Friday, May 3, 2013

Confessions of a Counter

By Audrey Barclay

I've a confession to make: I'm a compulsive counter! I count things, people, anything in sight that can be counted. I don't remember when I was stricken with the annoying affliction, but it began when I was quite young. I was never bitten by an adding machine or computer, although I barely missed being stung by the latter once.

I suspect the condition began when, at the age of nine, I was given the task of counting the pieces of laundry my mother did for others to help eke out a living for the family. Her remuneration was fifteen cents per dozen pieces, whether shirts, sheets, sox or what have you.

As far as I know there is no cure for this malady; like a cancer, it only grows more insidious. However, there is some mental relief if the counting is necessary.

My mother later became custodian of the three-room school I attended and it became my duty to dust the erasers. I'd start counting as I worked, then, when near the end, I'd count how many I had yet to do. The rooms were heated with great pot-bellied stoves, and I knew exactly, at any given point, how many hodsful of coal must be carried from the coal shed at the back of the lot to fill the bins for each room.

When I was twelve we started growing strawberries for shipping. No, I didn't count the berries, but my afternoons were spent making the crates and little boxes for packing the next day's "picking," and I had to make sure there were plenty. The boxes were not the little square ones used today, but of oblong shape and must be made "from scratch." It took thirty-six to fill each crate, so I had hundreds of boxes to count. It was tiresome work, but I loved doing it. Guess why!

We moved to the city when I was sixteen, and I went to work at a garment factory, putting pockets and flies in men's trousers. That, too, was "piece-work," so an accurate count of the work done was necessary, or I'd short-change myself. You'd better believe everybody counted, there.

When I was married the counting became an even greater problem. Babies came fast until there were nine. I won't bore you with details of all the things I found to count during those years, including "drop-in" relatives by the carload. Suffice it to say I never failed, once I had the wash all on the line, to stand back and count all the pieces hanging there. A relapse, I suppose, to the initial infection. Also, come mealtime or bedtime, I always counted kids to be sure mine were all in and accounted for, and no extras had sneaked in. As they grew old enough to go out in the evening, I'd lie awake, counting each time the door was opened and closed, until I knew the last one was home, safe.

About that time I became aware of a new symptom: when I went to the grocer's around the corner, or walked to church, I'd find myself counting my steps. I'd say to myself, "Stop it!" and go right on counting. It was maddening, but I couldn't help myself. I still do it.

One of the more embarrassing facets of my illness was when I found myself, as I sat in the usual pew at the back of the church, counting the number present for the service. This I could do quite unobtrusively while announcements were being made, though it became much simpler when I became a member of the choir, where the seats were elevated a few feet above the congregation. It was fun, too, on a hot, muggy Sunday morning to count all the heads nodding sleepily as the minister poured out his heart in the message he was bringing.

When riding a train I invariably counted the telegraph poles between the mileposts, pressing my face against the window to see as far ahead as possible, trying to keep ahead of the train with my counting. When it became too dark to see the telegraph poles, it wasn't unusual for me to suddenly discover I was automatically counting the clicket-clack of the wheels beneath me as they ground over the joints in the rails. Of course, I counted passengers, too, but the most frustrating experience I ever had in that respect was one time, when, from St. Joseph to Kansas City, all I had to do was sit there and count, over and over, one, one, one . . . I was the only passenger aboard that coach that night! Of course, counting freight cars when running along beside a train in a car is fascinating, too. What can one do when tormented with such an obsession?

The only times I've ever indulged without a guilty conscience was when I served as church treasurer a number of years and had to count the church offering, and again when we owned an automatic laundry and I could remove and count the coins from the machines and refill the coin-changers. I could count happily away, knowing it was justified: no guilt complex, no shame or embarrassment, only pure pleasure!

While recuperating from a fractured hip, sitting by the window, I'd count the traffic from the nearby factory at closing time, and a new habit has opened up in the last few years. I now sit in church and count the number of people wearing wigs.

I enrolled in a class for potential writers a few years ago, where one of the first things we were taught was the simple method used by professional writers in determining an approximate word count of their work. Do I settle for that? No way! I count each word!

While picking grapes one morning, I realized right away I was counting the bunches as I snipped them off. I made a conscious and determined effort to top it, thinking, "Will I do this with each little grape as I stem them?" I did, only I took it easy and started a fresh count with each bunch. When I had the fruit all stashed away and was ready to clean up the mess, I began counting all the unused jars and lids, the dirty pans, spoons and colanders to be washed, but most important, the number of jars of that luscious jam and jelly.

They say confession is good for the soul, so maybe it will help my problem. Now, I must count the words in this little story. Want to help? One, two, three, four, five . . . .

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