Marilyn Kriete | Longreads | April 2022 | 46 minutes (8,273 words)
I check the bathroom first. Tiles lie fallen in the tub. The paint has given up. Mildewed curtains shade the toilet, a nasty mess of orangey brown. The sink, a topographic map of hardened scum, threatens to collapse on an ancient hamper. The floor warps under threadbare mats, no longer rubberized: a tripping hazard that hasn’t killed anyone — yet.
Without tripping, I fall into a well of memories: oil refineries lurking beyond the curtains and the howling wind on winter nights when I cracked the window to vent steam. The medicine cabinet, crammed with baby aspirin, calamine lotion, and viscous bottles of rose-water-glycerine. My mother’s angry, reddened hands. My pale face staring back as I balanced on the sink to reach the mirror. My tight and anxious heart. The night I couldn’t stay another day. My great escape.
My father has summoned me. After a lifetime away, I’m back in Edmonton, this outpost long deserted by his children. The cold, industrial city was not for us.
Was it Edmonton we hated, or the nest that hatched us? No matter. We blamed our migration on the city’s endless winters and whisper-thin summers, and on the pull of Elsewhere. Only one brother stayed in Alberta, choosing a city beyond my mother’s reach.
My father has never connected the dots on our staggered exodus. He tags us by phone, taking pride in his artistic sons: the Painter, the Guitarist, the Cellist. Less boast-worthy is the Financial Planner, though he’s kept our parents solvent through a long retirement.
As for me, his only daughter, he’s never said much about my years as a missionary. To him, I’ve always been the Writer. Now I’m finally writing, but I don’t tell him, afraid my excavations will break his ancient heart.
We don’t know how he’s done it, 57 years in that house, but my mother’s dementia is the last straw on the bumpy back of wedlock, and he wants out. Not divorce, but a fresh start, where he can tread water until Alice — wife, great-grandmother, difficult person — goes into full-time care. He wants release, even if it means giving up the house.
“How much longer do you think she has?” he asks. He wants prophetic certainty.
“How much longer do you think she has?” he asks. He wants prophetic certainty.
But how should we know? Alzheimer’s is a tricky beast, encroaching without a schedule. The only sure thing is defeat. One of them has to crash, and my money’s on him — a nervous, fretful mess, undone by my mother’s break from reality. He’s always clung to logic like a nun clutching a rosary, and the scattered beads in my mother’s head are rolling in every direction but straight.
“I won’t be visiting her every day when she goes in,” he says. “She won’t even know if I come or what day it is. What’s the point?”
As always, my father’s reason overrides his sensitivity.
“But I will visit sometimes,” he adds, not wanting to appear heartless. “Of course, I’ll go. Maybe once a week — that should be fine.”
The irony is that Alzheimer’s has melted my mother’s quills; she’s less prickly than she’s ever been. But my father can’t deal with this new, softer Alice, floating in her noncombative dream state. She’s unfamiliar.
This saddens me. After five willful children and one emotional affair, they’ve been through the wringer together, the whole kit and caboodle, as my mother would say. But now he won’t get the pleasure of reminiscing with her, whitewashing the past. They can’t have a rational conversation anymore. She can’t keep track of whose house she’s in, let alone remember what happened in it. The beads are everywhere.
My brother Phil (the Artist) suggests a quiet, green retirement park five minutes from his Vancouver Island home. My parents can sell the house and buy a prefab unit, five times smaller than the homestead. A nursing home slumbers nearby, where my mother can go after enough residents die.
My father, resisting change, says no for a year. But now he’s ready.
Anticipating Alice’s resistance, he gets power of attorney and concocts a ruse in case she asks about the realtors traipsing through the house.
“Most of the time she doesn’t even notice the visitors,” he says. “But when she does, I tell her these people are thinking of buying a different old house, and they’re looking at ours to get some decorating ideas.”
He figures this ploy will flatter my mother. To me, it confirms how fully delusional both have become. The house, never a paragon of style in its heyday and now wallowing in decrepitude, is hardly a site for inspiration, unless you need hellfire motivation to purge your house of overflow before it swallows you alive.
Decision made, my father leaps at the first buyer, less eager for top dollar than to close the deal and skedaddle. The house sells “As Is” — the only way it could be sold. Trying to fancy it up would be like reassembling a butchered hog and hoping to sell it back to the farm. The buyers want location, and have plans to gut the house. My father agrees to empty the house and skip the cleaning.
“I sold the house,” he crows in April. “We have till July 3 to empty it. Phil’s coming in June, and we’re going to finish in 10 days and drive back with him. He said you’d help. You can sleep in Brian’s room while you’re here. I really appreciate your offer!”
No one has actually asked me to help. My father simply morphs a suggestion into a plan as I lie sleeping elsewhere, blissfully unaware that the hardest job of my life has finally arrived.
As June approaches, I dither daily. The prospect of emptying the house in nine days overwhelms me. This job warrants months, if not years: time to sort and allocate a lifetime of objects. I’d imagined unearthing the house after my parents’ death, on a leisurely timeline. I’d imagined my brothers pitching in, light banter and debate as we sift for treasure and divide the loot, free of parental oversight.
While I dither, my father calls frequently to bemoan his plight and thank me for my service.
“You’re coming in June, right?” He never waits for an answer. “I really appreciate it.” His anxiety zings through the phone, and I know any hint of indecision might undo him.
“Sure,” I say. “First week of June. It’s on my calendar. “
But the prospect makes my heart race, and not in a good way.
My father insists on putting Alice on the phone for brief chats, and it’s clear things have changed; there’s a blank where my voice used to register. My own nuclear family has also been expunged, a relief after years of disapproval. Her grudges have evaporated. She no longer remembers whom she hates, or the cases she’s built against them. An unexpected, too-little-too-late miracle.
Alzheimer’s is a tricky beast, encroaching without a schedule. The only sure thing is defeat.
Even with the new Alice, I pray for a solid excuse to bow out: a June date for my pending knee surgery, new work clients, a possible airline strike. One by one, the excuses evaporate. I book my flight and check the Edmonton forecast: cloudy, stormy, and unseasonably cold — perfectly suited to the circumstances.
No matter how I dither, I am manifestly destined to go.
In Medias Res
On June 1, I fly from summery Kelowna and land in the city of my birth. A typical spring day in Edmonton: blustery, wet, and gray. In the sweep of an hour, I’ve watched the gorgeous Okanagan hills recede, glimpsed the Rockies through diaphanous clouds, and gazed in a mixture of dismay and nostalgia at the flat, almost featureless farmland around Edmonton. I’d forgotten the starkness of the prairies when the sun isn’t brightening things up. The soil is black, dotted with anorexic, barely dressed trees. And the city, spreading like spilled ink as we descend, neither sparkles nor shines.
I imagined the trip’s saving grace would be visiting friends after years away. But the nine-day emptying will demand every minute, precluding my fantasies. Instead, I’ve asked two friends to pick me up, delaying my parental reunion.
At 10:00 p.m. we drive to the house. It’s nearly solstice at the 45th parallel, light enough to survey the neighborhood. Sturdy trees have risen from saplings planted in the ’60s, when the community was a muddy field under construction. My childhood stomping grounds have aged into an elegant old lady, coiffed and respectable. In every yard, botanicals have been clipped into tidy conformity.
Everywhere but here.
My parents’ house is invisible, engulfed by overgrowth. An enormous birch devours the lawn, now a pocket of wilderness heaped with blackened branches. The hedge has tripled in height, and four enormous pines, once Arbor Day twiglets, sway above the roofline like drunken soldiers. This descent into jungledom was inevitable. Alice never believed in pulling weeds or removing dead branches: Nature always took precedence.
I wear no overcoat, but if I had, I’d have pulled up my collar and slunk up the buckling driveway like Dick Tracy on a murder investigation. I’d expect to find one or two wraiths in the house, hiding from the 21st century.
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And I do. My father, shuffling by cane, is slow, so Alice gets there first, opening the door with a friendly but questioning smile. Who is this stranger at her door?
I’m shocked by her white, unwashed hair, flowing past her bony shoulders. She’s never worn long hair and it softens her, making her childlike and vulnerable. These are the last words I’d use to describe my mother: She’s always been opinionated, ferocious, oppositional. But now she grins like a fairy-tale gnome, wearing a nubby pullover and floppy green sweatpants. I’m anonymous and she’s happy in her new, generic way, to see me. She’s always been kinder with strangers than familiars, and now that the realtors are gone, the doorbell’s been silent.
My father never says hello when he sees me, even if it’s been months or years apart. Instead, he jumps in medias res, launching frantic questions or updates on his latest obsessions. This time, he lobs a trifecta of worries: the timing of my brother’s arrival; when my nephew plans to pick up the pool table; and whether I plan to spend every night under their roof. We’ve already discussed these things by phone, multiple times. He’s reaching new heights of anxious obsession.
“Hi Dad,” I eventually say. “How was your trip?” He never gets the joke. Now he’s onto the next worry: the tail-wagging canine at my side.
“You brought someone’s dog with you?”
“No, Dad, it’s my dog, Casper. I told you I was bringing him, several times.”
“Your mother doesn’t like dogs,” he says. I know this. Alice always hated dogs, and this will be the first time a dog sleeps under her roof.
“I know, Dad. But she doesn’t even know where she IS, anymore. She can’t remember what she hates. She doesn’t even know ME anymore. She’ll be fine.”
My mother is instantly smitten. “A dog! What’s the doggie’s name?”
She’ll repeat these words endlessly over the next nine days, surprised each time she sees him. His provenance and name escape her. Sometimes, intriguingly, she calls him “Alice.”
“Does she know where her pups are? Does she remember where she put them?”
Bringing him is genius: Casper engages her inner child. She adores him more than she ever adored me.
Which is fine. I just wish Old Alice could see what New Alice is up to. She’d be absolutely livid.
She’s talking to invisibles, imagining strangers and children in the house. The children are younger versions of my brothers, currently missing; she’ll set extra places at the table and wonder when they’ll be back. She’s obsessed, yet never panicked. Her mother, dead for 25 years, also lurks nearby. This spooks my father.
The missing child is never me.
As the week progresses, I observe her monologues, recounting her life story — or rather, the first 20 years. She gets hazy once she hits motherhood, unsure what came next. Those weren’t the happy bits. But her early life is crystal clear, and she its radiant star. Her Ukrainian-Canadian childhood is now the Broadway version and comes with a rapt audience. The invisibles never interrupt.
My father also watches, wearing his new shock-and-dismay expression.
“Get used to it, Dad,” I say. “This is the new reality. At least we don’t have to listen to the same old stories. She’s found new friends, and they obviously love her.”
To me, her monologues are a godsend. We don’t need to eavesdrop; her stories don’t contain us. Instead, we can tackle our epic task: packing up her later, darker world, and closing its doors.
Apart from countless phone calls, my father has done nothing to prepare for the emptying. Months earlier, when he fretted about what to keep, I’d suggested a simple method. “Go to the dollar store and buy some stickers to mark things: Keep. Donate. To be Decided. Put them on the back so Mom won’t peel them off.” If nothing else, I thought this could be an outlet for his escalating nervous energy.
He hasn’t marked a thing. Choosing means moving forward, and he’s stuck, waiting for his children to break the spell. He hasn’t tossed a single paper.
After my bathroom inspection, I ask a few questions. The dysfunctional tub is as lonely as it looks: My mother won’t bathe anymore. More alarming is my father’s blindness to the house-wide decay. The toilet, in particular, defies polite description. One morning he asks me to clean it for the new owners.
“Um, Dad, I don’t think there’s much point.”
“Why not? Can’t you scrub out the stains so it looks better?”
“Dad, those stains are permanent. The buyers will toss the toilet and gut the whole house. That’s why it’s selling “As Is.”
“Why would they do that? It’s a perfectly good toilet!”
His eyesight is sharp, even after decades of anxious spectating. Something else is wrong. Maybe 57 years of staring at the same walls renders you house-blind, though he’s taken good care of the family cabin. But the house is my mother’s domain. Dad paid the bills; she ruled the roost. His mind was usually elsewhere. And now that she’s mentally flown the coop, he’s lost his bearings.
Alice made his every meal and drink. But as her Alzheimer’s progressed, her kitchen skills disintegrated. She forgot how to turn on the stove and put plastics in the oven. Her inability to detect moldy food verged on manslaughter.
Faced with starvation, my father now makes coffee, eggs, toast, and passable suppers of fried meat with corn-on-the-cob. Lunch is a can of soup, divvied between them. He’s also mastered oatmeal, which my mother eats daily without complaint. After 65 years of producing three meals a day, she cast off her duties like slipping off an apron, displaying zero interest in the kitchen till it’s time to eat.
Another stunning change. She used to be the Kitchen Nazi; now she’s like royalty, visiting royalty, waiting to be served.
On the second morning, my mother shuffles into the kitchen.
“Have you eaten yet?” I ask. My father is still in bed.
“Oh, no. I don’t cook anymore. But I met this fella who likes to cook for me. He always makes breakfast.”
She sits down to wait for her “fella” — a word I’ve never heard her use. My parents have always shunned lazy speech and dutifully pronounce the “g” in “ing” words. My father predictably goes bananas whenever a witness on the news says “I seen.” This is a new Alice, alright; she isn’t even worried her fella might not show. Alzheimer’s has given her a refreshing dollop of equanimity. Breakfast whenever is fine.
“Oh, there’s a dog!” she says, catching sight of Casper. “What’s the doggie’s name?”
I sleep in the Cellist’s room, across from the room where my mother sleeps. My old bedroom was reconfigured into a small library within months of my running away, as my parents purged every trace of me. Nothing from my girlhood room remains, except the hated, too-small kitchen curtains my mother hung when I was 5. They’re mysteriously intact, the only curtains in the house to have dodged the ravages of time. I briefly consider taking them home, but change my mind: They won’t fit my current house, either, and in terms of nostalgia, they’ll always represent my mother’s perversity when it came to pleasing me. In every other room, the curtains she’d chosen at least covered the windows, and none of my brother’s rooms sported kitchen curtains, festooned with brassy pots and pans.
My bedroom-turned-library heaves under stacks of magazines and books, tomes dating back to the 1927 encyclopedias I used for school reports. More reference books have accumulated, including two piles of concordances from my grandfather’s house. My father has kept them, despite knowing he’ll never use them, given his aversion to Bible study and his father’s strict religion. Deep issues lay bound in these books, issues he’ll never explore. He’s also kept his father’s bookcases, now covered with decades of office paraphernalia. The overpacked motif extends to every room, crammed with duplicates from both grandparents’ homes.
I mutter the maxim: Keep only what is useful or beautiful. My folks obviously missed that memo, embracing the opposite: Everything might be useful someday. They’re Depression-era hoarders, not so much overshopping as using things past the point of death, then stashing them. Whatever came their way remained, except their children.
At the foot of the stairs hangs a large painting that confronts every trek to the main floor. After 57 years of daily viewing, my father makes a passing remark, prompted by the task of winnowing his artwork.
“I’ve never liked that painting,” he says. “Something about the angle on that mountain isn’t right. Can you see it? It’s always bothered me, that angle.”
“Then why on earth did you keep it?” I ask. “Why didn’t you replace it with a picture you actually enjoy looking at every day?”
My father looks blank. “It’s always been there.”
In contrast to my former bedroom, my youngest brother’s room is a shrine, brimming with books, sheet music, and dusty childhood keepsakes, his bulletin board plastered with musical accolades. This one — the Cellist — won Alice’s favor. We siblings call him the Golden Child, astonished by the altered mother who raised him. Her favoritism always seemed unfair.
But it wasn’t his fault; he’d merely run with his talents, just as we had with ours. The difference was my mother’s affinity for classical music and her own thwarted dreams. He took center stage as the rest of us fled.
Now he’s studying to become a lawyer, to my mother’s dismay.
I settle into his narrow twin bed, trying not to picture the stuff in every room, squeezing my chest like a stack of concordances. Tomorrow, I decide, I’ll start in the basement, one cobwebbed corner at a time.
The basement. A rumpus room, filled with a pool table, a crokinole board, three card tables, a large TV, an ancient radio, one couch, five armchairs, six pairs of skis, a hamper stuffed with music books, and several large, useless pieces of wood. A mantle sagging with photos, art projects, souvenirs from Canada’s Centennial (1967), and 40 years of curling trophies. Dust to match. Two bookshelves with titles from every decade of the 1900s. A massive closet, groaning with board games and building sets from the last mid-century. The Toy Closet, we called it: what always springs to mind when I picture my childhood home.
Unearthing that room will be interesting. Less so will be the wine cellar, jammed with hundreds of empty wine bottles and canned food from the ’60s. I shake a blackened can of peaches and its contents bounce like Silly Putty. Above, more deep shelves, packed with hardware and camping gear, including the massive canvas tent we pitched and dismantled like army cadets: 18 feet long, nine feet high, and almost impossible to lift. It’s rotted beyond repair, but my parents have kept it, just in case.
A massive freezer, packed with freezer-burned casseroles and frost-bound bread. Someone’s willing to take it — emptied — and I hack at years of ice to release the contents, traveling decades as I dig. At bottom, waxy fruit cartons dated 1972: peaches and pears from the Okanagan, where I live, souvenirs from a family camping trip. I haul countless baskets of wasted food up the stairs and into the dumpster we’ve rented, one that seemed ridiculously large when it arrived, filling the driveway. Soon to be too small.
The laundry room: an ancient washing machine, flanked by mountains of empty containers, vats of desiccated winemaking supplies, and piles of dirty laundry. My mother is unable to decipher its dials anymore and my father is too overwhelmed with kitchen duties to learn another skill set.
I toss a load into the washer and tackle the recycling. By late afternoon, I’ve covered the back garden with stacks of stuffed bags, but there’s more, everywhere I look. Alice was obsessed with saving containers and cookie tins, some empty, some heavy with fossilized Christmas baking.
One splintering laundry basket.
No dryer: Alice refused. She believes in hanging laundry outside. Hordes of mosquitoes attack the instant I step outdoors, and I flee in search of repellent. Stored among fishing supplies in the basement are three ancient vials of repellent, and I wonder if 20-year-old ointment still works.
Most of the dried-up clothespins snap in half as I hang the load. I think of my mother slinging laundry in Edmonton winters, sometimes at 30 below. What misery! She claimed to enjoy herself, wrestling with bedsheets as magpies cawed in her backyard jungle. Fair enough. But bird-filled days are the exception, not the rule, in this subarctic city, and I’m struck again by the perversity of my mother’s choices.
After hanging laundry, I assess the Artist’s basement room. Phil inherited this cubby after the Cellist’s birth: no room for seven on the second floor. It’s a dank, claustrophobic space, permanently cold, with narrow windows and a low ceiling. No provision was made for heating, and Alice turned it into a cold cellar after Phil left. Every surface is stacked with her infernal containers: foil pans, plastic tubs, plastic and paper bags, and huge jars of pickled matter that defy identification. Beneath lie remnants of my brother’s hole-and-corner existence upon his basement banishment, but it takes a full day of dragging bags into the garden to make a dint.
When Phil arrives a day later, I show him the astonishing mounds of recycling outside, and then his room, the outlines of furniture still covered with containers and grime.
“I thought you’d like to finish the rest. Maybe there’s treasure in those drawers.”
My brother looks grim. “I doubt it. This room wasn’t a happy place for me.”
No kidding. I ask for details, a conversation we’ve never had.
“The only good thing about this room was sneaking out whenever I wanted. Mom and Dad would think I was downstairs, working on my art, but I couldn’t stand being home. I always took off. And it was always freezing. I used to huddle around a hairdryer with a blanket just to get warm.”
I’d hated my room upstairs, with its lack of style and scary view of the refineries (unblocked by the paltry curtains), but at least it was warm. Moored in my own despair, I’d had no idea of Phil’s unhappiness. Recent talks with my brothers are revealing a common truth: We’d all been lonely in this house, unbeknownst to each other.
“We could’ve helped each other out,” I said, “if only we’d known. But we were too miserable to see it in each other.”
My brother picks up a heavy jar of purplish pickles, and sighs. “What could we have done, even if we had? The only solution was escape. I envied you, being brave enough to do it. I wished I could’ve done the same.”
This is a late-stage revelation. I never imagined being envied, assuming my brothers resented the angry hole I’d left behind, the years my mother ranted at my getaway. I knew they’d never heard the end of it.
Casper, my 17-year-old mutt, follows me everywhere. Now he shadows me up and down two flights of stairs as I empty the house, maybe 60 climbs a day. I’m not counting, but the work is constant, the steps steep, his legs short, and a huge fatty lump on his chest rubs each step on every ascent. Several times a day, I accidentally whack him with bags I can barely lift. On we trudge, morning till night, for seven successive days. Between climbs he collapses into naps or circles round my mother, enjoying her childlike attention.
I’m not exempt from stair fatigue, even though I’ve been hiking mountains and my lungs and legs are strong. On the fifth night, I count 13 bruises on my calves and thighs and wonder if my legs will work when the sun returns.
My arms, dragging bundles, boxes, and furniture, are also bruised, and weary as salmon leaping the last ladder to their mountain home. My back is riddled with pain.
My head is aflame. On the second evening, I’m hit with a virus or allergy, felling me with pounding congestion, weeping eyes, and a death-rattle cough. But there’s no time for ailing. Like an injured pirate plundering a sinking ship, I press on. There’s a deadline to this work, fast approaching.
A year ago, this would’ve been impossible. Alice would’ve blocked every bag leaving the house, questioned our motives, railed at conspiracy. She would’ve chased us away.
Now she holds the door and watches the dumpster fill, oblivious to the mountain of thrift-store donations piling in her living room and the marathon runs to the recycling depot. She never ventures to the basement to see what we’re doing, or questions my rapid dissembling of her congested kitchen cupboards. (More ancient plastics! 40-year-old spices! Aluminum cups from 1955!) That’s because she no longer knows this is home. Instead, she watches me, her nameless hostess, as I pack and purge, never asking why. This house, she says, reminds her of her house in Edmonton, especially the clothesline and the kitchen window. But it’s not her house, and not her laundry whipping in the wind. She wants to go home, but first she needs to find her purse. Have I seen it anywhere?
Her latest obsession revolves around missing objects, usually a purse, suitcase, or piece of clothing. Thankfully, though her searches last days, her anxiety over lost items is low. I unearth at least 30 purses in closets and drawers, most with Kleenex and singers’ mints tucked inside, none with cash. (My father handled the money.) I show her several: Is this your missing purse? No, she tells me, none are hers, but she hopes their owners find them soon. Meanwhile, she’ll keep looking. I pack all but one for donation and set the remaining bag in her room, which she repeatedly brings back, insisting it’s not hers. Days later, she claims it. Now if she could just find her suitcase, she’d be ready to pack.
Eight duffle bags and suitcases cover the spare double bed in her room, surrounded by stacks of her clothing she doesn’t recognize. It’s her attempt at packing, says my father. She wants to pack and go home, but the surplus overwhelms her. I slip into her room when she’s downstairs and incrementally scale down the piles, setting usable garments and bags aside in case she asks for them. She doesn’t. When the pile is small and manageable, she calms down.
“Someone finally cleaned my room,” she says. “It’s much better now. I found my suitcase.”
But minutes later she starts again. “Have you seen my shoes?” she asks. I bring out her most recent shoes, at least 10 pairs, dust-balled in the front hall closet. None are hers.
Simplicity will be a blessing; 530 square feet sounds perfect. The less we send on their way, the better.
Howard, the Financial Planner, devotes hours to guiding my father through the monetary morass of buying, selling, and moving. He also drives up three times during our feverish purging spree to lend muscle and encouragement. If anyone’s been underappreciated in our family, it’s Howard, but instead of stewing, he’s grown a heart of gold. After running heaps of recycling to the depot and doing a lion’s share of heavy lifting, he drives home and spends seven hours sorting and shredding my father’s old documents. As the only in-province sibling, he’s been quietly serving our parents for years, without complaint. I make a point of commending him each time I see him: He’s our unsung hero. With unfortunate timing, he’s also in the midst of buying and selling his own homes right now, and he’s managing all this, plus his full-time business, and cracking jokes the whole time.
As Phil and I work, Brother Two, the Guitarist, floats between us. Three months ago, he died of cancer, the first in our family to go, and he keeps turning up as we tunnel through our childhood. Doug escaped the house the minute he graduated and moved west; three decades later, he and I ended up living 10 minutes apart. He ought to be here, sorting through board games and building sets, revisiting the Toy Closet and claiming his lost marbles. We find the bag — soft suede with a leather drawstring, labeled by his 8-year-old hand, still guarding his favorite cat’s eyes, aggies, and steelies. I see him catch the bag and run outside to play. Doug was always outdoors.
We find his trucks and microscopes, too. “Doug always knew how to get the best gifts,” Phil sighs. It’s true; as a child, he had an uncanny ability to get what he wanted. But life’s a stinker, and cancer eventually canceled his magic touch.
Other ghosts emerge. Working in the basement on Day Three, Phil runs upstairs with a small framed photo that’s fallen from a stack of papers: It’s me and Jack, the fiancé who died when I was 22, snapped when we were falling in love. It’s the only photo I have; the rest have gone missing over time. Two days later, I’m emptying an upstairs closet and another lost treasure falls out: Jack’s banjo. For years, I’ve chided myself for losing it, and here it is, safe and snug in the black case I remember, a beginner’s manual helpfully tucked inside. Happier memories hatch from these objects, and my heart soars with gratitude. Finding these objects is worth the trip.
The third ghost is feline. Bravely tackling the dusty, rusty, grimy, and mosquito-infested garage, my brother discovers a decrepit yet instantly recognizable bowl: Mousy’s cat dish. Mousy was born in 1957. She died in 1973. Her dish has sat in the garage, untouched, for almost half a century. Before turning it over, Phil remembers the bowl’s inscription: Bunny’s Playtime. It’s a Peter Rabbit dish, circa 1930, probably my father’s infant dish. After 50 years of rest, it’s getting a new lease. I dump some leftovers inside and give it to Casper.
The days blur. I move from floor to floor, stuffing bags for the landfill and donation. I discover the extent of my mother’s hoarding, from closets of clothes dating back to the ’50s, every shirt washed, ironed, and buttoned from neck to bottom; to dozens of almost-identical shoes still in boxes; to drawers of unopened charity-appeal letters; to boxes from every gift her children have sent over 40 years. The strangest of Alice’s compulsions are scores of sweaters she’s folded into individual shopping bags, then sealed tight with wire twisters, each twisted tightly to the end. Once packed, the sweaters are stashed into drawers and high shelves, invisible, inaccessible, and forgotten. The cardigans and pullovers share similar styles and colors, and perhaps some got limited exposure before joining their sisters in the catacombs.
I used to wonder what Alice did in her lonely house after we scattered. Now I know. She ironed, buttoned, folded, twist-tied, and stashed her life away. She baked and froze; she pickled and canned and stacked. She sent my father out to buy more of the same groceries she’d already squirreled into dark corners. She perpetually prepared for the next trip to the cabin, season after season, forgetting the prep she’d done the year before. She buried most of her grandchildren’s photos in deep drawers. She never donated.
On the seventh day I collapse, managing only a few hours’ work before crashing. My body says NO; my second wind fails to rise. I hobble to the Cellist’s room and fall asleep. When I awake, everyone’s eaten supper, and I share the leftovers with Casper before crawling back to bed.
At 3:00 a.m., I wake to a howling wind, slamming branches against windows and keening like a banshee. The wind never sounds like this where I live. Behind the howling, trains mourn in the distance, the night music of my childhood. There’s a weird energy in the room, as if layers we’ve lifted from the house have released captive spirits. The strange elation that’s powered me through the week — the simple joy of getting things done — deflates into a nameless dread. I pull the blankets tight and try to distract myself by mentally reciting scripture. It doesn’t work.
An hour later, I’m jolted by a loud, low-pitched siren, unlike any I’ve known. It sounds close —right outside my window — and fiercely insistent, and my first thought is the trumpet of God, but for its constant pitch: The trumpet of God will blow louder and louder, of course, like the blast at Mount Sinai before God spoke. No, this must be a human warning signal, and my next thought is Run!
Seconds later, I stumble downstairs to meet Phil, who in similar panic has grabbed his travel bag and fled the basement. The siren sounds like it’s inside our heads. We dash into the street, early-lit in the solstice sun and eerily still. No one’s around. We run past parked cars and silent windows, wondering what we’re fleeing. Now it feels like we’re unscripted actors in a bad-but-disturbing rapture movie.
Baffled, we run back to the house and turn on the radio; surely there’ll be news. My brother flicks the tuner to AM and flits through the stations, but the motor-mouthed hosts rant on without reference to a new, more urgent emergency. I run upstairs, grab my laptop, and Google “Edmonton siren emergency alert.” There’s a website, headed with a red-lettered caption: NO ACTIVE EMERGENCY SIGNALS. We discard the notion of an alien invasion and settle on the most likely explanation: Something’s happened at the refineries. But who’s being warned? Why isn’t anyone moving? Should we jump in our cars and escape? Where?
The unnerving calm in the neighborhood convinces us to stay. My parents haven’t roused, either, so maybe they’re all used to this, whatever this is.
A full hour later, the siren stops.
My father gets up at the usual time and shuffles downstairs to assume his Breakfast Fella duties. I ask him about the siren.
“Did you hear it this morning? What on earth was that?”
He’d slept through all but a minute of it. “It’s something at the refineries,” he said. “Something must’ve blown.”
“But so loud? Lasting an hour, at full blast?”
“It’s usually just a minute or two. I’ve never heard it go that long.”
“And the whole neighborhood just sleeps right through it?”
I’m amazed at our human capacity to adapt to the unbearable. Almost anything can seem normal if it’s inflicted on us long enough.
Pondering this, I’m glad I didn’t stick around, that I ran away early, before despair stopped feeling dangerous and started feeling normal.
Emptying the master bedroom takes two days. Besides the bags of cocooned sweaters and fully buttoned shirts, there are at least 18 overstuffed drawers, two groaning desks, and three large cedar chests, all jammed with papers, letters, wrapping paper, bows, socks, underwear, winter gear, or costume jewelry. I ask my father to pull out the clothes he wants to keep, but he passes the decision-making back to me. There’s a huge pool to choose from. I select an assortment of garments spanning decades; some of the older stuff is back in style, or could be, given a few more years. Besides, at 86 you can darn well wear what you please.
A hand-stitched silk shirt wrapped in a dry-cleaning bag catches my eye. Judging from the label, it’s been lolling in the closet since the ’60s. I have no memory of my father wearing it, and it’s classier than his school-principal wardrobe. Plus, it’s in immaculate shape. I put it on the Keep pile. A few days later, when we drive down to see my brother’s new house, my father wears it, along with a pair of cords from the ’80s. He looks pretty spiff.
My mother wears the same clothes for weeks on end: the same baggy green sweatpants and high-necked pullover she was wearing the night I arrived. Not surprisingly, she smells (and looks) like a homeless person. But every attempt to wash them is met with refusal. “They don’t need washing,” she tells me. “I just put them on a few days ago.”
Three old-fashioned nightgowns hang in her now-emptied closet, and each night she chooses the same grubby one. If we had a dryer, I could wash the lot overnight and have them ready by morning, but the cold, wet weather isn’t cooperating with the clothesline. I weigh my options, decide whether it’s more important to have her somewhat clean or somewhat happy. Despite her global confusion, she’s fiercely attached to her three-piece wardrobe.
I go with “somewhat happy” for the first week, but change my mind after she wets herself and still maintains her pants are fresh. Into the wash they go, and I lay a fresh set of garments on her bed for morning: baggy, elasticized pants in the same shade of green, and a fleecy button-up shirt. Purple. She shuffles down for breakfast looking fresher, despite her unwashed hair.
“Someone left this lovely shirt in my room,” she says. “I hope they don’t mind if I borrow it. Have you seen my green pullover anywhere?”
It’s hanging outside, in plain view from the kitchen window, but I know she won’t recognize it.
“I’m sure it’ll turn up,” I say. “Someone must’ve moved it.”
My mother wanders into her former bedroom while I’m stuffing bags and planning my father’s future fashion statements. Standing by the bed, she moves things around, undoing my piles and generally getting in the way. “Do you want to go downstairs and listen to some music?” I ask. Listening to classical music, the music of her life, is the one thing that centers her.
She doesn’t. She wants to stay here and look for her missing clothes and suitcases. I guide her to the opposite side of the bed and position her in front of a dust-covered desk, now stripped of clutter.
“You could wipe off this desk for me,” I say, handing her a damp rag. “It really needs cleaning.”
“Desk?” she says, looking straight at it. “I need to look for my suitcase.”
I put my hand over hers and move the rag over the desk. “Like this. See how dusty it is?”
She dabs at a corner for a few seconds before losing interest and wandering back to my side of the bed, where she starts jumbling through my piles again.
“Mom,” I say, “the desk. Can you please finish cleaning it?”
“Desk?” she says, looking blank. I walk her back to the corner and pick up the rag again. She dabs a bit more before shuffling back to me.
She’s like a 3-year-old, I think, except most 3-year-olds could finish this simple task. I give up trying.
“Let’s go downstairs and look for your shoes,” I suggest. “I think I know where someone might have moved them.” This interests her.
I’ll show her the same shoes for the fifth time and put on some music. Maybe she’ll finally recognize her 10-year-old shoes. Maybe she won’t. Either way, I’ll wait till she’s lost in Handel’s Water Music before sneaking back upstairs to tackle the rest in peace.
My brother keeps pace, working as long and as hard as I, while suffering with his own handicap. He’s had a migraine the whole week, and most of the time he wears a thick, homemade headpiece fashioned from old fabric and whatever he stuffed inside to make it five inches thick and able to trap cold. The day he got here, I found his contraption in the freezer and threw it in the trash; it looked like something the cat dragged in, and I assumed it was a useless mystery item from my parents’ past. Luckily he spotted it before the trash landed in the dumpster.
He and I are the hardest working people I know. We’ve tackled the impossible together. This delight in our tenacity, buttressed with visible mountains of staggering achievement, carries us through the week. We’re inspired by each other, bonded in our history and our rediscovery of it.
My father, watching us fill the massive dumpster with junk and the living room with a lifetime of donations, makes the same comment over and over.
“You’re being very ruthless,” he says.
“I AM ruthless,” I answer. “I HAVE to be ruthless. If I weren’t ruthless, we couldn’t get this baby done.”
My middle name is Ruth. Each time we have this exchange, I’m reminded of a silly verse my father used to recite when I was small:
Ruth and Johnny, side by side,
Went out for a motor ride.
They hit a bump, Ruth hit a tree,
And Johnny rode on – ruthlessly.
I love being ruthless with my parents’ stuff. It compensates for all the years they weren’t ruthless, materially speaking, in contrast to my thrift-store mentality. So much stuff could’ve been reused if they’d given it away before it disintegrated. So much could’ve been shared instead of hoarded. We’re keeping so little, a tiny sliver of the whole rotting pie. A few boxes of sentimental items, photo albums, and certificates, will travel with them to the island. Maybe, dislodged from their Edmonton cave and viewed in fresh light, they’ll warrant a closer look. Maybe, if my father chooses to look, they’ll speak a fresh truth.
But he’ll probably be too busy fretting.
Miraculously, impossibly, we meet our deadline. Three men from a thrift store spend several hours filling their truck with the furniture, lamps, rugs, hardware, and mountains of boxed and bagged items we’ve piled in the living room. For the first time in 57 years, the front room sits empty, its battered carpet and shredded curtains fully exposed, except for a handful of old chairs and a saggy couch the thrift store refused. Even with adroit stacking (my brother is a whiz at spatial calculations), the dumpster is loaded beyond capacity; when the pickup takes place, the drivers will insist on bringing a second dumpster to handle the overflow.* We’ve also maxed-out the jumbo-sized bins at several recycling depots.
Hooked to my father’s SUV, a compact U-Haul trailer, packed with all the earthly goods my parents are taking, sits ready for tomorrow’s departure day. My duties are over; Phil’s are just beginning. He’ll caravan with them over the Rockies and across British Columbia, 1,160 kilometers, before catching the ferry to his island town. Once there, our parents will stay in his busy house for a month — in his master bedroom — until their own place is ready.
Why the rush, you may wonder. Why do it all in nine days?
No one tells me. Perhaps it had to be like this, like pulling a clotted bandage off a crusty wound.
Halfway to the island, my father will drive his truck off the road, disconnecting the trailer and scattering the carefully packed contents across an open field. Several things will break. The trip will take many extra days, including a return trip for my brother to pick up his abandoned vehicle.
After the thrift-store pickup, there’s one last event in the house: a meeting with someone from the Alberta Alzheimer’s Society. She arrives at 2 p.m., a packet of general information in hand. My father insists we all attend the meeting, so we’re all on the same page. There’s not much to discuss, since my mother will no longer have access to Alberta services, and our liaison lady doesn’t know much about programs in British Columbia, except to suggest they’re probably much the same. Maddeningly, the two provinces operate like former East and West Germany when it comes to interprovincial transitions.
My mother joins us in the living room, and the Alzheimer’s lady opens the meeting by looking us each in the eye to make sure we understand the rules.
“We’re going to be speaking very generically here today,” she says, shooting a swift glance at Alice. “I trust you understand why.”
And so it begins, a meeting about the progression and outcomes of Alzheimer’s, without saying the banned words: Dementia. Alzheimer’s. Full-time care. Assisted living. It’s like a crazy game of Taboo, and I’m not sure why we’re playing since my mother’s clearly not on the same page or even on the same planet. We could be talking about murdering her and dispersing her cut-up remains across Canada, and she wouldn’t bat an eye.
“Alice, how do you feel about moving to Chemainus?” my father asks, midway through the generic discussion. He’s been asking the same question all week and getting a different, unrelated answer every time.
“Well, I was never happy about selling the house…” she begins, and we all turn to look at her. For a moment it seems like she’s back on board. Maybe she’s been messing with us all this time. “But I’ve always been a singer, and when Dodie came to the cabin, I knew it might be the last time I’d see her…” And she’s off, spinning fragments of her life and memories of her long-deceased sister into a tapestry of incoherence. Her rambling should be a major tip off to our facilitator — it doesn’t matter what words we use — but she’s heavily indoctrinated and persists in word-avoidance till the meeting ends.
My father wants just one thing from her. “How much longer do you think she has?” he asks for the umpteenth time, and the four of us practically sing out the disappointing answer: Nobody really knows. You’ll just have to play it by ear.
I’m forfeiting my return ticket to drive back in my father’s 17-year-old station wagon; he’s gifting it to replace my daughter’s old beater. Driving means room in the back for keepsakes I couldn’t bring on the plane. I’ve reclaimed my childhood desk (the one my mother hasn’t finished cleaning), and nabbed a cedar chest and an early painting by Phil, as well as two photo albums and Jack’s banjo. Phil helps me pack, leaving room for Casper and the cat dish. We’re ready for takeoff, but my father wants me to stay till morning so we can all leave together, even though I’ll be taking a different highway home.
My oldest best friend comes for a final visit. She hasn’t seen Phil since the early ’80s, when they used to go dancing on Friday nights. She hasn’t seen Howard since he was 10, the year she and I ran away together. She’s avoided seeing my mother for most of those years, even though her family continued to live in the house across the lane.
My mother never liked Laura.
But today it’s different. Today, Alice greets her with the fuzzy warmth she now lavishes on everyone. She hugs her. After the initial shock of seeing a childhood friend after nearly half a century, my brothers and Laura reconnect. I make a pot of peppermint tea, and my father joins us round the makeshift kitchen table for a spontaneous reunion.
Laura last stood in our kitchen 48 years ago (where she’d never be invited to sit, unless it was my birthday), and now she’s drinking tea with Alice, laughing with her former nemesis and looking perfectly at home. She’s always felt like my sister; today she almost is. A halo seems to hang above the room.
Outside, the wind is gathering force; it’s tornado season. The temperature is plunging. Sharp rain falls from a purplish, darkening sky, whipping against the house. The clock says 6:00 p.m., almost time for supper, if anyone cares to cobble together one last meal. The fridge is almost bare, but in this family, we’re good at making something out of fragments.
I stand with one hand on the fridge, beholding the moment. I could cook, but I’m not staying. I want to leave with this scene intact: For one sweet moment, a thrum of harmony fills the emptied house.
I say my goodbyes, slide behind the wheel, and let the wind blow me home.
It’s the perfect time to leave.
*When the dumpster load is tallied, it weighs 4.75 tons: almost 10,000 pounds of worthless junk. This doesn’t include any large appliances or electronics, but plenty of books and old sweaters.
After a colorful life spanning four continents and 16 cities, Marilyn Kriete now lives in Kelowna, B.C., Canada, with her husband and two cats. Her first memoir, Paradise Road, relates the bicycling adventures and romantic entanglements that led to the next chapters of her unconventional life. She enjoys hiking, deep talks, word games, documentaries, and hearing other people’s stories. You can follow her writing journey on MarilynKriete.com.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands