My mom started hoarding hand me down items from neighbours and dying friends when she was seventy-nine. Actually when I think about it, it began quite a few years earlier. She appeared unexpectedly on my door step with a brown paper bag. "Thought you might be able to use these," she said. "They weren't mine but I thought they might fit you." I peered inside to find sheer white woman's granny underpants. They were folded neatly but I could tell they were large without pulling them out of the bag. "I washed them," she went onto say. I placed them on the kitchen island, a comfortable space between us, pausing briefly to collect my thoughts. She had driven thirty minutes into the city to make the delivery.
Things were getting worse. A childhood friend of hers from the farm recently passed away and she was the executor of the will. She threw herself into the position like she was a teenager and it was a new secretarial job. Organizing this and arranging that. When tragedy hit, she always knew how to spring into action. Keep busy. Working twenty five years as an Operating Room nurse can do that to a person. She had the ability to tell jokes while nursing a man who had a piece of rebar sticking out of his stomach. She even told us once she helped a woman pick out her new penis for a sex change operation.
As children, unless we had an arm or leg twisted at a right angle from our bodies, we were fine, just fine. Supper, when she was home, was a gory tale of reattaching body parts. You should have seen it, there was blood spurting everywhere, I had to help the Doctor change his white coat a few times it was such a mess. She would smile as she enthusiastically delivered some tidbit to help us feel more fragile in this world. Then, she would laugh and cover her mouth with her disfigured hand, frozen when she was a child riding in a horse drawn sleigh. No one noticed that her mitten had fallen off.
I suspected that the hoarding was an early sign of dementia or Alzheimer's and my thoughts were confirmed when I googled and clicked on the first ten articles that popped up. "Hoarding can be an early sign of Alzheimer's. Continually buying items like toilet paper, tooth paste, shampoo, or salad dressing can be a sign of mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's or dementia." I'm sure hoarding can also be a sign of just that: 'hoarding'; but I was convinced her behaviour was doomed. My grandmother or aka 'Old Grandma', an enduring name my young daughter used to call her, had Alzheimer's. She leapt through all the early signs unnoticed because she still lived in a small prairie town by herself and instead of walking down the road to visit the neighbours she would talk on the tele from her kitchen. She could actually see the next door neighbour looking at her through her kitchen window while they talked. I found it strange that they would not just talk over the fence.
Old Grandma's symptoms and signs did not become evident until she was staying with my mom in Calgary and she refused to have a bath. When my mom left her in the bathroom alone for a few minutes, she took off outside in her underwear. Mom found her wobbling down the middle of the road and caught her in time before any damage was done. It was winter. This incident led to us finding a caregiver to live in Old Grandma's house with her for the summer months. A wonderful young art student optimistically believed that the idyllic setting right on the edge of a wheat field would be a perfect place to paint and write because she would have hours with nothing to do but look after a ninety year old. Some of this was true. The setting was cricket filled and peaceful but inside the house a tiny terror of a person was emerging. Anger and rebellion; stubbornness and frustration circled Old Grandma's head. She questioned every action and doubted every response. Stories that we thought were fiction were really truths hidden behind lies. Photos became parts of stories. The people in the photos became characters not to be trusted. Sentences repeated themselves automatically. Actions such as walking to get water from the well up the road, even though she had running water now, could not be stopped. Stockings could not be removed to wash. Clothes were limited to purple. Faces melted together. Language became vulgar. I visited one weekend and we decided to have a wiener roast outside by the fire pit. When I asked Old Grandma if she would like a hotdog, she replied, I hate fucking hotdogs. I had never heard her swear before. It was said in a stronger British accent than I remembered and I couldn't hold back a chuckle.
The most recent hoarding event happened about a month ago when my mom was asked to help some neighbours downsize from their acreage to a seniors apartment complex. She was respected in the town for her cleaning and organizing skills that she had honed at the local church. She was the powerful leader of church fundraisers, teas and dinners. My now older children and their significant others were with us on a ski trip to Alberta and we stopped in to visit. My mom said come with me I have something to show you. I should have guessed but nothing prepared me for the piles of old clothes neatly washed and folded in her laundry room. Graying towels, striped flannel men's pyjamas, mitts and coats from the 1920's, there must have been five brown/beige floral quilts circa 1980's, an assortment of windbreakers, orange, red, bright blue, yellow, all colors that at some point were in style.
"I want you to take some of this," Mom said." Just choose a few items. There is more in the garage." I hated to look. On a table arranged in garage sale style were appliances, electric grills, mix masters, cleaning supplies, more household items than anyone setting up house in the 1950's would want. She had typed up a list carefully itemizing all of the precious pieces; brought it into the family room to ask the grandchildren if they wanted anything. Held it out like a cat holds a dead mouse. Proud. Not sure of the response. "I suppose you young kids don't have use for old stuff?"
We had no room to take anything. We live in a throw away time. Find little value in old. She grew up in reuse era. Her life during the Depression years was innocent poverty. She cut her own clothes patterns out of newsprint; just created things out of her head. I admired this artistic trait, crafts being something I never took to. Her sewing room now is full of heaps of material from every dress she made over the past seven decades. Blue brocade shift dresses, fringed and sequined trimmed costumes from my youth; now in plastic containers waiting for someone to notice them. We don't take the time.
I take pleasure in sparseness. Try to follow eastern beliefs and live more simply. There is a Japanese art called Wabi Sabi that is described as a profound awareness of our oneness with all life and the environment. It is the ability to be happy with what you have, not what you want. But there is a catch in living by the Wabi Sabi principles; one also has to accept the aging process and with that, the acceptance of death. Wabi connotes simplicity and Sabi means that beauty and serenity that comes with age are appreciated. I try to tell her that we do not need stuff to make us happy. That people cling to the material world and therefore never live fulfilled lives. But in the 'not taking' somehow I am not living wabi sabi. Is part of acceptance allowing someone to give me the things that were their simple pleasures in life? Isn't it all about treating people with more compassion and empathy? Would I be helping her reach a peaceful state by relieving her of the treasured junk?
But I love to throw things out. Cleanse my life. I can't wait for food containers to be empty and into a recycle bin they go. Every season I haul a car load to the Salvation Army bin. My life is a gleaming countertop. My childhood memories encompass cleanliness, symmetry and conformity. I was playing out in the backyard in spring with my younger brother and we traipsed into the kitchen on a newly waxed and polished lino floor. My mom was still on her hands and knees cleaning and she started to cry. She didn't say anything. She didn't have to. I knew that her life was a burden of endless laundry and shining surfaces, to keep the appearance perfect on the outside. I was not allowed to play with a friend because her house is filthy! I truly wanted to keep her as a friend so I went over to her house and asked if I could vacuum. I remember vacuuming away on the second floor trying to pick up dirt from the cracks in the worn hardwood. My mom hated garage sale time when my Dad would try to sell off our Christmas presents to make back money they spent and didn't have. "It makes me sad to see your kids' things on the front lawn," Mom said. So now, I keep nothing but words stacked in my mind, verbal storage that needs to find a white page to drop its black keys.
She was the middle child of two sisters, and later an older sister to an adopted brother who left the farm as soon as he could enlist in the army. We should never have split his family up; we took the boy but left the two younger sisters. He never forgave us and never came back. I think of the losses in her life. Father dying when she was in her late teens; mother left to take in boarders to help pay the bills and her first young marriage to an abusive traveling salesman. And now she has four children whose lives she cannot keep straight or contribute to; except for giving us someone else's discarded garage sale items. Sure there are collectibles that have some value; diamond rings, three complete china sets, Queen Elizabeth's inauguration tea sets, but these items are not for us to choose from. They are kept behind glass china cabinets for display only. Tranquil clutter.
There is only one item that I want. It is a painting of 'Old Grandma.' It was painted by that young art student thirty summers ago. It is life size. She is sitting in her wicker rocking chair, knitting, a robin is sitting on the arm of the chair. I imagine he is chirping a lonesome melody. In the background there is nothing but prairie. Not a cloud in the sky.
I have this black and white photo of my mom when she was a teenager. She is sitting poised in front of a caragana bush at the old farm house. Legs neatly crossed to the left, cotton skirt carefully covering her knees, stiff, head tilted to one side. A dog happily perched beside her. I search for something behind her eyes, something to let me into her memory. But as long as I sit and stare, I cannot find her.
Merrill Edlund's writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Blue Skies Poetry, Worth Architectural Magazine, Crazy Pineapple Press, Fieldstone Review, Four Ties Lit Review, Spring vol viii, Misfitmagazine, and Joy, Interrupted an anthology on motherhood and loss. Merrill holds an MEd in technology. She teaches high school English and Creative Writing online in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. http://edlundm.tumblr.com/