Sometimes poignant, other times appalling memoir by Gwendolyn (Wendy) Knapp that describes her dysfunctional family, drama filled relationships, and quest to find a job as a struggling writer in New Orleans. The poverty level and drug addicted aunt described in After a While You Just Get Used to Itreally reminded me of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis except that instead of in Appalachia, Gwendolyn describes a childhood in Florida. I suppose that some struggles are universal.
Although I enjoyed the stories, I wanted to read more about how the family dealt with Gwendolyn’s mother’s hoarding. Anybody else binge watch episodes of A&E’s Hoarders? It’s strangely compelling. One lady collected every single flower bouquet message card that she had ever received- a leaning tower of Pisa in miniature, just perpetually collecting dust on one of her many side tables. Anyway, the hoarding angle isn’t what this book is really about. The focus is mainly on Gwendolyn’s coming of age and early adulthood.
Gwendolyn is slightly older than me, but I enjoyed hearing about specific details from her childhood because I remembered some of those things in mine, like: “I applied my Dr Pepper lip gloss and pulled on my deflated Nike Airs, watching Mom give John a hug before saying her world-famous line, “Well, excuse our junk.” pg 6. Not to brag, but I think I had a Dr Pepper lip gloss and a Mint Chocolate Chip chapstick. Those were the days…
I knew that hoarders were emotionally attached to their belongings, but what I didn’t realize is that they’re also connected to their relatives through their stuff, though it makes sense when you think about it. This is what happened when Gwendolyn’s grandpa died: “When an old relative dies, pack rats usually take in all they can from the person’s home as if they’re adopting abandoned children. It’s their duty. Since Grandma kept all his things, her kids had to find new ways to fill their void. Pack rats build up the world around them, separating themselves with a cloak of comfort from the outside world…” pg 16
Gwendolyn’s large, extended family has a passive aggressive, sometimes overtly aggressive love/hate thing going for it. She describes her holidays as: “It was cacophonous, ear piercing, and annoying. Don’t worry, you might warn a newcomer, some bewildered boyfriend or classmate you’d invited and would never hear from again, after a while you just get used to it. Once the first jug of wine was finished, the racist diatribes and Burl Ives impersonations reared their ugly heads like gophers in need of malleting. … It wasn’t a holiday until my mother, and everybody else for that matter, had left Grandma’s feeling victimized by their loved ones.” pgs 54-55. Reading scads of memoirs has made me truly appreciate my own family and our very low levels of dysfunction, especially considering how large we are.
Here was the moment when I thought that we were going to deal with the hoarder thing for good, but Gwendolyn records this realization and time just marches on: “Imagine your mother burying herself alive. Imagine knowing there’s nothing you can do to help her. Imagine this every day of your life.” pg 85
Recommended for readers who grew up during the late 70’s/early 80’s or for people who like to read about dysfunctional families. Some further suggestions: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (similar themes like poverty and drug addiction), Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” (struggling writer comes of age, details failed relationships), The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories (coming of age theme, but far more serious treatment than this book).
Thanks for reading!