By Rebecca Schier-Akamelu.
The basement was overwhelming. Smells of mold and must wafted up from every crevice, intensified as I opened a banker’s box.
“Didn’t you want the China?” My brother asked. I could tell from the tone of his voice that he had found something to laugh at with his weird sense of humor.
“Ye-es,” I answered, carefully stepping over trunks and boxes and discarded papers to get to him.
He thrust some of it at me – one of those round containers that I could never guess if it was made of fabric or plastic, with Grandma’s plates stacked meticulously inside, age softened pieces of paper between the plates to protect them from scratches. And there, right on top, was a cockroach, belly up, legs bent at odd angles, half squished from having lord knows what else stacked on top of it.
I made a sound in the back of my throat and even though I didn’t consciously want to, I felt the plates begin to slip from my hands, landing with a muffled thunk on top of a trash bag.
“I guess that’s a no,” my brother said, trying to laugh.
“You can have them,” I stammered, trying to keep the sick from coming out. “Excuse me.” I half walked, half tripped my way over to the sliding door, the contents of the basement swimming before my eyes – old pictures, frames broken; some of the old house dresses grandmother used to wear, and the faint smell of urine they still carried with them; old Rubik’s Cubes and puzzles; paper plates and cups unused in their plastic.
With a lot of force, the sliding door finally opened, and I stepped outside. The fresh air calmed my stomach, and I sat in the grass, feeling the sun on my face. This fenced in back yard with the huge oak tree was exactly the same as it had been when I was a child.
“This is hard on you, huh?”
I hadn’t heard my brother come outside, and it surprised me.
“A little,” I admitted, not wanting him to know how much. “It must be harder on you.”
“Who’s to say?” He said, shrugging it off. It was true though, whether he admitted it or not. He had stayed around, he had visited once or twice a week for the last five years. He had never been too busy for her, like I had been. At least I wasn’t too busy now, to clean up this filthy hoarder’s den, to scavenge for things that brought back memories.
“She loved you,” my brother said, putting a hand carefully on my shoulder.
I nodded. To be honest, I had no idea whether or not it was true. I felt like, in spite of all the holidays we had spent with her and my grandfather, all the vacations they had accompanied us on, all the terrible school concerts they came to, we didn’t really know them.
All my memories of them are made up of brief encounters: A hug as we walked in the door, a congratulations after high school graduation. I remember all the toys they set up for us when we visited, so that they could have “grown-up talk” with our parents while we played. Most of my memories are not really of them, but of their house, of their things.
We had already discarded several of the 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles our grandparents kept. My grandparents started bringing them out once we hit nine and ten, pushing them at us incessantly, even though we had no interest in assembling rows and rows of blue sky and eagles’ wings.
“Take your time,” my brother said, and I feel bad because I forgot he was still standing behind me. “Once you’ve had some fresh air, come on back.” I nod, and I hear the sliding door as it slides open, then shut again.
It strikes me as darkly humorous, how we never suspected my grandparents were hoarders. Their house always looked so meticulous to me growing up, with all the clean surfaces, the doilies placed in the exact middle of the tables, the pictures carefully arranged on the mantelpiece. All the drawers we never dared to poke our heads in, having to open them now only to find ourselves swimming in yellowed paper.
All the pieces of their lives are in that house. Ancient grocery receipts and electric bills mixed in with my mother’s report cards and even more important things, like their marriage certificate. My brother and I, all we can do is throw away the chaff, and see if any of the wheat left behind is worth hanging on to.
REBECCA SCHIER-AKAMELU writes from the Midwest. She has previously published a short story in the Kansas City Star. http://www.RebeccaSchier.weebly.com