My father, Lester, was an extremely cautious man. He looked both ways before
crossing the street; he drove below the speed limit; and he never walked under
ladders or scaffolding. If the coronavirus had been a thing while he was still alive, he
would have stockpiled Purell. And toilet paper.
When I was born, my dad wouldn’t let anyone hold me unless they were wearing a
surgical gown and mask. He continued this watchful scrutiny throughout my
childhood. In middle school, I wasn’t allowed to take public transportation without
adult supervision, or ride my bike beyond the small, closed-off enclosure in the
neighborhood playground. Later, when I was a teenager and finally permitted to
take buses and cabs on my own, my dad insisted on writing down the license-plate
numbers of the vehicles beforehand.
What I didn’t consider…? My dad had OCD.
I assumed my dad’s cautiousness was linked to his early training as a safety
engineer. Same for his other seemingly “unusual” behaviors, such as constantly
checking the locks on the front door and the knobs on the kitchen stove. It was a
ritual I was well accustomed to. Every night before bed, I’d catch my dad, clad in his
ironed Brooks Brothers pajamas, making the rounds from the kitchen to the front
door, checking, rechecking, and re- rechecking. Again, I figured my dad was a safety-
first kind of guy, so I didn’t think twice. What I didn’t consider…?
My dad had OCD.
Later in life, my dad became obsessed with money. He called his accountant daily
and made frequent trips to the bank. When he was unable to get to the bank, he
would call me, up to five times a day, to inquire after his account balance. I would
instruct him to jot down the numbers—clearly, where he could see it, on a note pad
on his desk. He did, but that didn’t stop the frequent calls. Certainly, this was the
start of my father’s dementia (chronicled here), but I’m convinced that OCD was the
root cause of his behavior. I have no proof of this, of course. My father never
received a formal diagnosis.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t until after I finished writing my middle-grade novel, Kat
Greene Comes Clean, in which the protagonist’s mom suffers from a cleaning
compulsion and engages in “checking” behaviors, that I thought: “Hang on a
minute… I’m writing about my DAD!” It honestly hadn’t occurred to me, at least on a
conscious level, that Kat’s mom shared obsessive-compulsive similarities with my
Unlike Kat’s mom, though, my dad didn’t care about tidiness. His Midtown office
looked like a crime scene, with files and documents piled everywhere; on his desk,
and littering the floor. He saved everything too, including out-of-date planners;
matchbooks from old restaurants; dried up rubber bands; swizzle sticks; magnets;
old pens; coffee stirrers; expired credit cards… You name it, my dad saved it.
Still, my father’s behavior was never discussed openly in my family. He could save
mountains of matchbooks and check the stove until the cows came home, but my
mom would never comment on it. Instead she would say, “That’s your father!” as if
his compulsions were fodder for a stand-up act. Except nothing about my dad’s
behavior was funny.
To be fair, my mom had her own issues. She suffered from constant stomachaches,
and she often took to her bed for protracted “naps.” It wasn’t until later, when
discussing mental-health issues was no longer taboo, that my mom sought
treatment for what is now known as depression. But my dad…? He kept checking
the locks, and saving swizzle sticks, until the day he died.
My father’s behavior was never discussed openly in my family
In many ways, my dad and I are a lot alike. Despite my buttoned-up appearance, I’m
extremely messy and I don’t throw anything away. (TMI, but I saved a piece of my
now-20-year-old daughter’s umbilical cord. I know…) That said, I have a deep
need—a compulsive need, perhaps—for order. If, for example, I notice that the
window shades in the living room aren’t perfectly symmetrical, or if my bureau
drawers aren’t completely shut, I must make things right. That means hopping out
of bed, even if it’s two in the morning, to fix my drawers or shut the closet. Same
with arranging canned goods on the kitchen shelves, or hanging towels in the
bathroom. These “compulsions” are not of Sleeping with the Enemy proportions. But
I’m aware of the situation and monitor it closely.
I think my dad would have been okay with that.
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Before spending her days with imaginary people, Melissa interviewed real ones, as a journalist in Europe. In London, she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest, and got certified as a life coach. She lives in Manhattan with her family…and the occasional dust bunny. Learn more about Melissa on her website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.