously worldly. One glance at the rakish angle of her scrunchie could have told you that. I twitched nervously. There was probably a protocol to answering her and if I got it wrong, I would make a fool of myself. It was a risk too big to take. So instead of replying I stared at her, gaping mutely. Then I ran away.
Almost immediately, I recognised my mistake. This was my first chance for an adventure and I had blown it. What had I done? I stopped running. I was pretty sure she had asked me if I liked the toys. I would go back and answer yes, yes I did like the toys; in fact, I was quite partial to a Strawberry Shortcake doll, followed closely by a Barbie doll and if forced into a corner, I would accept a Puggle. Yes, that was it, I would simply go back and strike up a conversation like nothing weird had happened, like I had never run away from her with my mouth hanging open and we would end up best friends. But when I returned to the spot where she had been, she had disappeared. Just like that, like she had never been there. She didn't even leave a puff of smoke. It dawned on me that this was the first time in my life that I had met someone I would never see again. The idea that some people existed and then they didn't and you could never go back and fix your mistakes was a new and not entirely pleasant concept.
I spent the rest of the day hoping I would find her. I looked for her in the supermarket, in Lincraft, in Darrell Smailes Audio, in Darrell Lea. I even hoped to see her in the dentist's waiting room and hope was not a feeling I normally had there.
For months after the encounter with the girl in the red pinafore I would wake in the middle of the night with an overwhelming feeling of dread. It was so strong it would make it hard for me to breathe. I was tortured by the belief that I had hurt the girl's feelings and, worse, that this could have been my first big adventure and I had run away from it. It felt like the biggest mistake of my life. It probably was. I was only eight.
Each night I lay in bed and replayed the memory over and over in my head and then, because I couldn't stop myself, I would start imagining what had happened to her after I left. A mutated version of a Hans Christian Andersen favourite would play out behind my eyelids: my little Waltons girl, filled with sorrow and a sense of abandonment, ends up homeless, wearing a tattered shawl and selling matches on a street corner until one freezing New Year's Eve, so cold she can barely breathe, she lights her final match to keep herself warm. Then she dies of hypothermia. Heartbroken, cold and alone, her final vision is of me running away from her.
It did not occur to me until years later that she probably just shrugged it off and went back to looking at the toys. Even if I had hurt her feelings, I am sure her mother would have given her an ice-cream and everything would have been set right. Until that day, ice-cream would have fixed things for me also but now everything was tinged with guilt. I would eat an ice-cream and feel sad for all the starving African babies who would never know what it was like. I desperately needed to redeem myself and there seemed to be only one way to do that: I would finger-knit my school a new volleyball net.
Every lunchtime and recess, after school, before school, during school, I finger-knitted. I would sit, huddled over my own hands, carefully winding the wool around my finger, sliding loops through loops, creating a little chain of woolly deliverance. Whenever anyone asked me what I was doing, I would announce proudly: 'I'm making us a new volleyball net.' I had grand visions of an unveiling involving the town mayor, a plaque and possibly an engraved cup — with or without a freshly shot duck. I also had grand visions of once again getting a full night's sleep, unhaunted by visions of the little girl in Waltons.
Understandably, my mother baulked at my request for enough wool to finger-knit a volleyball net and I was instead pilfering little scraps from art classes and from cupboards at home. I became furtive and obsessed, scrabbling for any bits I could, regardless of length, colour or quality. It was hard, slow work and after a month I had only managed to make a line of knitting that stretched twice across the lounge-room floor. It would have taken five hundred times that amount to make a volleyball net. Miserable, I gave up. Who was I kidding? I wasn't cut out to be a martyr, I didn't have the sticking power. I put the finger-knitting in a cupboard. One day, I would return to it. One day, I would set things right again.
What had started as an attempt to right a wrong had now turned into something far more irrational. I was a child; I believed in fairies and dragons and princesses and witches. I believed in happily-ever-–afters and now, after the little girl in Waltons, I'd started to believe that if I threw away my stuff, I'd never be able to fix the things I'd broken. It didn't matter if the stuff in question had nothing to do with the thing I'd damaged or hurt or wrecked in the first place — I simply, magically, believed that if I kept it all I would never have to experience sadness, regret or guilt again.
Everything went into the cupboard after that. Broken dolls, old pencil cases, posters and stamps and stickers still in their packaging. I kept Christmas presents I had barely touched, thinking I would play with them one day and allay the guilt I felt on account of all the poor children who had nothing. I kept a lidless toy teapot because throwing it out would have forced me to accept that I'd lost the lid and it was never coming back. When the cupboard was full, I started on a drawer. I carefully stacked away all my birthday cards, the stubs of pencils, bits of eraser, lone buttons and broken necklaces. When the drawer was filled, I found another and another, and then I used the wardrobe and under my bed and the spare room and then the tops of dressers and drawers and desks. It started when I was eight and it never, ever stopped.CHAPTER 2
Still, life was far from dire; I had a best friend. Her name was Katie and she was a free spirit, skipping through life with lopsided pigtails and a crooked grin. I ran panting and sweating along behind her, worried that my dress might get dirty, that my shoes might get ruined or that I might step on an ant and ruin an entire insect community's reason for existing. Katie just laughed and ran. She was fearless in the face of regret. With her red hair, freckles and novelty socks, she was partly my best friend and partly my god.
Katie and her family had moved to our town because of her father's job and although Katie had originally been an outsider, it didn't really count as she'd arrived when we were all too young to realise the importance of her foreignness. I am sure it had been different for her parents. A strict protocol came into play whenever there were new people in our town. First, you sat back, watched and listened. There was no initial contact. Instead, you would ask the shopkeepers what the new person was like, you would check out what they bought in the supermarket, you would talk to their work colleagues, you would find out what church they attended and how often. You would find out whether they were Top Pub or Bottom Pub folk. Eventually, after fifty or sixty years, someone would approach them on the street and call them by their first name.
Katie's father never went to the pub at all. This was unheard of in my world. Until I met Katie, I had no idea there were people like her family, people who had chosen to live their own lives, heedless of the need to fit in. When I first met them, I didn't know whether to be awestruck or to report them to the police. For a start, they were the only people I'd come across who didn't mind unexpected visitors. This was shocking. One of our biggest social rules was that no one dropped in unannounced. You couldn't just knock on someone's back door and yoo-–hoo your way into their kitchen. What if they were cleaning the stove? How were you supposed to carry on a civilised conversation with someone when their head was in the oven and you were conversing with their apron-covered arse? The casual drop-in was only acceptable if you were absolute best friends, sisters or, in some circumstances, a spouse. Everyone else rang, arranged it at church, or met on neutral territory, such as a fête or funeral.
In our house, unannounced visitors were our greatest fear. Growing up I assumed we were the only house that had to do last-minute cleaning before visitors arrived. That assumption was based on the fact that every other house I knew was showroom-tidy when we went to visit. It never occurred to me that everyone else might be exactly the same as us, running around the house at ten o'clock the night before, cleaning and shoving things in cupboards and under beds. Country people are house proud. Gleaming silver, polished furniture and starched doilies are part of what makes us who we are; it's a tradition that connects us to each other and to our past. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does make it hard to have company.
None of these rules existed at Katie's house. Not only were unexpected visitors never a problem, cleaning was never a problem either. It didn't matter to them that there were unwashed dishes in the sink, undusted ornaments on the mantelpiece and toys on the front lawn. It was shocking, exotic and somewhat unnerving. Walking into their house was like accidentally seeing them nude.
Excerpted from Lessons in Letting Go by Corinne Grant. Copyright © 2010 Corinne Grant. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Meet the Author
Corinne Grant is a stand-up comedian and television host. She has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
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