When someone in the family complains about needing more or bigger or newer, Mom always jolts us back to reality: "You know, six of us kids grew up in one bedroom." And then she adds the kicker: "And my first closet was a nail."
For some reason, this story has always impressed me far more than woebegone tales about slogging through armpit-deep snow with feet swaddled in gunnysacks or dining all winter on turnips.
Mom's story served her superbly when my two sisters and I were growing up in a 1940s house with kennel-size bedrooms, one of which lacked a closet. We waged the Great Closet Wars for years.
One day my sister Rosie moved her precious wedding gown into the shared closet and hogged half of it. Sister Winnie retaliated by shoving her mothballed car coat beside the gown. It's a good thing the wedding was only a week away or the bride and her bridesmaid might have sported black eyes.
After those "hanger battles" and years of comparing the size of friends' closets to mine, I've discovered some closet truths.
First, regardless of how cavernous the closet, the contents will inflate to fill it. My first home's main selling point was its coat closet beside the front door.
For two weeks, a couple of coats rattled around in the closet with a herd of empty hangers and an umbrella. Then came board games, sweaters, wrapping paper, the vacuum cleaner, and household clutter that didn't belong anywhere. One day I opened the door and a chain saw fell out. It had turned into Fibber McGee's closet.
Another closet truth is that a person can never have enough of them. Every real estate agent boasts about the square footage of a property's closet and storage space. In fact, maybe we would be happier if we built houses with opulent closets surrounded by teeny living areas.
For me, another closet truth is that regardless of how many pigeonholes for shoes, five-part hangers for pants, and plastic snap-together shelves I buy to condense and organize, it will never happen. My closets will always be booby traps.
I think about these closet truths and my abundance of stuff every time Mom tells her hard-luck story. It finally dawned on me, though, to ask her why she didn't hammer in some more nails.
"Why in the world would I waste that space?" she asked. "I owned only two dresses: the one I was wearing and the one hanging on the nail."
"Well," I pointed out to her, "at least your closet was organized."