The elevator inches its way up, rumbling like an upset stomach as I pass each floor. Stepping out from behind the steel doors, I walk down a winding hallway and count down the apartment numbers until I reach my Grandma’s place. 520, 514, 509. I wonder what kind of homes people have created here. 507.
“Hey, the whole flock is here!”
My Grandma’s smile shines bright, melting my heart within seconds. She’s the Grandma on my dad’s side who I’ve been a stranger to for thirteen years. And somehow, I feel like I know her all too well. After some hugs and banter, my parents and I properly step foot into the apartment. Two feet in, I look around to see that there is not much of a home to step into. It’s more of a container really, designed to hold junk rather than people. There’s trash that comes up to my waist and clutter that goes up past my head. It’s a tight squeeze just to get past the kitchen to what’s left of the living room. Dad is actually optimistic: he says there was a lot less room to walk before. The time I spent dancing with my friends instead of doing lab work this summer was worth it after all; my amateur skills move me across the apartment to get to the bedroom.
I salsa past the dog crate, making sure my footwork is sharp so that I don’t knock down the mountains of outdated health magazines on top of it. My Grandma doesn’t have a dog. She just has a friend (who she hasn’t spoken to in years) who had a dog decades past. She hangs onto the crate “just in case.” Losing my balance, I swing my arms and two-step past the kitchen counter, careful not to hit the broken microwave that sits on top of the boxes where old junk mail resides. She saves them “just in case.” In what’s left of the living room, I glance back at the narrow path I just took: endless boxes, broken light fixtures, and black mold line the walls like ornaments. My eyes veer toward the kitchen sink, and plastic containers covered with mildew fill my visual field, some still have expired food in them. I feel a deep desire to wash my eyes out, “just in case.”
As I shuffle into the dining area, I feel myself getting woozy. Overwhelmed, I plop on the couch and let it engulf me, transforming into just another one of the useless things in my Grandma’s apartment. My mind tries to wander but it’s clouded by dust. With every breath I take I feel the dust bunnies hop on my throat, leaving it irritated and itchy. If I could claw through my skin and scratch it I would. The air conditioning unit may be the problem, the clogged ducts blowing invisible particles until my eyes water in retaliation. Like a veil, it thinly covers every object, concealing all but a hint of what’s underneath. Touch something, anything really, and watch how your hands become stained with gray. My concern grows as I continue to peer across the dining area, or rather what I can see beyond the piles of trash bags upon trash bags that keep the overflowing bookshelves from spilling all over the place. How can she live like this? echoes in my head, and I feel my thoughts drift to another apartment, one that is so clean you could eat dinner off the floor.
My other Grandma on my mom’s side, Anneanne, was your typical neat freak. There was never a cushion out of place, a carpet that was left unvacuumed, a window that was not doused with cleaner. The smell of bleach would singe off my nose hairs. When I was younger, I would frequently mess up her carefully tucked-in couch covers with my restless feet, and she would be quick to tell me to tidy up so that it didn’t look like an orospu bohçası, or a bundle of bitches (the Turkish language is fascinating). Anneanne ran her house like a military commander; there was a certain order for everything. Grandma runs her house like a washed-out general manager; there is disorder everywhere. And yet they parallel each other, both let their obsessions for tidiness and preservation control them, and their compulsions follow the lead. Would you rather sit stiff, afraid to make anything dirty (or pis as Anneanne would say)? Or would you rather plant yourself in filth and let the grime consume you until you, too, are left covered with a layer of dust?
Snapping back into reality, I find myself in the bedroom, surrounded by empty cardboard boxes and plastic bags ready to burst at the seams. I place my things on top of my Grandma’s things; she made some space on top of her cardboard boxes for me. Annoyed by the lack of space, I find myself worrying that the weight of my luggage will crush the boxes. I attempt to shift them and swiftly get a scolding from my Grandma. That’s when I learn the only rule in the house: don’t touch Grandma’s junk.
As the hours pass and I spend more time with my Grandma, I learn the stories behind the junk. Notably, her bookshelves are filled with physical therapy books. Some focus on the connections between different muscle groups, others concentrate on pain management, and all of them blur together as my eyes glaze over them. I ask her about her career as a physical therapist, and she pours her love for her field onto me. The passion in her voice is thick, filling the air with something other than dust. She was the first in her family to graduate college, inspiring her younger sister to do the same. Her pride in her accomplishments is enough to break the dam, my eyes filling up with tears. Books for my Grandma are not meaningful because of the content in them, but because of what she sacrificed to get those books. She wants to hold onto anything that reminds her that she made it. Her dementia creeps in as she forgets the names of certain ligaments, but her fingers gently touch each book’s spine, showing how she cares for them as her own.
In her unused china cabinet, she has a little shrine with portraits of all of the people she loves. Her cousins, her mentors, her colleagues — she doesn’t remember where they’re from or details about their families but she has no trouble recalling how much they mean to her. Dad is in there, and so am I. None of the photos are framed, they hang freely. Fragile, they could fly away with the dust at any moment. But in the china cabinet, they are safe. Her memories are safe there, they can’t escape her.
My Grandma continues to tell me colorful backstories, and the mess begins to clean itself up. When my Grandma sees me looking at a trash bag labeled “Mae’s Short Pants,” she is quick to say that she just stores them like that for convenience. I learn that those short pants are for when she goes back home to Louisiana. She tells me about the heat down South, how your skin boils under the sun and burns to the touch. When she picked cotton to make some extra money to feed her family, she would wear her short pants out in the fields. She and her friends would add water to the bag so that they could make a few more pennies. She could tell that I was confused and explained how adding water to the bag makes it heavier, and they got paid by the pound. She’s still embarrassed by it. I tell her it’s admirable and that she should never feel ashamed for helping out her family. Suddenly, I’m grateful to be with her and her clutter, blessed to be there and follow her life story through all of her souvenirs.
I realize Grandma doesn’t live with her junk, she lives in her memories. I realize that this mess is the way her mind works, materialized. I realize Grandma is just trying to keep going, and her hoarding is how she copes. All of her trash bags of clothes that linger next to the dining table and come up waist-high are mementos from New Iberia to Chicago. Her newspapers are stacked like bricks against the wall so she can see all of the knowledge that she used to build herself up and create a beautiful life. Every sticky note that she should’ve thrown out years ago dangles from her desk like fruit from a tree to show her that she continues to nourish and sustain herself every day. She’s a hoarder, and it’s all-consuming, harmful even. But it’s the same thing that gives her life meaning right now. I sit with that for a moment.
“Get the flock outta here!” says Grandma, grinning so wide that her smile blinds me on the way out. As I cha-cha over rolled-up carpets and past a dishwasher that hasn’t worked for eight years, I can’t help but wonder how things could’ve been different if she let in more people and fewer memorabilia into her space. And I take a final look around the apartment, admiring the home underneath all of the mess.