by John Flack
From the outside, the house, although a little worn, looks much as it did when I was a child; the inside, as I am about to discover, is not. I cross the busy road and approach the front door.
The walk, the gate, the hedge and the porch look much as I remember. Some outside paint is peeling. The outdoor furniture on the porch appeals to me to sit and enjoy the air. Although I cannot recall the nature of the front door, the one I confront is clearly of a different era than that of the 105 year old house. Under the dusty, plastic flowers and the welcome sign on the door I use the key given to me by our estate lawyer to open the two locks. As I step in, I am greatly surprised. The mottled carpet looks old and very dirty, there are cardboard boxes everywhere; the air seems heavy and still. Popping into my mind is being in a church confessional booth before beginning confession on a late Saturday afternoon when I was in grade school. The sense of danger is there too. I begin to feel heavy and advance further with difficulty. The living room seems smaller. I stoop from the weight of past memories and lives. The living room furniture I expect in my mind to see is mostly gone and what remains is covered in heavy dust. I remember when I had last visited, many years ago, Aunt Helen had animatedly pointed out the wood paneling covering the plaster walls and went on about what a good job her son, Jim, had done. Now, as then, I don’t like faux paneling, especially in living rooms.
I knew that Jim was a collector throughout his life, but seeing all of these boxes gives me a better sense of the collector mindset. I had read the estate administrator’s write-up on the state of the house before any packing or carting had been done and he described it as a “hoarder’s residence”. Stuff was stacked everywhere and there were narrow lanes for passage. The description reminded me of a neighbor’s house in Hastings where I live. He is an active hoarder and his stacks give an overwhelming feeling of confinement. Aunt Helen had died nearly 11 years before Jim died and, I can only guess, with her went his need for organization, cleanliness and tidiness. Jim, as I have learned from his friends, had become increasingly reclusive over that period, seeing less and less of them. Too, he had been sick on and off over the last couple years of his life. Cleaning and organizing may have become too much for him.
The dining room as I enter it seems more like my memories. The furniture is in the same places it always was – unlike my mother’s habit of moving the dining room and living room furniture into different configurations, my grandmother and my aunt Helen never did. I note that my grandfather’s rocking chair is gone from its customary place in the corner of the dining room nearest the living room. The dining room table still dominates the space. Although it is daytime and the sun is shining, it is decidedly gloomy. Little light seems to pass through the dusty windowpanes. I switch on a dining room light, which is still working. It is so dim it seems to accentuate the gloom. I step past the boxes filled with who knows what and slowly walk into the kitchen.
It is laid out differently than I expected and I know the fault is my memory. The sink, which is exactly the same, although in a different place than I remember, now strikes me as the original from when the house was built in 1910. The cabinets may be as old. There is almost no counter space and I wonder how my grandmother was able to prepare such good food in this setting. It is dusty. There are stacks of boxes. My eye is caught by the shimmering gleam of differently colored small bottles, lit up by the sun, sitting on the top of the bottom window frame. I recognize the cookie jar that is amazingly intact sitting on the counter. It is a fat chef that, to me, exudes warmth and friendliness. It lifts my spirits, momentarily.
The second and third floors are more of the same. Lots of boxes, dust and dirt. I count 155 of them throughout the house. I am here to open and examine each one for family treasures.
The previous administrator, the lawyer representing the woman who had coerced my dying cousin into signing a bogus will, had had the house contents appraised by an auctioneer. What he thought could be auctioned was put into storage and what remained was boxed to be discarded. As it was, the house was within 2 weeks of being sold when the court finally removed her lawyer as administrator and gave that function to our estate lawyer. We came very close to losing the most valuable possessions to me – the written and photographed histories of three generations of my father’s family.
Over several months, as I worked my way through the boxes and as the sense of oppression and sadness waned, I began thanking Jim and God that he was a collector and kept everything. It became apparent to me that, to a lesser extent, Aunt Helen and my grandfather had also been wont to save and not discard. They stored photographs, photo albums, old books, letters from my father-to-be to his mother during the war, names of unknown relatives, bibles and even the recipe to my grandmother’s cookies, which she gave to me every Christmas because I loved them so much. They are an unusual sugar cookie recipe made with allspice and nutmeg. Amazingly, to me, the recipe came from a baking soda company as part of an ad campaign.
There was one very shocking discovery – a black and white photo of a stack of emaciated, naked, dead bodies. I can only assume that my father during the war during his service in Patton’s army passed through a slave labor camp. There was no writing on the back of the photo so I can only guess. It seems most likely to me, that Patton’s army and my dad liberated it and rescued the survivors from a similar fate. I can only wonder what else he saw and experienced as a young man in the no-man’s land of war.