Monday, July 6, 2015

The Great Clean Out of '88 (or The Time My Mother Thought Her SIL Would Leave Her Three Children in Her Will)

When I was in elementary school, I learned that my Aunt Janie had a brain tumor.  She was my aunt by marriage, but since she married Uncle Charles long before I was born, all I really understood was that she was my aunt and she was my cousins' mother.  Uncle Charles -- my mother's brother -- had committed suicide when I was a baby, so Aunt Janie had been raising my cousins on her own for a number of years when we found out about the brain tumor.

I don't remember if there was a time when we thought Aunt Janie might survive.  As I recall, my mother told me she was dying and not to say something crass like "get well soon" because she was never going to get better and was going to be dead soon.  I think the doctors had given her six months to live.  That was how long I knew about it anyway.  My cousins were in middle school and high school at the time, and my mother made an effort to get the youngest out of the house as much as possible.  She was one of my favorite cousins and always nice to me, despite being several years my senior, so I was delighted to get to spend time with her.  My mother told me she was trying to get my cousin out of the house so she could take her mind off her mother dying and so Aunt Janie could rest. 

The Great Clean Out started shortly thereafter.  We were clearing out the basement so that it could finally be finished.  My mother told my dad, my brother Dante, and me that she would be adopting my three cousins when Aunt Janie died, and we needed to get the basement finished to make room for them all.  In hindsight, it seems odd I don't remember my dad making any kind of fuss about this huge decision to more than double the number of kids in the house.  But then again, he has always seemed to prefer to let her do whatever she wants and then complain about how badly everything is going and how none of it is his fault.

My mother ordered a large dumpster that sat on our front lawn, and we spent every weekend for I don't remember how long hauling garbage and debris up the stairs and out of the house.  Dante and Dad and I fantasized about what else we'd do with all the space.  Everyone wanted new bedrooms.  Dante and I each tried to lay claim to my dad's master bedroom on the ground floor when he said he'd be moving downstairs, but Mom overruled us and said it would be hers.  She'd moved back and forth between sleeping on the living room couch and the lower bunk bed in Dante's room for as long as I'd been alive.  Dad was going to have a soundproof music studio in the basement too, he said.  In my imagination, the windowless finished basement was bright and clean in a way our cave-like, hoarded ground floor home had never been.

My parents had never gotten a sump pump installed, in spite of the basement flooding every time it rained and the house allegedly having been built on a spring.  Eventually the deeper slantings of the basement held a full inch of standing water on any given day.  It became dangerous for my dad to use his elevator -- a forklift with half-walls constructed years ago by his own father -- because the floor of it submerged into the dark water before touching down.  The only wheelchair-accessible shower in the house was in that basement, in spite of the fact that my parents had had the home custom built to be accessible.

There was visible mold on most of the things that had been stored down there.  Dante and I wore leather work gloves as we lugged enormous amounts of wet cardboard and paper up to the dumpster.  My dad mostly sifted through moldy old books and papers while my mother "sorted," supervised Dante and me, and occasionally loaded the elevator with full file boxes too heavy to carry up the stairs. 

I didn't like cleaning out the basement.  It wasn't an enjoyable way to spend my weekends as a first-grader, but I was thrilled about the idea of having a newly finished, clean home and a new bedroom and not one but THREE new siblings.  It was like a whole new life.  The promise of what was going to be was enough to keep me cleaning and hauling.  Besides, I was seven -- I had no choice.

This went on for at least a couple of months.  Shortly before Aunt Janie's death, my mother learned that Aunt Janie's parents were moving into her home to take care of my cousins.  My mother was upset.  She had wanted to adopt my orphaned cousins, and now she couldn't, and it sounded like she was never even considered.  She seemed jealous.  She seemed angry.  The time was close enough to my aunt's death that I think my mother might have actually expected to be left the children in her will with no advance conversation about it.  Lots of movies she liked played out this way.  Baby Boom comes to mind.  She really loved Baby Boom.  In hindsight, I think a primary reason she took my cousin out so often was as a means of throwing her hat in the ring as the future guardian.  Aunt Janie had started declining her offers near the end.  She said she wanted to spend more time with her kids.

I was a bit disappointed that I would not, in fact, be getting new siblings, but my disappointment was outweighed by a sense of how good a plan they had in place.  My cousins wouldn't have to move.  They wouldn't have to change schools.  They would be cared for by their grandparents, who I could safely assume already knew them better than my parents did.  Losing their mother would be the only massive adjustment they'd have to undertake.  Even as a 7-year-old, I could tell this plan was much better than having anyone else adopt my cousins.

My mother immediately called a halt to the clean out.  There was no point anymore, she said.  I wanted to continue.  I thought having a fixed up home for ourselves to live in counted as a point, but I was seven. 

We never even got close to having the basement cleared, and there was no plan to work on the ground floor at all.  In hindsight, I think non-hoarders could have cleared that basement in a weekend since everything down there had become moldy, soaked garbage, but I don't think it would have mattered.  My parents avoided having work done on the house whenever possible, and to this day there is still no sump pump.  My dad still doesn't have a handicapped-accessible shower on the ground floor either.  The place is still infested with mold, not all the exterior doors close all the way, there has been a known but unaddressed termite problem since the '90s, and most of the electrical work is shot.  My dad still talks about fixing up the house with a five-figure government grant for which he supposedly qualifies, but he has no desire to get a sump pump installed because "that would cost hundreds of dollars."  The last photo he sent me was of one of his new "collections."  There was still hoard in the background that he probably doesn't even see anymore. 

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