If you read my last Saturday Short, you know I’m visiting my grandparents in Belleville, Michigan at the moment. Belleville is a small city about 30 miles southwest of Detroit and 15 miles southeast of Ann Arbor. It’s definitely a porch-sitting city, but there are some diversions.
I’ve been here a little over a week and have adjusted to the slow pace. My grandparents live in a 55+ community and I’m beginning to feel like one of the elders. On my morning runs to the lake, I pass two men at the end of my grandparents’ street. They’re always out there, just chewing the fat. One has two dogs that sit obediently at his feet. The other man has a cat the size of a bulldog that is always flopped onto its side dozing, seemingly without a care in the world. Ah, to be that cat (or any cat, for that matter). I wave hello to these gentlemen as I trot by and they cheer me on. When I was sitting on my grandparent’s porch the other day, another neighbor walked up with her dog. I can’t recall what we chatted about but I’m sure the weather was in there somewhere. I can’t help wondering if this will be my life one day.
When I started drafting this post last Saturday, I was sitting at the dining table in my grandparent's house. There was barely space enough for my laptop and the mug of Tim Horton coffee I was drinking because I was surrounded by unopened mail, old magazines, medical papers, insurance statements, instruction manuals, and grocery store circulars. The mail was only the half of it. The table was also home to a large flashlight, a snow globe, an empty Clorox spray bottle, a jar of hair pomade, a large bottle of hand sanitizer, an empty cordless phone box, a poster of LeBron James, a trio of candles, a stack of old grocery bags, a tin of potpourri, a dish containing three ink pens, a Detroit Pistons skull cap, Christmas bows, two packs of shoelaces, a magnifying glass, an umbrella, and a nearly deflated balloon with the directive, Get Well Mom. There was more. But you get the picture.
From the dining room, I could see into my grandparents’ small living room, which was made even smaller by the accumulation of — for lack of a more articulate word — stuff that rendered every piece of furniture unusable except for the left side of the couch. The space between the coffee table and the television was jam-packed with boxes and bags filled with more stuff. Let’s just say, if the batteries in the television remote control were to go kaput and there were none in the house to replace them, it would have been a hazardous feat to reach the television in order to change the channel.
When I visited Michigan for several days last Thanksgiving, the conditions in my grandparents’ house were much the same as I just described. To say I was appalled by the state of their home is putting it mildly. We've all seen the reality shows about hoarding. Perhaps you watch them religiously. Or maybe you've paused on one while channel surfing. I know I have. Shaking my head in disbelief, I've asked myself, How did it get that far? How do they live like that? The truth is, hoarding is an obsessive-compulsive disorder often brought on by age or illness. It is hard to comprehend until you've had to deal with it firsthand. While my grandparent's house is nowhere near reality camera-ready, my fear is that given time, it could be.
So how did things get to this point? A huge factor is that while my grandparents have downsized to a smaller home in the years since they’ve retired, they have continued to accumulate possessions, more possessions than their current space can easily accommodate. Unfortunately, this house is not only smaller than their previous homes, it also doesn’t have a basement. Consequently, everything ends up wherever there is available shelf space, closet space, table space — and once those are filled, floor space.
And then there’s QVC. I’ve lost track of the gadgets and gizmos, clothing and accessories they’ve ordered from the shopping channel. Some of the items I’ve found are still sealed in their original packaging. I’ve also found dozens of gifts my grandmother has bought for others, but for whatever reasons, neglected to give. In one bag, a child’s robe with a dinosaur head hood that she intended to give my oldest nephew when he was five or six. He’s 13 now. In other bags: puzzles, games, books, old greeting cards sealed and addressed, clothing with tags still affixed. All purchased, never gifted.
I know my grandparents would be better organized were it not for my grandmother’s health problems. Multiple hospitalizations over the last several years have left her unable to keep up with housework, and increasing dementia compounds her physical health issues. My grandfather does the best he can to care for her and keep the house together, but he has health issues of his own, much-needed knee replacements being one of them. Complicating matters, when my grandmother's favorite cousin passed away a few years ago, my grandmother inherited all of her belongings. What my grandmother wasn't able to sell in the estate sale, she brought home, adding that many more boxes and bags to her own collection of clothing, shoes, pictures, and tchotchkes. Like most hoarders, my grandmother is emotionally attached to her possessions. She also thinks she needs all of it, and that she will eventually be able to sort through and find a place for everything. Pictures will be hung. Books will be shelved. Papers will be filed. Clothes will be put away. This is what she truly believes.
At Thanksgiving, I vowed to return for an extended visit to clean and help sort through the mess. I arrived last Wednesday, a day after my grandmother returned home from yet another stay in the hospital, this one two weeks long. The first thing I did was start on the laundry my granddad had been unable to keep up with (and I’ve been washing, drying, and folding every day since). I cleaned the guest bedroom and bathroom next. On the second day, I scoured the refrigerator and scrubbed the kitchen from top to bottom. From the kitchen I finally moved on to the dining room, clearing the table of LeBron and everything else. Now when my grandmother’s nurses and physical therapists come, they have a clear surface on which to write their notes, not to mention the table can once again be used for its intended purpose.
I’m one of those people who likes cleaning and tidying, and I have to keep reminding my grandparents that I’m fine, that I’m enjoying the work — really, I am. Once I get a rhythm going, I switch to autopilot. Hours fly by, as do thoughts of meals or doing anything else until I’m finished. Almost every day, they urge me to stop and rest. My granddad calls out to me from his bedroom. “Have you had lunch?” he says. “Why don't you take a break? Eat something.”
One day he summoned me to the bedroom. I stood in the doorway, Swiffer in hand, dust mask covering my nose and mouth, waiting for him to chide me for working too hard.
“You know what they say about Rome don't you?” he asked in his low, gravely voice.
I was weary with impatience and resented being interrupted, but I played along. “What do they say about, Rome, Granddad?”
“That it wasn't built in a day.”
I swallowed a sigh. “I know, I know,” I said. I went back down the hall thinking to myself, But if I have anything to do with it, this room will be clean in a day. A room a day. That is my goal.
This week, I finished the living room, the job I’d been dreading. It turned out not to be as daunting an endeavor as I’d feared and I had it done within a few hours. I even unearthed a few surprises: baby pictures of my siblings, my 10th grade school portrait, and my Who’s Who Among American College Students plaque from 1998. My grandmother also has a pretty impressive collection of coffee table books I’m sure she's forgotten she had. Pausing to flip through family photographs and picture books is the only thing that slows my momentum. Well, that and the occasional swig of Faygo Red Pop.
I’ve spent most of the week steeped in nostalgia. Handling my grandmother’s things takes me back to my childhood. I was always a little creeped out by the black clowns she collects, but the act of dusting them off and setting them on her shelves makes me wish I’d always appreciated them the way I do now. These clowns still make her happy and seeing her smile as I placed one on a tiny chair and set him on her doll shelf made me smile.
Tomorrow, my brother and his wife will come over to help with my grandparents’ office and bedroom, the last rooms in need of attention. And as the bedroom is where my grandparents spend most of their time, it is in the worst shape of all. Purple Heart will be here on Tuesday to collect all the donations I’ve boxed and bagged over the past week. I suspect there will be even more once we’ve finished the office and bedroom. Purple Heart may need to bring an 18-wheeler.
Deciding what should and shouldn’t be tossed or donated has been the biggest challenge. My granddad is loath to make decisions without first consulting my grandmother, but my grandmother wants to keep nearly everything I suggest she get rid of. Tattered handbags, cosmetics over a decade old, bags of tarnished costume jewelry. Etcetera, etcetera. Case in point: on one of the chairs at the kitchen island, I found a lone, wooden leg that looked like it came off a small table or low stool. I couldn’t locate the table or stool to which it belonged. When I announced my intention to toss it, my grandmother said she needed it.
“Why?” I asked.
“In case a robber comes. So I can beat him with it.” She was dead serious, too.
When she wasn’t looking, I gently placed it into the black yard bag I was filling with rubbish.
In her moments of clarity, my grandmother apologizes for the state of her home. She reminds me that she didn't always live like this. "Remember how nice I kept our house on Cadillac Boulevard?" she asks. Of course I do. Not a speck of dust anywhere or a pillow out of place. A basement with racks of clothing catalogued by season. Her collection of All God's Children figurines displayed in a curio cabinet, her Norman Rockwell and Ernie Barnes prints level on the walls. Everything she owned was so lovingly tended. I remember.
When her mind isn't so clear, she tells me she's going to get up and fold the clothes piled on the Rubbermaid containers in her bedroom and put them away. She's forgotten that the bureau drawers are overstuffed and the closet is overflowing. She's forgotten that she is unable to stand or walk without assistance right now. I just nod in agreement.
Every night, I collapse into bed exhausted, missing my husband, my bed, my cat, my friends, my daily routine. I listen to the horns of the trains passing on the not-too-distant tracks. The sound of industry chugging along. I’ve started to think of myself as one of those trains. Every day, I move quickly on to the next task. Just chugging along.
I know when I leave next week, my grandparents’ house won't be perfect. There is simply too much to go through — a lifetime of their belongings. The job is too vast for one person, and it’s definitely too vast for one person to accomplish during the limited time I’ll be here. But my goal was never perfection: I just want to leave things better than I found them. I want my grandparents to be able to move comfortably around a clean and more orderly home. It is the least I can do. All my life, I have known their love. They have sacrificed for me in more ways than I can enumerate. My being here, in Belleville, Michigan, 1,300 miles away from my husband and the comfort of my own home is my way of honoring what their sacrifices meant to me. It is my way of showing them just how much I love them back. And the immensity of the work I’ve done here and the work that still lies ahead is nowhere near as great as that love. Nowhere near.