by Jennifer Bringle


  Mamaw's House 


            Mamaw's house looked like a nightmare. Stacks of dust-covered mail and discarded cooking utensils littered the kitchen table that once served as the centerpiece of our Sunday meals. Piles of outdated clothes—polyester pantsuits from the '70s, well-worn sweat suits from the '80s, and other miscellany from the past 70 years—covered the few remaining chairs in the living room. Trash and debris were strewn all about, and overflowing bags of photos and other keepsakes were stacked on the lumpy couch.

            And in the tiny bedroom were the boxes. Stuck on shelves, lying in the floor and propped against the wall, the boxes made the room look like a shoe store on Black Friday.

            I knelt on the carpet and opened the faded lid of one box. Inside I found a familiar sight—stacks of cards, letters, and other correspondence crammed in the tiny space, causing the cardboard to bulge at its seams. She'd saved decades worth of mail, stored inside dozens of shoe boxes. I knew the scene well because I had a similar collection of my own, gathering dust beneath my bed.

            Mamaw was a packrat. She grew up poor on a cotton farm in Mount Ulla, and reared nine children in this rambling Granite Quarry home during the lean years of the Depression. She knew all too well what it meant to truly have nothing, so she tended to hold onto anything of value, be it sentimental or monetary.

            That tendency to collect was a family tradition passed through the generations. My people keep everything—nick-knacks, clothes, busted electronics, old magazines—you name it, we've probably got it.

            Being the matriarch of such a clan, Mamaw's house was the crown jewel of the clutter lineage. During my childhood, the junk provided countless adventures for my cousins and me, discovering treasures and building forts with my grandmother's possessions. As I got older, and began a collection of my own, I saw it for what was—a bit of a compulsion.

            I knew that it wasn't good to hold onto everything, possessions or otherwise, yet I couldn't help myself. For Mamaw, her collecting could be attributed partly to her experiences as a child, growing up in a large family that was often short on money, leaving her and her siblings to sometimes go without; not to mention her struggles during the Depression, a time when everything was saved or used, because they simply could not afford to let anything go to waste.

For me, the reason was cloudier. Mostly it was just a reluctance to let something go, lest I find myself later wishing I had it. Beyond that, I really couldn't explain it.

            When Mamaw started her decline, we all wondered what would happen with her house.

She hung on as long as she could, living by herself in the home until her failing health made a move to a nursing facility unavoidable. The house stood untouched for several years, like a dingy, dilapidated museum dedicated to her life. The roof began to leak, the porch sagged and a portion of the front hallway actually caved in, leaving a gaping hole between the floor and the wall in one corner.

And yet, everything remained as it was the day she moved out. No one dared touch a thing, because even though she was no longer in the house, she was still very much alive in her nursing home bed across town. She'd be livid if she knew people, even if they were her children, were rooting through her things.

            I got the call one freezing night just before Thanksgiving. As I stood shivering outside a busy downtown Raleigh restaurant, my father explained that Mamaw had taken a turn, and they didn't expect her to live through the night. I went home that night and fell into an uneasy sleep, only to be awakened by another call, this one telling me she'd passed. I lay there in the dark, staring at the ceiling. All I could think about was her house, and how it would always be empty now.

            Two years later, here I was, back in the house for the first time since her death. In the years since, my father and his siblings had wrangled with the decision of what to do with the property. They'd gone through her belongings and divvied up the furniture and other valuables. What was left, the junk and unwanted clothes, would likely be thrown out or given to Goodwill.

            I started thumbing through the envelopes, looking for handwriting I recognized. A letter from my aunt in Nebraska told of her family's Christmas celebration that year, describing how tired she was from cooking, but how happy she was to do it for a house full of kids. Apparently she'd inherited a thing or two from Mamaw, as well.

Underneath that was card with handwriting I hadn't seen in years, handwriting that made my hands tremble as I carefully opened the envelope—my mother's handwriting. She'd passed away nearly a decade before, so the card was an old one, wishing Mamaw a merry Christmas from our family. I tenderly returned it to its envelope and tucked it into my purse. It was in this moment that I reached the heart of my packrat compulsion.    

            Among my own shoe boxes, a small tin box contains a stack of cards and letters from my mother. I'd saved them through the years, putting them in the boxes right along with all my other cards and letters. I never gave them a second thought until she unexpectedly died. Missing her terribly one day not long after her death, I tore through my boxes, pulling out every scrap of paper bearing her handwriting. I read and reread each card and note, sobbing with grief and then smiling with gratitude that I'd saved them.

            I wondered if Mamaw had done the same thing. If she'd tearfully read letters from my late grandfather, if she'd smiled gratefully upon finding a mother's day card from my aunt who'd tragically died years before. I carefully closed the lid of the box and put it back on the floor. As I bid Mamaw's house farewell that day, I knew I'd probably never return. But on that day, the house and its maze of junk made me feel closer to her than ever.


SelectionFile type iconFile nameDescriptionSizeRevisionTimeUser