the collage in the closet

August 24, 2010 § 1 Comment

My aunt and godmother Nancy Montgomery died in January of this year, just a week after her mother. My grandfather had died on Mischief Night after several manic months in a hospital just down the road. Every occupant of that little house in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania–save for three little dogs– died in the space of three months.

The parish priest had visible difficulty making sense of it all, so had been offering exponentially shorter sermons at the viewings and funeral services. An old man dies and his wife is soon to follow. A sad prospect, though common enough. Like the hound dogs in Where the Red Fern Grows. My grandparents were in their 80s.

When my grandmother learned of her husband’s death, she paused and appraised the room before asking if any of her visitors wanted a banana, because she sure wanted one. I didn’t witness this personally, but I have no trouble believing it. Dementia had long since transformed my once vibrant, smart-alec grandmother into a funhouse reflection of herself. She would’ve thought it was funny, and maybe in some distorted way she did at the time, so I’ve allowed myself to laugh at the banana thing. She’d specified in paperwork filed before I was even born that she wanted to be buried in pajamas and slippers. She wanted to be comfortable in the end, but she probably wanted to sneak in one last gag too. Mourners looked on her with something like appreciation for the generous allotment of levity.

We needed it. Because Nancy was sick. We all knew that we’d be back in this place soon, that some weird curse was lapping away at our family. We didn’t know that we’d be back so soon, that my aunt’s cancer was so advanced that it didn’t have a name. I still don’t know its source. It has never been breast or cervical cancer or lymphoma. It was only known to us for a few harrowing days, and in that time it was just nameless, merciless, senseless cancer. Stories circulated about my aunt’s fear of hospitals. There had been some kind of fire when she was a child. A burn on her arm. She’d avoided checkups whenever she could. My father was the youngest and doesn’t recall this incident. He doesn’t like going to the doctor’s either, but he wishes she’d gone earlier. It’s all in stark contrast to my mother’s regimented hypochondria. Some times I think she’s most comfortable in waiting rooms, purse on her lap, a list of questions in her pocket.

I remember palming some Tic Tacs at my aunt’s viewing, thinking that this was all becoming a cruel game of musical chairs. Everyone was taking their turn in the casket. I noticed some of us were wearing the same ties we had the last time around. I remember chastising myself for being so cynical. I remember my dad, both the baby of the family and its rock. He’d stowed some Mallow Cups in the fabric at the edge of the casket. He showed it to some of the relatives with a little red-eyed grin. Aunt Nancy was known throughout the neighborhood as the lady with the full-size candy bars on Halloween. My dad made a tradition of sneaking over the night before and shoveling 100 Grand Bars and Reese’s Cups into his outstretched shirt like Juan Diego gathering blessed roses, always making sure to get caught. She’d been his big sister. He was an orphan now. This was all too much weight, I’d thought. We sat off to the side together, because that’s what we do. I patted his back a few times and we sat there quietly until we had to shake more hands.

That night I went to bed and felt a strange vertigo sensation. As if I was spinning like a levitated assistant. Hours later I woke up and rushed to the bathroom. I vomited in the sink, emptying out from a deep down place. I’d never been so violently ill. The force of the spasms was so strong I found myself up on my toes. I caught a look at myself in the mirror and remembered thinking I was going to keep retching until I was dead. My vision blurred and I felt those cruel pins and needles in my scalp. I fell backward, groped for the wall and slammed my head into the rim of the bathtub. I spent the next few days in bed drinking Gatorade and then sharing it with the toilet and a series of trash baskets. I was unable to go to my aunt’s funeral. I wasn’t there to join my cousins in carrying the casket over the snow. I wasn’t there to hear the priest try to explain why we were digging the same hole again.

In the months since, we’ve had to sell the house where my aunt and grandparents lived. It goes to the realtor at the end of the month. To help empty the place, we held several Saturday yard sales, opening the lawn and living room up to a regular cast of shoppers. I sold things I’d seen on shelves since before I could count. I sold unopened things my aunt had stashed away to give as future gifts. She worked at the famous Wanamaker’s department store in downtown Philadelphia before it was bought and converted into other department stores. She was later transferred to a closer branch, which was at various times a Hecht’s, a Lord and Taylor, a Strawbridges, and finally a Macy’s. She worked long hours because she wanted to be irreplaceable. When we went to her office to pick up her things, her coworkers confirmed as much. She knew how to do everything, and they didn’t know what they’d do in her absence. Aunt Nancy bought a lot of things, more than anyone really should. She liked giving gifts, and I can still look around my room and identify a number of things she gave me for Christmas or on birthdays, as if I were her only nephew. But she had many, and they can all speak of similar experiences.

She also gave us theater. She took me to my first musicals. Last year we went to see A Streetcar Named Desire at the Walnut, the oldest theater in America. Just the two of us for a change. It’s kind of a shitty theater to be honest, but it was a decent production of a great play, and I’m eternally grateful that I agreed at the last minute to tag along with her. It was not the last time I saw her, but it was the last time we really talked. She told me about her recent trip to Europe and asked me about comics and what I wrote about comics. Lately she’d been seeking out foreign comics to give to me as gifts. On that last Christmas she gave me some original Italian Dylan Dog.

The past few weekends, we’ve turned from yard sales to cleanup, moving all the unsold things–countless hobo clown figurines, picture frames, housewares, my aunt’s beloved smutty romance paperbacks–to my cousin’s house in another town. He’ll try to sell some of it in his neighborhood with its own colorful cast of shoppers. The furniture was hauled down the narrow stairs and out the door to some borrowed pickups. It’s all in storage now, waiting for the ruined New Jersey lake house my surviving aunt inherited to be rebuilt.

The place is mostly empty now, this house where my grandfather was born in 1923. This one bathroom house where something like eight people once lived. I brought a camera along this last time because I wanted to capture something that will soon be gone after escaping renovation for decades. In the pepto pink front bedroom where my aunt lived for as long as I knew her, there’s a tiny closet. On the inside of the door, long concealed by a tangle of handbags and old jackets, there’s this collage. Presumably things my aunts Nancy and Ree cared about as teenagers when they shared the place. Celebrities mostly. Robert Redford. Alan Alda. A hand-made Betty Boop.

It doesn’t mean anything special. There’s no higher meaning. I just don’t want it to go away just yet.

§ One Response to the collage in the closet

  • Jennifer says:

    Thank you for sharing this. While I’ve never had quite the density of tragedy that you experienced this past year, selling my late grandfather’s house a year ago was one of the most emotionally-wrenching experiences of my life, and I can only imagine how hard this must have been for you. My heart goes out to you and to your family. And please know that your beautiful, detailed writing has helped to make your family members live on in the hearts of everyone who reads this.

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