“That’s where my aunt used to live.” Dad slows the car to a crawl. My L.A.-attuned senses keep expecting another car to come up behind us and honk, but none does. “We used to go there every Sunday. She’d make dinner, and the adults would play cards while we kids ran around.”
The streets in this neighborhood are named after fruit: Apple, Pear, Orange. Before the tech companies moved in, these close-packed homes were surrounded by fruit orchards. Now, they’re an island hemmed in by strip malls and parking lots and chain restaurants and tall buildings with inscrutable names: Fortinet, Sensel, Trimble.
“They all moved away, or died,” Dad says, and hits the gas.
You can tell old neighborhoods from the height of the trees and the individualization of the yards. There are flowers, vegetable beds, citrus trees, tasteful rock arrangements, ceramic gnomes. Most of my grandmother’s wood-sided house is dwarfed s by the garden of cacti in her front yard—some in pots, others standing in forest-like clusters, taller than human height. There used to be roses, and tomatoes, before her hands got too weak and she stopped going outside.
We’re there to begin packing things up, but I can’t shake the feeling of wrongness at dismantling my grandmother’s life while she’s still alive. But the house—bought for nineteen thousand in 1961—is now worth a cool two million, too valuable to keep. As soon as it’s sold, some tech bro will no doubt remake it in his own image, with touchscreen appliances and too-white walls.
When we’d arrived that morning, the assisted living facility had looked like a hotel: floral-patterned carpets, overstuffed armchairs, long hallways with doors on either side. Each door had a name placard and some personalization under the peephole—a wreath, a carved wooden sign reading Home is Where the Heart Is. Still, the facility couldn’t hide what it was. As we made our way to the second floor, we passed masked attendants with medical carts as they trolled the long halls and knocked on doors, handing out pills with forced cheer.
My grandmother’s door was bare; she’d only been there three weeks, the first two of which she spent threatening to call a cab and go home.
Dad had knocked and waited for the muffled “come in!” before using his key.
“I thought you were coming at nine,” my grandmother said. “I’ve been waiting for an hour.” She was sitting in the center of the room, in the recliner Dad had brought from her house, the faded orange fabric rising up behind her head like a throne.
“I said ten,” Dad replied. “Were you wearing your hearing aids?”
I perched on the edge of the four-posted bed that took up half the space in the room. Dad pulled out the chair from under what was once my grandmother’s kitchen table, its surface now cluttered with papers and greeting cards from family. She’d placed a few knickknacks around–a ceramic rose, a snow globe–but they couldn’t dispel the aura of impermanence in the room. This was a place to wait for death, albeit a comfortable one.
She began her usual diatribe about the slow service at mealtimes, the rudeness of the staff, the cost. We murmured sympathetically, knowing she didn’t really want us to do anything. The complaining was a ritual, a way of exorcizing her grief at everything she’d lost. Everything she was still losing.
“They give us too much food,” she said, slapping her thigh with one hand. “I’m getting flabby.”
Dad and I exchanged bemused looks. Over the past few years, she’d shrunk into herself, her skeleton becoming more visible beneath the thin veneer of her skin. When she thought we wouldn’t notice, she patted at the wispy white hair that floated about her ears, hair she’d always dyed brown and set in curlers before any family could visit.
After the complaints came the requests for items to be brought from the house. “Sweetie, I just remembered another thing. There was some money in a coin purse, in my bedroom drawer. Thirty dollars, I think. Oh, and I need my silver sweater. It should be in the closet . . .”
Dad bickered with her—I already brought you three sweaters—while I took notes in my phone so we wouldn’t forget anything. There was an increasing desperation in these requests, like the survivor of a shipwreck picking through the debris, saving what she could. No matter what we brought, there would always some other thing, something precious left behind.
We pull into the driveway, and Dad and I climb out of the car, not speaking. We go in through the garage, navigating around the empty trailer parked where my grandmother’s car used to be, before it was donated to charity. The garage still smells faintly of the garlic and onions that once hung from hooks on the ceiling—some lingering, old-world custom. We pass the workbench where Grandpa Jack used to make belt buckles out of abalone shells. At each family visit, he’d be waiting for us there, usually in his Kiss Me, I’m Irish t-shirt. When we left again, he’d grab the Windex bottle from the top shelf and clean our windshield while belting out the chorus to Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again. He died in 2003, but his tools are still there, coated in a thick layer of dust.
Inside, I half expect my grandmother to be sitting at the dining room table in her Sunday best, her hair done up, bony fingers tap-tapping her impatience on the plastic tablecloth.
The interior is a time capsule of the 1970s, with brown shag carpeting and wood-paneled walls. No surface is untouched by knickknacks and mementos. When she ran out of space on the walls, she hung objects on hooks from the ceiling: a stuffed parrot from some cruise ship vacation; a ceiling-to-floor lamp made out of Hawaiian shells.
I glance through the sliding glass door into the kitchen. The little plastic tub, the one she used to take used dishwater out to the garden, is in the sink. Her ancient Brita filter sits on the counter, next to a few mugs permanently stained by instant coffee. When she couldn’t cook any more, she microwaved foods Dad had delivered to her house. She spent most of her days sitting in her orange recliner, doing crossword puzzles,watching the news, waiting for the phone to ring. She wouldn’t leave, wouldn’t accept help. Insisted on driving until age 93, when the neuropathy in her feet got so bad she couldn’t feel the pedals. Her stubbornness drove Dad mad with worry, but I secretly admired her for it. She refused to be infantilized and erased, the way the elderly so often are; it seemed to me a refusal to go gentle into that good night.
The fall was inevitable. Her legs buckled as she was putting her lunch into the microwave, and she crumpled to the floor, a puppet with cut strings. She stayed like that for hours, her face pressed to the cool linoleum, ignoring the emergency button around her neck. I imagine her frail arms pushing, resting, then pushing again, thinking as she did that somehow she’d find the strength to get up, to go on, to stay.
Like a trespasser, I move through the remaining rooms, examining objects I’d never noticed—or never paid attention to—in all my decades of visits. In a high place of honor sits a folded American flag in a wooden case with Grandpa Jack’s date of birth and death inscribed on the bronze placard. World War II Veteran, it reads. Propped up next to it is a photograph of my grandmother, standing next to his gravestone, her lips pressed together in a mournful line.
Without thinking, I take out my phone and begin taking pictures.
A painting of Jesus’ face, his head encircled by a crown of thorns—
A commemorative plate from the 1974 World’s Fair—
Artificial flowers in a dusty vase—
A lime-green rotary phone—
A complete set of hardbound Encyclopedias—
A full suit of armor on a metal stand—
A cathode-ray television, as big as a washing machine—
An electric typewriter—
I want to ask about the stories behind these objects, although I know my grandmother will say she doesn’t remember, even when she does. Once, she let slip that the stuffed rooster near the kitchen reminded her of the chickens they used to have on the farm where she grew up. Her parents emigrated from Northern Italy and subsequently had four children—three boys and a girl. A black and white framed photograph shows them posed in front of a white clapboard house with a dirt yard, the children looking uncomfortable in their church clothes, the parents weary and unsmiling. Everyone in the photo long dead, except my grandmother.
Back in the living room, I pick up a ceramic dolphin I’d given to her in third grade. The tip of the dolphin’s nose has broken off, and the gray paint is coated in a fine layer of dust.
I almost drop it when Dad shouts at me from the bedroom doorway.
I turn to see him holding up an old-fashioned coin purse, white with a gold clasp. He shakes it so I can hear the coins jangling inside.
His gaze drops to the dolphin. “Anything we can’t give to Goodwill goes to the dump. Take what you want.”
My father’s sentimentality only comes out on the rare occasions when he drinks more than two beers. He goes back into the bedroom; hangers scrape on the closet rack.
I set the dolphin back down and begin assessing the objects in the room. Do I want this? I am thinking, and at the same time: I don’t want any of it.
What I really want is for her pencils to stay in the old pencil box where she kept them for her daily crossword puzzles. I want to leave undisturbed the bulky electronic calculator on the desk she used for balancing her checkbook. I want to save the little note by the front door, the one that says BRING IN TRASH CANS, the all-caps handwriting familiar from a lifetime of birthday and Christmas cards.
Later, the drawers will be emptied, the shelves swept clean. My grandmother’s things will go in black plastic garbage bags headed to the landfill. My father will climb up on the trailer and stomp on the bags to make more room. I will feel each footfall as if it is landing directly on my heart.
Photo by Orin Zebest, used and adapted under CC.