After the funeral, I started hanging out in the attic where all the boxes of my mother’s books were kept; the bookshelves in the house had long been given over to knick-knacks. A kind of peace came over me in that room; everything in it was old, and therefore uninteresting to Donna and Debra, so I had my peace. It was a very nice attic, with a window that looked over the front driveway, and let in some nice afternoon sunlight. I did a lot of reading, or so it appeared, but what I remember most was lost hours when I would find myself reading a paragraph over and over again, then let my eyes unfocus a bit, then find myself watching the dust motes float in a sunbeam, and wonder at them: Are there dust motes in the shadows, too? Am I breathing dust motes? What are they made of? Are they all little worlds like in Horton Hears a Who? These reveries would come upon me often that year, almost as if my organizing mind went into idle so another part of me could grow. The Girls teased me about being ADD; Sylvia criticized me for being ‘spacey,’ but she was right. In my mind I would hear my mother’s voice, teasing me fondly for being a dreamer, and respecting the work of a woolgathering mind.
The rest of the house, which I passed through only to get food and use a bathroom, gradually became Theirs. Whenever someone came by, Sylvia always hosted them in the parlor, with all the other doors closed, as if it were still the 1800s. Because all of the other rooms were gradually being neglected to death. A shopping bag from Target would stay in the living room, where it was emptied. A spill in the hallway, when someone was bringing food to their room, would be left, and passing feet would grind Chee-tos into the rug. Rubber bands from the newspapers sprang into corners, never to be retrieved, and the papers themselves would be left on a table when read, open to the sale pages; more often stacked up by the fireplace unread. Hair scrunchies, clothing tags, toenail clippings, gum wrappers (and gum, itself), would be left behind without consciousness; no one ever had time to vacuum. Coffee rings and spilled food stayed on tabletops. Take-out containers, straws from sodas, lids from energy drink bottles were left on every horizontal surface. A former mocha latte with a layer of mold on it sat beside the television. And all of the casserole dishes and frozen dinner boxes that friends and neighbors brought by in sympathy just stacked up in the sink.
After a month or so, I couldn’t stand it anymore; passing through the living room on my way out the door turned my stomach, and I never knew what I might step on. In a way, in a very twisted way, The Hills (that was their last name before Sylvia married my dad; I still think of her as a Hill) did me a favor. Their clutter brought me out of my shell. After everyone went to bed at night I’d go attack a problem—the stairway, the kitchen, a bathroom. It was my house, my mother’s house, and I didn’t like to see it looking so awful.
Besides, all the yelling, the whining, was getting to me. “Where’s my magazine?” “Has anyone seen my other leg warmer?” “I put my reading glasses right here and now they’re gone.” “I swear, this house is eating things!” “I swear, this house hates us!” “Mo-o-o-om!”
So, little by little, I took back the house.
When I told Linda this story, she was very impressed. “You know, dust and clutter create a very negative spiritual energy,” she said. “There is a stickiness to it that attracts more dust and clutter, and this energy affects our minds, too. It’s why the Chinese start their new year with firecrackers, scaring that energy away; cleaning every corner of their house, getting new clothes and haircuts. It’s good Feng Shui to have clean corners.” There, I told myself, when I heard this. There, I had been doing a spiritual service to myself, the Hills, and my parents. Without even knowing it. I had once read a book I liked that had this sentence in it: when she cleaned up her house, she cleaned herself up inside, too. Now I understood why my mother had been so dedicated to her household tasks.
I found some old clothes of hers in a box in the attic, cute summer frocks and sweaters, mostly, and a box of sweatpants and t-shirts that had been my dad’s—he had apparently collected them from every college he’d visited when he was my age. The sweatpants became my uniforms when I cleaned. Eventually I started wearing them out of the house. I found I was growing out of all of my old clothes, anyway, and wearing my memories made me feel so much better. I tore my worn-out pajamas into flannel rags. Sylvia would screech in disgust when she saw me clean, diving for the chemical wipes that were now being advertised on TV. But one day she came home to me carting a box of her chemical cleaners out the door. I replaced everything in the house with non-toxic substitutes. She had a fit but I held my ground. When she was done yelling, I just came right out and calmly reminded her how my mother had died.
That shut her up for a while.