His favorite things

old_man-2After my dad’s funeral, we spent a week working on financial matters and loose ends. After that, we dropped the kids off with their Yiaya in order to start the epic and nightmarish task of cleaning out my father’s house.

My husband took the basement and garage and I took the upstairs. In the garage, my dad had strung a board from the wall at ground level that groaned from the weight of all the crap he’d stored behind it. My husband found tools, pipes, brooms and every wooden handle to every shovel or rake my dad had ever owned. In addition to that, he found three lawnmowers and a nook with charcoal stored next to gas, next to brake fluid, next to matches, oil, cans of compressed gas, cleaning solvents, and old rags. “I can’t believe this place didn’t go up in flames,” he told me. I wished we were that lucky.

My dad’s basement is the perfect size for an Oompa Loompa. You get about five feet of headroom in it, so you have to bend over, and there are one-foot beams, six feet apart, that drop lower, so you have to duck to get past them. My mother hated that basement. We weren’t allowed to use the dryer for our clothes (the electricity was too expensive), so she’d hang them up in there. No matter how careful you were, no matter how mindful, if you spent any time in that basement, sooner or later you’d whack your head on the beams, and you knew what those poor baby seals must have felt. My mom whacked her head more times than she could count. Our real failing as a family was that we used the basement as much as we did. Especially my father.

“As far as I can tell,” my husband said, duck-walking out of the basement, “Your father’s diet consisted of:  buttered popcorn, crackers – saltine AND oyster – black olives, dollar store cereal and imitation maple syrup.” He showed me his trash, piled on the corrugated indoor/outdoor carpet: a three-foot high pile of cereal boxes, a liquor store box full of canned olives, at least ten boxes of gingersnaps and eleven bottles of fake maple syrup. “Oh, and Italian dressing,” he said, gesturing to the row of bottles. I counted thirteen. “It must’ve been his right-wing radio guys. They must’ve said ‘The end is near! Buy syrup while you can!’”

“Yeah, before the socialists come and redistribute it as part of Obamacare. I’m surprised about the dressing. I thought he stole all his dressing from Wendy’s.”

“I guess he didn’t want to pay for a whole salad anymore.”

“This is all dollar store stuff. He liked to go to the dollar store after the Chinese buffet. And he went every week.”

“How many boxes of expired fake Rice Krispies does one person need?”

“He got them cheap.”

“What did he use the syrup for? He didn’t make pancakes.”

“He ate French toast sticks and frozen waffles. I found four boxes in the refrigerator and three more in the freezer.”

“Why’d he keep them in the refrigerator?”

“I dunno. It’s my father. Who the hell knows why he did anything?”

“That’s not all. The man never threw anything out! I found an old ice maker in there. He must have thrown out a refrigerator, but the ice maker still worked, so he clipped the wires, took it out and put it in the basement. What was he gonna do with that? AND he kept the crisper.”

“I’m not surprised. When our blender pitcher broke, he saved the motor. What was he gonna do with a blender motor? This was way before you could go online and order a new pitcher. Maybe he thought he could store things in the crisper.”

“I also found eight bottles of antifreeze, a dozen cans of motor oil and three vacuum cleaners. In the cabinet with the dressing, he’d lined the drawers with roof shingles.”

“He lined the kitchen drawers upstairs with linoleum. I found six cans of Ajax under the sink.”

“Maybe if he’d actually used them, it wouldn’t smell so bad.”

The whole house smelled rotten and musty. Most musty smells are faint, at least in other people’s houses. My dad’s must was overwhelming. We opened all the windows every day we were there and we still smelled it. I shipped back some stuff from his house and the boxes – brand-new ones from the UPS store – smell rotten and musty, even before you break the seal. Besides that, my nose ran the whole time we were in the house. I used up two boxes of tissues and four of the ten tissue packs my mom had saved from the Red Roof Inn.

How did my dad live like that? I get the hoarding. I really do. He was a Depression baby. The market crashed when he was seven months old. He never threw anything out because he was afraid of losing something valuable. Why he thought an old ice maker was valuable I have no idea. Ditto on the crisper. Ironically, if he’d thrown my mom’s stuff out when she died, he would have gained more than he lost. Cleaning out my mother’s drawers, I found a total of $3,500 wrapped up in bundles, hidden in safety-pinned-cut-off socks. Why didn’t he find the money? I can only guess it was because he lost his sense of smell.

Cleaning out my dad’s house made me laugh but it also made me sad. You can’t help but laugh when you find twelve bottles of Italian dressing in someone’s shingle-lined cabinet. But I saw how much my dad hung onto – how afraid he was of losing anything  – and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Money and stuff– that’s what he thought was important. He surrounded himself with things but didn’t make an effort to connect with people. Eight people– the sum total of his family and friends — attended his funeral. In old photos — before he made his money and collected all of his stuff — he looked young and happy. But as he got older, made his fortune and collected his stuff, his smile became more forced and infrequent. He was a wealthy, lonely, unhappy man with a house full of stuff. Filling your house and your bank account doesn’t make you happy. To be happy, you’ve got to fill your heart.

2 comments on “His favorite things

  1. The Great Depression arrived when Dad was just a year old. It hit the Northeastern United States harder than almost anywhere else and times became very, very difficult. These were hardships that make what we have experienced over the last few years seem like a mere bump in the road. Fortunately, my grandfather was able-bodied man who knew how to scrounge. Though most things became luxuries, he was able to keep food on the table for his ever growing family and they all survived on what little they had.
    My dad would say that they were too poor to know that they were poor. Sure, much of the year he didn’t have shoes, but hey, none of his friends did either. They were all in the same boat. The first twelve years of his life were spent in abject poverty and in the most humbling of circumstances, but there was always family. My grandmother, who I had the great pleasure to know, was woman of God and showered her kids with as much love as she could. His father was a gruff, hard and distant man whose job it was to provide. They may not have had two pennies to rub together, but they all had each other.
    One day in 1936, when my dad was about 8 years old and the Depression was at its deepest, a tray of cupcakes found its way into the family kitchen after a church event. They went quick and my dad and his brother Albert, four years older and much bigger, found themselves staring each other down of the last remaining treat. There was a lot of yelling, quite a bit of threatening and more than a little wrestling. Having had enough, my grandmother grabbed each by their ear and told them to get out of her kitchen and split the cupcake or she would eat it herself.
    Albert took out his pocket knife, turned the cake on its side and cut it in half. He grabbed the top, with the frosting, and bolted out the door, leaving my Dad with a crumby stump- and a story he could tell for the next 75 years.
    Humility.
    It was the years spent with next to nothing that set the tone for much of the rest his life. It was these experiences that gave him a deep appreciation of everything he ever had. Included in those things were, and i kid you not, the 247 flashlights, 56 pairs of scissors (still in the packaging) and 11 boxes of craisins (all woefully out of date) that I found while cleaning out his bedroom.

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