The Old House

©Stephen McDonnell 2000

The house was a mess. From the porch to the rafters, it was chock full of stuff. It smelled musty, mildew. It smelled Southern. She had bought in quantity, cheaper by the dozen, if not by the box car load, till there was hardly any room to move around. Even the valuable antiques had suffered, and had been dropped, broken, discarded, covered with dust. Just like her, once young she had fallen to the onslaught of time. Even in defeat, she fought on, refusing to give up. Her aura haunts me, clinging to me like Spanish Moss.

In the TV room, if it could be called that, the floor slanted off, covered by a shag rug which used to be an indiscriminate color, and was even more so now. Books and pictures were everywhere, brick a brack, things which just collected over time, accretions that grew like barnacles on a ship's hull, mysteriously at night. I remember the hot Southern nights I spent there, panting like a dog in one hundred degree heat because she hated air conditioning, watching the roaches scuttle across the floor, watching them fly lazily back and forth, while on, TV a minister railed against sin, while committing it. I sat there wondering how I could get away.

Once it had been a beautiful house, but as the years passed, she had destroyed it, putting her stamp on it. Now it looked like a whore house that had been bombed. There was no unifying theme, the decor was neither Victorian nor Woolworth, but a combination of all styles and tastes as if she hoped that one would take hold eventually. Her tastes were Catholic, she had pictures of the Pope, just in case. Colors she had chosen were in the worst taste possible, as if she wanted to push the envelope of bad taste. The few good antiques were festooned with purchases from 5 and 10 stores, good bargains, going out of business sales.

There was no rhyme or reason that I could decipher to her collection of junk, other than it was cheap, a good buy. She was a child of the depression, always putting away extra for the dry spells. She had picked cotton, had been intelligent and poor, hard working, adventurous. She had gone without, and never wanted to again. She had eaten Poke salad from beside the roads, she had starved. She bought food in mass quantities, more that one woman could possibly eat. It was always going to waste.The kitchen had been added on, another barnacle added, a hodge poge of decoration. When she finally broke down and installed an air conditioner, it was put in the middle of the dinning room, like an uninvited mechanical guest, spewing out cold conversation to earn its place.

When she first purchased it, the house had been tastefully decorated. She slowly turned it into a nightmare place, a indoor yard sale. It was like the Beverly Hills Hillbillies had moved into the White House and had gone hog wild. One day she spied a sale of a rail road box car load of velvet material. She ran to get it, throwing it on the walls, where it lay like bordello decorations, green, red, purple; it was like living in a Mardi Gras parade float. Only, I had to sleep there, trying not to look. She decided to panel the living room with dark wood; a depressing sight. She put a bed in the dinning room, God knows why.

The neighborhood used to be respectable, fifty years ago. Now, the Greek whore plied her trade at night, under my Aunt's window, cursing her, and howling at the moon. The Greek church was a block away, an incongruous fixture in this Southern Baptist town, as if a hurricane had ripped a cruise ship from its moorings and had deposited it thousands of miles inland. In the subtropical jungle of Louisiana, they had built a small church and survived amongst the blacks and whites.

The "good"Greek neighbors in back had a beautiful daughter who had a pet rooster. I gazed at her with longing, as well as others, without attempting contact. A Jewish girl showed me how she could change cloths without taking off her clothes. A red neck girl with huge breasts, and a knack for repairing cars, wanted more from me than I knew how to give. I was afraid of being smothered by her endowments. Even a Vietnamese girl caught my fancy, but she was ice cold in the tropical heat. Only an Italian girl seemed more than mildly interested in me. She was the best, with her Porsche, her acting, and kind words. We became friends, pen pals and fellow conspirators, hoping to leave this one horse town.

I left and then came back. Property was important. She needed a big house to validate herself, her existence. The house did it. After her stroke, she lay on the floor for three days like a stone, without moving. Hard as nails, she survived, vowing she would walk again.

So began our final trip together, the most difficult one. From rest home to rest home, from neglect to bed sores to adult pampers. Finally I intervened, I took charge and put her where people cared more about her than the decoration, a non profit old age home, with cats and run by women as a charity. Her final stop. Until the second stroke cut her down. She had ceased to be her, years before; she had told me to kill her rather than keep her alive as a vegetable. She had been full of life, courageous, and independent. How could I deny her? I sent a fax, a final gift to her. No food, no tubes, just palliative care. Peace.

Afterwards I had to make more hard decisions, to have her body donated to the medical school. Irony of ironies, she who had worked there, now would be carved up by medical students causing me to have nightmares for years. Her last guilt for me to bear? Her body was cremated and her ashes mixed with others in a pauper's grave. She always preferred the company of strangers to her family.

The old house had never been a home, just a stage where she had acted out her pathos as we watched. I never went back, and I never will.

©Stephen McDonnell 2000

top of page