My grandma trashed three houses and two apartments, systematically filling them up with stuff until they were completely unlivable. The Wisconsin Department of Health evicted her from one home on Christmas Eve. Sorry ma’am. This place is a health hazard.
I heard all about the clean-up efforts from my dad. About the five sewing machines, all brand new. The three thousand balls of yarn donated to the hospital auxiliary. The cubic feet of dumpster space required to empty a dwelling. The bitter arguments between mother and children, between sister and brother.
At that time we couldn’t even name her disease. We knew she was mentally ill and blamed it on a life of poverty and loss. Grandma grew up during the Depression. A penny saved is a penny earned. Waste not want not. Her husband walked out when my aunt was still in diapers. Dad recalls clutter, saying, “Housekeeping wasn’t her strong suit.”
When did it turn? When did the potential become reality?
I tried to help clean out the last house. My memory is hazy, clouded by the steroids and epinephrine that the ER physician used to treat my combined allergy and panic attack. So much stuff. The diabetes of possession.
Some people get mean after they have a stroke. Grandma took a turn for the better, like the blood quit flowing to the part of her brain dedicated to the past. She smiled. She talked to my aunt again. She stopped collecting crap.
In dark moments, I see the sins of the father visited upon the children. And on the grandchildren and great grandchildren. My chaotic desk looks eerily like my father’s. My son loves collecting – legos, ships, gogos, snakes, rocks, paper airplanes.
Dad and I have a code. If we see the other making a rash decision about stuff, we say “If you put a stake in it a dog could drink out of it.” This is Grandma’s most famous quote, uttered as she helplessly watched my dad toss an ancient battered aluminum jello mold into the dumpster.
Do they let you hoard in heaven, Grandma? I picture Saint Peter surrounded by ninety-nine cent VHS tapes. All the John Hughes goes to heaven, the child pornography to hell. Or are you finally at peace, the pain and loss stripped away with your earthly body.
I’ve got news Grandma. And it took me thirty years to figure this out: Sometimes a jello mold is just a jello mold. Trash.