“Frost and Steketee name the repetition of the process ‘churning’ because the objects are constantly turned over within the same space.” —Possessed: A Cultural History of Hoarding, Rebecca R. Falkoff
In high school I watched a silent film of a tsunami as it struck the shore of a Japanese town, the result of a seismic shift, plates moving underwater, the undulation as it hit the edge of the beach and kept going, picture flickering in the projector. Cars, dishes, buildings, garbage, someone’s pet cat, maybe bodies underwater all slowly moved together in a giant roar we couldn’t hear over the clickety click of the movie grinding to a halt. It didn’t look at all like that Japanese painting of the risen wave, blue and still in the pause before it crashes down.
Trying to tell the story of what happened in my mother’s house feels impossible. Like trying to stop that tsunami. Do I tell it chronologically? Episodically? Metaphorically? Let me rearrange it again. I could start the story anywhere, but I’m just moving around the shame, dirty secrets, the love and memories into different paragraphs, like a person with a hoarding disorder does, not sure in the end how to organize what happened.
As I pull up in front, I’m trying to remember the names of some of the neighbors I haven’t seen for thirty years. I turn off the car after looking around to make sure my mother’s dinged-up Toyota is not parked in the crumbling driveway. Old mail, circulars, and some plastic bags seep out of the closed garage door. There’s a waterlogged pile of newspapers solidified near the empty trash can on the side of the house. The front door is covered with ivy, and I can barely see past the untrimmed arborvitae for a glimpse of the envelopes stuffed in the mailbox that hangs by one hook off the brick wall. All the window shades are closed. The living room windows are blocked by overgrown evergreen bushes that twist and turn against the house, hiding what’s inside.
It was never a bad house: three bedrooms, one and a half baths, an attic, kitchen, living room, dining room, and rec room downstairs next to a laundry room by the back door. A simple, white split-level with some brick on the lower half with black shutters and a black, wooden front door with a big brass knocker my mother had placed over a piece of wood covering up the window to make the door more secure. I was in seventh grade when she added the knocker, old enough to understand this had to do with my stepfather, whom my mother had just divorced. “It looks nice,” I’d told her when she asked me what I thought about the knocker. That was back when she did projects. And back when the house looked like all of its neighbors in the development: freshly painted, with a well-groomed lawn.
I’m feeling wilted from the hot New Jersey summer and tired after the fifty-minute drive from suburban Philadelphia where I live. Since she’s not home, I get out of the car. Part of me was imagining she’d be here and yell at me because I’d come to the house without permission. Neither my younger sister, Melissa, who lives nearby, nor I, have been allowed to have a key for years. I walk up the driveway and around the side of the house. Another unpruned tree leans over the chain link fence that somehow has been bent downward so the gate to the backyard doesn’t work. I have to push back some big branches to squeeze myself through, trying not to tear my dress. A mosquito bites my bare calf, and I slap it, cursing. I was supposed to be at a party this afternoon, but when I called my mother this morning to wish her a happy 82nd birthday, her landline was disconnected for the fourth time in six months. My sister is out of town, so I have no way to tell my mother that our plans to celebrate her birthday tomorrow have changed except to drive twenty miles over here and leave her a handwritten message.
Nobody just “stops by” this house. My mother won’t let anyone she knows come near the outside, much less invite them in. When she had her breast cancer surgery seventeen years ago, she was waiting at the curb, bag packed, for me to take her to the hospital. It’s 2016 and I have not been inside my childhood home since 1987.
Melissa and I joke that hopefully my mother will die outside the house, so at least we’ll know something has happened to her. There’s worry beneath our laughter. We’ve respected her autonomy, her right to live as she chooses, including not allowing anyone inside. But over the past year there have been a series of incidents. First, there was a hospitalization for frostbitten diabetic feet after she shoveled the end of the driveway during a snowstorm. Then, there is the matter of the phone being turned off several times. Finally, she’s told my brother-in-law she’s running out of money. As I look at the filthy windows I’m thinking, were we wrong to let her live the way she wanted? Should we have done something sooner?
There’s an empty, tall, blue recycling bin blocking the back door, and when I move it, I see the storm door’s glass is gone. I open it and notice the door to the inside has broken glass, too, as though someone has put a fist through it. My mother has stuffed this door with yellowing newspaper and heavy, shredded plastic sheets.
I keep looking over my shoulder. It’s creepy behind the house under the grey sky even though it’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday. “Who lives like this?” I say out loud. I look at the wrecked door and start to tear up. There’s something inside me that is taking shape in the July humidity—a resolve, a rage, a sadness, a fear I don’t fully understand. It’s about what might be inside, but also what this house is telling me about my mother. I’ve seen pictures of houses like this. The dirty, covered windows; the tall weeds blooming all over the yard; the mail she’s not opening are all signs of a life unravelling. I don’t know what I should do about the way my mother is living. But it’s clear to me that Melissa and I need to do something. My mother raised us. She was the parent who was there....