Creative Nonfiction

The Things That Keep Us

First published in Gravel Magazine:, March 2017​

She stood at the end of my next-door neighbor's driveway and peered under his truck. She wore a white blouse, baggy light blue shorts with an elastic waistband, was barefoot, and looked to be in her mid to late seventies. As I walked towards her, she looked up and told me that she was trying to catch her cat. The cat, crouched under the truck and safely out of our reach, peered back. We followed it as it sauntered from under the truck and disappeared into the fenced-in backyards of the block. I reassured the woman that it would return home in its own time. We chatted about our cats. I asked her where she lived, and we walked to the corner where she pointed towards a duplex that was just out of sight.

Not too long after that, as I walked around the block, I saw her in front of the duplex, following 
another cat into the street. Each side of the small, one-story brick building had its own personality: on one side, a large mailbox, gazing ball, bird feeders, and a dozing cat. On the other side, garden statues and a large lettered sign proclaiming the occupant's faith in Jesus. "I'm getting my cat," the old woman said.

I used to hate cats. I was allergic and they annoyed me.  But when I lived in Maryland, a 
neighbor trapped a feral kitten and asked me foster it because she didn't want to get attached. Surprising myself, I agreed.  I was dating someone who worked with a feline rescue in Virginia, and figured he would help find it a home. As it turned out, the Virginia rescue didn't take Maryland cats. After a couple of weeks, I named the kitten Serena after the Serenity Prayer, and on Anna's birthday I told her we could keep it. Eventually, my allergy subsided. That cat was ornery: she bit, scratched, and was never completely domesticated. She was with us for fourteen years.  When she died, I was so distraught I had to take a day off from work.

Early this past August, as I drove home from work, I noticed things being put out to the curb in front of the old woman's duplex. A large mauve upholstered rocker, boxes and piles of household items. It looked like an eviction, or the aftermath of a death. The old woman was nowhere in sight.

​That weekend, when I walked around the block, I saw more stuff piled on the curb, this time a 
dozen or so full opaque trash bags and a small white microwave. A woman was leaving the other side of the duplex, and I asked her what happened. She introduced herself as Jamie, and told me the woman had gone into a nursing home. Apparently she was wandering the neighborhood at 2 a.m., and had been intercepted by the police. This somehow led to her being removed from her home. I learned that one of the cats was caught and taken to the Humane Society, but the other escaped and was loose in the neighborhood. The old woman's name is Jinnohn, but people call her John. Jamie said that Jinnohn has no family or close friends. She was taken to a memory care facility in town.

My mother has non-
Alzheimer’s dementia. She retains many long-term memories, such as getting us ready to go to school and lining us up for pictures on the first day each year. She remembers my dad, who played in dance bands at the Moose Lodge and Legion Club, setting his saxophone down and grabbing her for a quick go-around on the dance floor. She has a scrapbook from nursing school: she can still name people in pictures that are over sixty years old.

​It's her short-term memory that's shot. A phone conversation with her involves having the same 
conversation over and over. "What's new with you?" I'll be asked a dozen or so times. "Oh, nothing much," I'll respond each time. She'll check her date book and read from the entries there. She talks about the pictures of us she has sitting on my Grandma's hutch. She often recalls how her cat walked across the fireplace mantel to get to the fishbowl without knocking anything over. In reality, it was my cat, not hers, that did the tiptoeing. I’ve stopped correcting her. We repeat this until some internal clock tells her it's time for the conversation to end.

Mom was in her mid-seventies when it became clear that she needed to go into assisted living. 
When it was time to move her, we gathered to clean the house out.  As we sorted, tossed and donated, we let mom pick what she wanted to take: her favorite casserole dish, Hummel figurines, an antique desk and mirror.  She took the dresser and vanity she's had since the 1970s, and the top drawer, full of costume jewelry, is still organized the way it was when I was young.

She is surrounded by things she loves and the memories attached to them. Although she still talks about her house and how she wishes she were there, these things make her small apartment feel more like home to her. And even, in a way, to us.

I ran into Jamie a second time at the neighborhood grocery store. She was still upset about how 
Jinnohn had been treated. According to her, Jinnohn was "whisked out of there by the police," and wasn't allowed to take anything with her. No clothes, none of her things. Just herself and what she was wearing. Jamie retrieved a few things from the piles at the curb, among them photographs, mostly of the cats. In finding Jinnohn's identification card among the discarded things, she learned that Jinnohn is eighty-six years old.

My father was a controlled hoarder, falling somewhere between being a collector and being 
someone who would have earned a spot on the reality TV series. By controlled, I mean that he kept his hoard away from his living space. In 1965 he bought an old creamery building in Lansing Minnesota, a tiny town near Austin, as a place to store his collection of old cars and car parts. And his growing stash of junk.  Built in 1906, the building sits on a half-acre with a small creek running through the lot in back. 

​In 2008, at the age of 82, he auctioned the building and its contents. People showed up from 
nearby towns out of curiosity, whether or not they wanted to bid on anything. Local newspapers covered it. Old engine parts, buggy wheels, a hanging meat scale, rolling library ladder, were some of the items for sale. A few relics from the creamery itself were sold, including a fifteen-gallon Redwing crock that sold for hundreds of dollars. The contents of the building filled four hay wagons, lined its perimeter, and much remained inside.  After the building was sold, the auctioneers split into two rings so they could finish the auction by the end of the day.

Two Lansing residents, a local historian and his father, bought the property. They had no intention of doing so, in fact, they hadn't even been inside the building until a week prior to the auction. They took the day off from work and attended just to see who would buy the place. But when the bids stayed low, and they learned that the high bidders wanted to buy it to turn it into a flower shop, they jumped into the bidding and won. My dad was happy with the sale. In 1965 he paid $500 plus back taxes for it. He sold it for $7500.  The last time I visited Lansing, the new owners were converting it into their home.

I left the auction with a car full of junk, including a piece of crumbled Chaska brick from the building itself. My dad had saved me several old manual typewriters, one with a double keyboard (one for lowercase, one for uppercase) so that I could salvage the keys, which I planned to make into jewelry. I found some things of my grandmother’s – sewing notions and wool yarn – that had been there for over thirty years. These things now sit in boxes in my garage.

Although none of us, including my father, knew it at the time, he was dying. Even at 82, he had 
been fit and active, repairing musical instruments, playing trombone in a community band, and riding his bike. But by the time of the auction, he had lost twenty pounds and looked rough. He had to sit down during the bidding. After a day of hauling things out of the building and clearing brush on the property, we went out to eat and he couldn't finish his supper.

I learned later that his doctor had already called him about abnormal blood work, but he and his 
partner decided to put off follow-up until after the auction. The auction was held on October 18th. He was diagnosed with leukemia in November, and he died on December 20th. Somehow he knew that it was time to let his things go. I like to think of that auction as a parting gift to me and my siblings. It would have been hell to deal with that mess.

Jamie told me the story of how Jinnohn got her cats.  She was in Jinnohn's side of the duplex one afternoon when she heard crying coming from behind the couch. They pulled the couch from the wall, and discovered that a stray cat had gotten into the unit and given birth to six kittens.  After Jinnohn found homes for all of them, she went and retrieved two to keep for herself.  Jinnohn 
was an animal lover, leaving food out for birds, squirrels and possums in her front yard. Squirrels would come and eat out of her hand.  Neighbors would complain about the foodstuff being thrown out into the yard for animals to eat.  I remembered seeing bread and fruit scattered on the front boulevard when walking.

I bought my first house at age fifty-three. For twelve years prior to that, I rented a 1350 square 
foot, two-story home for Anna and me. The house I bought is 850 square feet. It is a well-loved 1925 granny house with two bedrooms, a gas fireplace, built-in bookshelves, and a breakfast nook. In the basement are more built-in bookshelves and the remains of a canning kitchen. The laundry room is filled with cabinets and a workbench, with plenty of space for storing art supplies. And junk. The house and the lot were well loved by the original owners, and their energy lingers. I found photographs of them and the original deed for the land in a drawer in the basement. A note on the envelope says, "these belong to the house."

I downsized. I sorted through all that I accumulated because I had room and hate getting rid of 
stuff. I gave away the antique bedroom set that I purchased in 1980 for $250 from an antique store in the Linden Hills neighborhood of South Minneapolis. I took carloads of clothes, household items and books to the City Mission. I put heaps of things to the curb: stuffed animals, a desk lamp, rugs, those cheap white IKEA bookshelves. When I bought my house, I decided that life was finally going to be good, and that meant purging anything that reminded me of failure, trauma and never-to-be-finished unfinished business.

If someone walked into my home and named my decorating style, they'd be diplomatic if they 
called it eclectic. A mix of mid-century modern, antique, and IKEA, I call it chronically nostalgic. Much of it is decor from my childhood homes, and it embodies the conflict between my mother's desire to be contemporary and my father's love of antiques.

I have three molded fiberglass Eames chairs. Next to one of the chairs is a depression era rocker that my grandmother rocked my father in. He repaired and refinished it for me when Anna was born. Next to the rocker is a small antique table that my father found in someone's trash. After he repaired and refinished it, it was a telephone table. It was one of a few pieces of furniture my father took with him when he left.  After he died, when we went to pick up his things from his partner’s house, I plucked it out of the house before my siblings arrived so someone else couldn't snag it. I don't regret it, even though it pissed them off.

I was already deep into a classic existential crisis when I met and learned about Jinnohn. The older I get, the more I try to find an overarching narrative for my life. A theme. A plot line. Alove story. The one major obstacle or tragic flaw to overcome. Anything. And 
I’ve been feeling like I've got nothing but an accumulation of stuff. I thought I'd know more by now.

I witnessed Jinnohn’s things being dumped onto the curb, I became worried about having so much stuff. If this were to happen to me, what would get put out? What would the value of any of these things be to someone who didn't know their stories? I am grateful that my mother had the opportunity to sort through and choose her favorite things while she still had memories attached to them. I begin to understand why my father held on to so many things, and wonder how he instinctively knew when to let them go back into the world.

From time to time I go on a decluttering jag. It's traumatic and exhausting. A minimalist will tell 
you to take pictures of stuff that has memories attached, that way you can de-clutter and still retain the memory. But a photograph hasn't been held or worn by a loved one. A photograph doesn't have heft and texture. A photograph hasn't witnessed what the object has. It's almost as if things themselves sometimes have consciousness, as if they do the remembering for us and for the people we remember. In a way, the things keep us.

my mother’s dementia became apparent, we noted her lapses. She'd cancel or forget doctor appointments. She'd clean out her refrigerator, discarding all the food in it. Then she would forget that she had done it and clean it again. Once when I visited, I looked in the refrigerator and found it empty except for some dessert. Her health, especially her diabetes, worsened as she'd forget to take her medication, or forget that she'd taken it and took it twice. The house got dirty and she forgot to shower. As this was happening, she said, "I'm forgetting, but I don't know I'm forgetting, so it doesn't bother me."

“And y
ou are still you,” I pointed out.

I figure I have a fifty-fifty chance of developing dementia in my seventies or eighties. 
It’s a crapshoot, I know, but I do what I know to do to lower my risk: stop using aluminum deodorant, take fish oil, turmeric and the supplements du jour. I stay mentally and physically active. What I don’t know is how it would start, or how I would know it was happening. How I would know I was forgetting if I was forgetting it? Would I know that I don't know my own self?

But Jinnohn knew herself, she knew where she lived, she knew her cats. She shopped at the 
neighborhood grocery store. But she didn’t get to decide when or where she was going, or what she could take with her. She’s in an institution without any of the things that grounded her physically in her life. She's without her cats.

​One night, about a month after I found out Jinnohn had been taken from her home, I took an 
Ambien and waited for it to take effect. I started thinking about her cat, the one that escaped being taken to the Humane Society. A part of her life in the neighborhood goes on without her, I thought, likely waiting for her to come home.

I stepped outside, it was warm and humid, perfect bare skin temperature. I was in my sleeping 
clothes: jersey shorts, t-shirt, bare feet. I sat on my front steps. My neighbor's window air conditioner was drowning out ambient noise. I thought about Jinnohn roaming the neighborhood in the middle of the night, perhaps looking for one of her cats. One of her cats had been by the house, I remembered, maybe it’s the same cat that got left behind. Maybe it still comes around. As the Ambien dulled reality, I peered into my front yard. No human would hear me above the noise of the air conditioner, I thought, but maybe a cat could. Here kitty kitty, I spoke into the darkness, here kitty kitty kitty.

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