The Clean Out
The porch screen door is latched from the inside. I peer through the inner door window into the darkened hallway and the kitchen beyond. The overhead light is off and the chairs are pushed under the table. There’s no sign that she’s been in the kitchen. No coffee cup and spoon. No plate and knife. No butter dish and sugar bowl.
I pound on the window. “Aunt Kitty. Are you there?”
“Are you there, AUNT KITTY?” I pound again, this time on the wooden frame of the door.
"It's me. It's Nancy You’ve got the screen door latched.”
I circle round to the driveway and pull open the heavy barn door. Her Plymouth sedan is covered with dust. One rear tire is flat. I check the door that leads to the back kitchen and that’s locked , too. I head back down the driveway and meet my mother crossing the street.
“What’s going on?” she asks.
“Can’t get in. Everything’s locked up. No lights on. Did you tell her we were coming over this morning?”
My mother walks past me, her eyes on the side porch and the door.
“Does she know we’re coming?”
“Of course she does. I told her yesterday. And the day before. She knows today’s the day that we start cleaning out. “Kit,” she yells. She shakes the screen door frame, pounds on the clapboard siding. She peers through the window into the den. It’s dark inside, the door to the dining room beyond closed. She pounds on the window, pounds harder and shouts, “KIT, can you hear me?”
“Mom,” I begin. “You’re screaming. You’re going to break the wind…”
“Shut up, for Crissakes! I know what I’m doing!”
And with that, she reaches into her back pocket and pulls out the jackknife that she uses every day at the greenhouse. The knife with the worn ivory handle and the blade that she hones every night. With one swift cut, she slashes the screening and reaches through to unlatch the door. “There,” she says. “We’re in.”
The tea kettle on the cast iron stove is cold; the sink is empty. We walk into the dining room and through the den and front parlor. My mother stops at the bottom of the stairs and listens.
“Kit. Are you up there? Are you up there, Kit?” She starts up the narrow wooden stairs but pauses halfway up. “Stay down there. Go sit in the kitchen.”
But I don’t go to the kitchen. I don’t sit down. Instead I stand at the bottom of the stairs, listening as my mother crosses through the middle bedroom to the front room where Aunt Kitty sleeps. Her voice mumbles, mumbles, mumbles. And then stops. Aunt Kitty answers with mumbles of her own.
A long sigh comes from my throat. Probably pushed up by my arms that are folded so tightly across my stomach. I climb the steps two at a time and find my mother sitting on the edge of the big feather tick bed. Aunt Kitty is propped up against two pillows. Her once blue-gray hair is now white and flattened on the side where she slept. There are no more finger waves . She has not been to Miss Pauline’s Beauty Shoppe for many months. She turns as I enter the bedroom. I know that her cloudy eyes can’t see me. It’s my voice she knows.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” I offer.
“Well, there you are. Come here and sit,” she says. “Sit right here.”
My mother looks from her watch to me and then to Aunt Kitty. “We need to get you up, Kit. Get you dressed and downstairs. Today’s the day that Norm and Ellie are coming. They’ll be here in an hour.”
“Oh, yes. They’re coming to visit. Right?”
“Of course they’re coming to visit. But today’s the day we start to clean out the house. Figure out what needs to go. What we can keep.”
Aunt Kitty turns away from my mother toward the window that faces the big side yard. The green lawn of spring is now straw-colored and in need of mowing. Some curled leaves lay beneath the big maple tree with the niche that holds the faded statue of the Infant of Prague.
“I just don’t understand.” She seems to be talking to someone beyond the window. “I’ve lived in this house for my whole life. With my mother and father. And John and Patrick and Daniel. I raised you and your sister Ellie in this house, Peggy. Nancy grew up playing outside in that yard and in the back fields. There was a swing on that big tree and roses that climbed along the white picket fence. I just don’t know why I have to leave here.”
My mother sighs and sits down on the small needle point chair. She closes her eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. “Kit, we’ve been over this a hundred times. You, me, Ellie and Norm. We’ve all talked about this. This house is too big for you. You’ve lost most of your eyesight. You can’t take care of this house, the yards, the coal deliveries, the driveway in the winter. And we have jobs. We can’t be here with you every day. To do the shopping and the cooking and cleaning.”
Aunt Kitty turns toward my mother. “But I took care of everyone,” she whispers.
I look at my mother sitting in that chair. Bent over, tired, hands folding and unfolding.
“I know, Kit,” she says. “I know. But Norm has his job at the shipyard and Ellie and I are at the greenhouse and the two girls are in different schools. We just can’t be here every day. We made a plan. This house has to go. And you’re going to come live with Nancy and me. Mr. Peters is renting the whole downstairs apartment to us. And for a good price. Three bedrooms and a garage for my car. And a small side porch where you can sit when the weather is warm.”
“Yes, I remember now. We’re going to move next door and all live together. And I’ll help you out with Nancy and the housework and…”
“That’s right, Kit. Now let’s get you up and dressed. Norm doesn’t want to see you in your nightgown. Let’s comb your hair and put some rouge on your cheeks.”
Between the two of us, we get her to the bathroom and sit her on the toilet. She pees and passes gas. I give her a warm washcloth and she washes her face, her armpits and under each large breast.
“Do you need to do anything else while we’re in here?” my mother asks. “Your bowels been moving regular?”
Aunt Kitty nods and we stand her up and lead her back to the bedroom. Her bloomers and corset and cotton bra with a half dozen hooks are on the back of the chair. My mother pulls a cotton house dress over her head and zips it up the front.
“There,” she says. “All set and ready to go.”
It takes two of us to get her down the back stairs. She knows the number of steps, the ones that creak. She grips both handrails and places one foot in front of the other.
In the kitchen, I make her toast and pour boiling water into her cup with the Nescafe coffee crystals. She takes one bite and pushes the plate away. “No more, Nancy. No more.”
At eleven o’clock Uncle Norman and Aunt Ellie arrive. After quick hugs and brief greetings, we get down to business. My mother has a list. Things to sort out. Get rid of. Save. Trash.
Uncle Norman is assigned the barn. He knows how to maneuver up the rickety stairs, cross the floor boards that are either loose or missing, to the overhead storage space. He knows about tools and what’s valuable and what’s junk. Some things he’ll keep for himself or give away to a friend. But the barn itself is just about empty except for the old car, some garbage cans, a few rusted oil cans and funnels..
My mother and Aunt Ellie will tackle the downstairs rooms: the kitchen, dining room, front parlor and den. Drawers crammed with yellowed dinner napkins. The china cabinet filled with dusty glasses, serving platters and a soup tureen with only one handle. Silverware blackened from years of neglect. Cupboards and closets holding the memories of a home once filled with a family.
My job is the attic. The door is in my old bedroom where I would sleep when I came to visit Aunt Kitty for the night. The latch was so high that I couldn’t reach it when I was little. I couldn’t open the door and explore what was on the other side. “Where does that door go to?” I asked.
“Oh, just upstairs to the attic,” she said. “Nothing up there but cobwebs and old boxes of stuff that belonged to other people.”
“Can we go up there?”
“Good Lord, no child. Whatever for? Just old stuff. Junk. And spiders and mice and just one light.”
Sometimes at night I would lie in the big feather tick bed and imagine that I heard sounds overhead. Voices talking low. Footsteps crossing the floor. Footsteps that would suddenly stop. I would get so scared that I would crawl out of bed and find my way through the darkened middle rooms to Aunt Kitty’s bed.
“Please, let me stay with you,” I whispered. “I heard voices. And someone was coming down the stairs.”
Aunt Kitty would laugh and let me crawl into bed. It was good to fall asleep to the quiet. To just hear her breathing. It was good to fall asleep with my head outside the covers, on top of the down pillow.
But I’m not little anymore. I can reach the latch. The door creaks open, protesting a disruption after so many years of disuse. The air is hot and a flood of dust rises as I begin up the stairs with my cardboard box. Five stairs creak and I pause at the turn. Creak...creak...creak...creak and then I’m at the top. The summer day is bright outside but there’s little light up here. The gable end windows are curtained with the dirt and grime of so many years. When I pull the light chain, the small light bulb turns on, its dim light reaching for the roof rafters and beams. The floor is covered with dead flies and mouse turds and I’m happy that I wore my sneakers and sox and a pair of old jeans.
I take a quick survey, slowly walking across the wooden floor that creaks with each footstep. Two trunks, an old sewing mannequin, cardboard boxes tied with string. A red cardboard fireplace leans against the wall. The very same fireplace that appeared in the dining room each December first and then disappeared a few days after Christmas. I hung my stocking there and found it filled with an orange, bright ribbon candy and a piece of coal on Christmas morning. A reminder from Santa that I was not always obedient and truthful and kind.
At the far end of the room, there’s a metal clothes rack with several hanging garment bags. Unzipped, I find long evening gowns, moth- eaten winter jackets with yellowed tissue paper stuffing each sleeve. Boxes of shoes and boots, summer straw hats with fake flowers and ribbons, a black veiled headband studded with rhinestones and handbags of every color and size. Trash. Everything.
I untie box after box expecting a rare treasure, finding instead old Christmas decorations: paper garlands and styrofoam balls, a white painted turkey carcass fashioned into a sleigh. No, I determine. Not savings, I decide, and toss the decorations into the cardboard box. On the street side of the attic, I find a box marked “nativity.” I untie the string and there it is… the manger and all the nativity figurines wrapped in faded newspaper. Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and all the animals. The kings and shepherds. I remember each one of them as if it was just yesterday that I came home from grade school and set up the manager under Aunt Kitty’s watchful eye. I close the box and carry it to the top of the stairs.
My throat is dry, my eyes itchy. But I’m almost done. One more thing to check out at the far end under the window. The trunk is latched but unlocked. Inside there are packages wrapped in tissue paper that tears as I open each small bundle: small cotton squares, crocheted baby bonnets and booties, doll-sized night gowns hand-stitched with small precise stitches. I open a long parcel, tied with a faded rose ribbon. It’s a yellowed dress, with lace trim and an under slip that’s almost white. The only white thing I’ve found up here all morning.
On the bottom of the trunk there’s a small black album, its pages bound together with a black cord. “The Family Album” is written in white ink on the cover. Inside, little triangular corners hold the black and white photos in place. A small caption written in the white ink identifies each picture. There’s my mother holding a small baby dressed in that long dress I just found... “Nancy’s Christening.” My papa holds a bundle of pink with a dark head peeping out of the top ...“Pa with Nancy.” Aunt Kitty, bundled up against the cold, pushes a stroller down the snow covered sidewalk... “Kit and Nancy. First snowstorm in December.” I turn each page of pictures and read the captions: “ Norman and Ellie December 1947”... “Kit’s turkey Thanksgiving 1947.” A basinet with a swaddled baby sits beneath a scraggly Christmas tree...”Nancy’s first Christmas.”
Several pages have blank spaces; pictures have been removed. Only the white handwriting remains... “Proud daddy”... “Mickey changes diaper”... “ Our family”... “ First car ride.” Where did these pictures go? What happened that made someone remove these family memories? On the last page, there’s only one picture. It has no caption. It’s a young man in a casket, eyes closed, rosary beads twined through his folded hands.
I close the album and place it back in the trunk on top of the tissued baby clothes. I am done up here, I say to myself. Enough of this, I add, as I pull the cord to the light. I push the box containing the manger aside and walk past the box of trash. I hold onto the railing as I concentrate on making one foot follow the other down the stairs that lead to the back hallway and the porch. I push through the screen door, gasping for air, blinking back hot tears, running to be lost in the tall grass of the back field.