Here's what I read yesterday on WYPR's The Signal:
Dad has some trouble unlocking the front door. He rummages through a plastic sandwich bag filled with keys. There have to be thirty clinking around in there. “These were your grandmother’s,” he says. “I couldn’t find mine. I think most of these are duplicates.” Finally the knob turns and, after shoving hard with his shoulder, the door opens with a sound like splitting wood. The house is dim, stifling hot, and there’s a smell I can’t place. Musty, wet, foreboding, forgotten.
Dad finds the thermostat and turns on the air conditioning. I watch him drag open the heavy once-cream-now yellowish drapes, and in the afternoon light finally see what I'm getting myself into. Because of grad school, I haven’t been to the house in nearly a year and can’t believe my eyes. Green plush sofa with armrests torn and cushions spotted with stains, dining room table covered with stacks and stacks of mail. Piles of newspapers and magazines. Water stained wallpaper where rain continually leaked in a window. Beige carpet is worn by the coffee table. Paint peeling. Dust. Setting a match to the place seems like the best solution. What is there to salvage here? How in the world did my grandparents live in the middle of this? It’s as if children have had the run of the house for years. I want to ask my father how it got this bad, but I know. Both of them were suffering from dementia--Pop was worse off than Grandmom, who seemed normal—still wearing lipstick and wanting to get her hair done and asking questions about my love life. But Pop—he just—disappeared. He was very docile and quiet when I was around; he stayed sunken in the brown leather armchair by the loveseat, reading the newspaper or staring off into space. I know my dad checked on them every day. I know how many times he tried to talk them into moving to a nursing home, and how indignant they became when he brought up the subject. And I know he’s thinking the same thing I am now: please don’t let this happen to me.
“Nina.” My father is looking at me impatiently. “Can you start on the kitchen? There are some garbage bags over there, and rubber gloves you can wear next to the sink. I need to go through the medical bills and bank statements.”
“Okay,” I agree and drift towards the doorway. The kitchen is eerily silent. I’d feel better if I could hear my father moving about, but he's suddenly quiet as--as the mouse I see scurry out from beneath the stove and dive under the refrigerator. Well, at least I’m not alone.
I slip on the sunshine yellow rubber gloves. It feels like a betrayal to wear them, like I'm drawing a line between my grandparents and myself, as if I’ve now entered a third world country and I'm worried I'll come into contact with some deadly bacteria. But the room is as I've always known it: thick brown metal cabinets, pale blue Formica countertops with silvery bits of glitter, beige flooring with a brown floral pattern. The years have tinged the tiles a greenish-yellow. The curtains covering the window over the sink are yellowish as well--once white--their pattern of blue daisies stitched at the hem is still trying to be cheerful and so out of its element--like a woman in her fifties trying on her old prom dress. It just doesn't work.
Dad has left all the cabinets open and I recognize the glasses--the drinking, water, juice, bar, beer, and ice cream glasses. When I was a kid there was a glass for everything. Megan and I both had our favorites--I liked anything with a stem, she liked the short, narrow juice glasses with fruit etched around the rim. The drawers under the counter are open as well. One is full of jumbled silverware, one brimming with white and pink packets of sugar and artificial sweetener, the last with foil packs of ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, and barbecue sauce, also the tiny ridged salt and pepper packets, and plastic sleeves of forks, knives, and spoons.
Below those drawers are two wide cabinets jammed with canned food: soups, chili, spam, beans, and a variety of other vegetables. I start taking them out and stacking them on the floor, organizing them by type. Quickly I discover that succotash was their favorite. The deeper I go into the cabinet (and it's deep), the older the cans become, until I find ones that expired in the seventies. I realize my grandmother never let the supply get low enough that she'd have to make use of the cans at the very back. I fill three garbage bags--each halfway because of the weight--then double bag them, knot the ends, and push them into a corner.
I open a new bag and begin stuffing in handfuls of sugar packets but I don’t seem to be any closing to reaching the bottom of the drawer. I take deep breaths to keep my throat from closing up, and blink to ease the stinging in my eyes. This kind of collecting is either done by people not paying any attention to their lives, or paying too much attention. When I took my grandparents to buy groceries, they always ended up with a lot of food-- I could never figure out how they were consuming so much, and now I knew: they weren't. My grandmother must have been worried they wouldn't have enough, or be able to get to the supermarket when they needed to, and stockpiled. For the last two years they'd been fairly housebound, and my grandmother often called me at work asking me to take them to the grocery store. I remember the times I did but was annoyed, and the times I put her off, and shame pours over my heart, thick as the packs of McDonald's syrup that are mixed in with the mayonnaise and mustard. The emotion there is too deep a well.
"This is so stupid," I say out loud, throwing some ketchup packets, which is really unsatisfying so I throw some plastic forks. That's better, but not by much. My dad walks in and surveys the garbage bags of canned goods, the mountains of condiments, and the torn plastic chairs of the kitchen set.
"Let's go," he finally says.
"But we've only been here an hour."
"We'll stay longer next time."
He leaves and I hear a click as the air conditioning shuts off. I stand, pull off my gloves and stuff them into an open garbage bag. I switch off the kitchen light. Not that it matters. I turn it off because I can't bear the idea of that room with the light on all day and all night, ready for someone who's never going to come. There's something safe about a kitchen with the light on. Nothing can get you in the kitchen. It's home base; the place 'it' can never catch you. But here wasn't safe and the 'it' won.
Copyright 2006. Christine Stewart. All Rights Reserved