Cabinet-Slammers and Screamers: When Things Fall Apart

Erin Britt essays

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My mom is what I call a ‘cabinet slammer.’ I can’t remember a time when she raised her voice in anger at anyone. But we could tell if she was angry by how she treated the kitchen cabinets. I always wanted her to just say it, to let loose and scream her anger from the rooftops. I promised myself I would never bury my feelings. By scuttling away her own anger, my mother inadvertently taught me to express mine.

I have been accused of being ‘passionate,’ ‘temperamental,’ and even ‘explosive.’ These descriptions bother me sometimes (because they’re euphemistic for ‘bitchy’), but I tell myself it’s better to be straight with people, that the pretense of calm is the same as lying, like the withholding of evidence is an obstruction of justice.

But sometimes, when it comes to anger, the direct approach can be harmful.

One morning a couple of years ago, as I sat down on the couch with my coffee, I warned six-year-old Lucas to stay clear. “I have a hot cup of coffee. Be careful. Keep your distance, or you’ll get burned.” And yet, 10 seconds later, he picked up a heavy throw-blanket and swung it over his shoulders like a cape, jumping and shouting some super-hero slogan as he did it…and spilled my hot coffee. Thank God not on himself, but on my arm, my clothes, the white carpet, and one of our big fluffy floor pillows that looks super-luxurious and expensive but really only cost seven dollars, which makes me love it even more and so I have this weird protective feeling over the stupid pillows.

I tell my children I care about our possessions because daddy works hard for everything we have and we shouldn’t take daddy’s hard work for granted. We should treat our things with respect. While all of that is true, I admit that a larger part of me protects my things simply because I like them—because they’re pretty things and they make me feel like I have something nice and live someplace beautiful.

The house I grew up in deteriorated along with my parents’ marriage. For years, there was a hole in the wooden floor under the carpet. My friends didn’t know to avoid it, so they would sink right into the soft spot of the carpet and say “Oh my God! I think I just broke your floor!” and I would act surprised that there was a hole in the floor, mumbling something about how I’d better tell my dad about that.

Later, when the carpet was beyond cleaning, it was removed. The hole was still there, but covered up with a piece of loose plywood. Sometimes I would move the plywood over and look into the hole. I could see straight down to the dry, grey dirt of the crawl space. It wasn’t until I had a house of my own that I realized how strange it was to live with a hole in your floor, or even to have no carpet. By the way, my father was a carpenter.

So…I care about my pillows.

When Lucas spilled my coffee I screamed at him. I didn’t snap at him. I didn’t yell at him. I screamed at him. I don’t even remember what I said. I didn’t notice that my arm had been burned, much less that his feelings were being hurt. I was thinking only of the pillow and the carpet.

We have a rule in our house: Whoever makes the mess has to clean the mess. So Lucas went to get the cleaning supplies, and together, we scrubbed until all evidence of coffee had been washed away. I watched Lucas as he scrubbed. His wiry little arm muscles flexed with each stroke. His round face was repentant; big, thoughtful puppy eyes, his brow bent with guilt. I lectured him about how he should have listened, how he was lucky he hadn’t been burned. But I knew the truth: I’d screamed at him and ruined his innocent super-hero fun because I love my stupid pillows. I’d harmed him.

I wanted to take back what I’d said, and more importantly, how I’d said it. I wanted to repair the damage my words had done, to make him feel normal and whole and perfect again. But I couldn’t, so I had to settle for:

“You did a great job cleaning, Lucas. You should be proud of yourself for cleaning up your own mess. That’s a very grown-up thing to do. I’m so sorry I screamed at you like that. I just don’t want you to get burned.”

That’s what I told him, but the ‘just’ in that last sentence was a lie. Of course I didn’t want him to get burned, but I also—indefensibly—cared about my pillows. Material possessions don’t mean anything, or so they say. But for me, they did. For me, first the things fell apart—then our family fell apart. People made terrible choices because they weren’t following the rules and instead chose to follow their own sick desires, then everything that was beautiful became ugly, and things that had been whole were broken into pieces.

That doesn’t mean I should scream at my kids when they have an accident. (It doesn’t mean I should slam cabinets either.) These days, I take a lot of deep breaths. I still care about material possessions but I’m better at putting my children’s emotional wellbeing first. I will still teach them to respect our belongings and the effort it took to acquire them. But more importantly, I will teach them that if things get broken, it doesn’t mean that everything will.


About the Author

Erin Britt

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