Since 1968, my great aunt Alvena and her husband Woody lived in a house in downtown Ephrata across the street from Fulton Elementary school. I remember going there during the Ephrata Fair, parking in their backyard and stopping in to say hello before we'd walk out to Main Street and ride the rides or watch the greased pig chase down at the community ballfield behind our high school. But in all those years of visiting, watching the parade every fall in front of their house, I'd never gone past the small square that made up their living room.
The house was not, as you might say, the most inviting. It was dark and smelled horrible, blackened spiderwebs hanging from the walls and ceiling, shades pulled down tight so no one could see in. The living room itself was piled high with books and magazines stacked on the floor, on the broken television, on the two ratty old couches--on other piles of books and magazines. A staircase led up to a second floor, and an adjoining room led off into the kitchen, but that was all shrouded in shadows. At least it was until a few months ago, when my aunt and uncle were removed from their house by the Ephrata Borough.
They were dangers to themselves, the Borough said, and it was hard to argue with them. They'd actually been trying to move them out of the house for years now, ever since Alvena started making a habit of calling the police. Someone was stealing their oil, she said. Someone was looking in their windows. Someone, once, had broken into her house and left pennies on the floor. The police said just to keep them, knowing she'd simply dropped change and forgotten it it was hers. She didn't want it, and insisted an officer come and take it away.
But this winter they had gotten even worse. Woody had a heart attack and Alvena wasn't in her right mind enough to give him his medicine. A nurse had to come to their house every day to dispense his pills, and had finally reported them to the Office of Aging as unfit to care for themselves when she found them one morning huddled in the living room in their winter jackets. They hadn't paid the oil bill in over a year.
The case was heard at the Lancaster Courthouse, and my mother and her sister were given power of attorney, and put in charge of their estate, moving Alvena and Woody into an assisted living community in Manheim. When the nurses helped her out of her coat upon arrival, they found seven thousand dollars in her purse. In the past few weeks, as my family and their friends have been cleaning out the house, we've found another fifteen grand, stuffed between mattresses, in the sewing machine, in couch cushions and under the refrigerator (along with a completely mummified squirrel). All of that money, including whatever the antiques and house itself can fetch at auction in May, will go to the nursing home which costs $248 per day, per person. Not including cable.
When Jess and I went along to help move furniture out of the house a few weekends ago, I finally got a chance to see what had stretched just beyond the darkness for so many years. Dead roaches, mostly. Hundreds of them. My dad had set off four bug bombs weeks before, and the carcasses and feces littered every surface in the house. And dust, almost a half-inch thick under the carpets we had to pull up. I got sick from inhaling it and now won't go back into the house without a respirator.
Also were piles of more books and magazines, dating back to the 1940s, though few were in any presentable condition. And piles of styrofoam containers, grocery bags, and used nylons. Alvena was born in 1914 and lived through the Great Depression, and along with her growing dementia, she'd become quite a horder, it seemed. The stone-walled basement was stacked floor-to-ceiling with things she could never possibly need again, including a doxen boxes of vegetables canned back when my mom was still living with her parents.
I wish I'd remembered my camera the first few times we were working in the house so that I could have captured it as it was before we cleaned everything up--the way my aunt and uncle actually lived there. It was something out of a horror movie. "The Lisbon House," Jess and I call it, from Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. It's straight from the book. I have no doubt that the grade school kids across the street have all kinds of stories about the place, watching it from a distance as they get on their buses or sit idly in social studies class, staring out the window at the peeling wood siding, the cracked panes of glass of the attic windows.
We've filled seven dumpsters with just their trash, and the house is still brimming with china and glassware, old tools and other antiques like the 1904 Victor victrola and the ancient stereoscope that my dad hopes to buy at the auction. Because there is no will, all of their belongings are just up for grabs to the general public. The only things we have been allowed to remove besides trash are family pictures and money, to be deposited in their bank account. Which will all be eaten up by the nursing home in a matter of months.
And they are not enjoying that at all, either. They don't understand why they had to be removed, that they were both slowly dying in the house from malnutrition and exposure. Alvena's legs have black, pussing sores that refuse to heal because of her disregard to her own person. Woody can barely walk around. He says it's not a free country anymore. She thinks it's her sister-in-law Catherine doing it to them. "I know it's the Bitch," she says to my mother when my parents stop in at the home to visit them almost daily, leaving my mom to remind her that Catherine has been dead for almost two years.
The nurses say they'll eventually get used to the idea of living at the home. That Alvena will stop packing up her clothing every night, into the plastic bags she pilfers from the cafeteria at dinner time. It's not that she doesn't have her good days--sometimes she even admits that she couldn't take care of herself. Other days she believes she's on vacation. During a recent visit, my mom found her lying back in her bed, propped up by pillows, watching TV. "Why is it," she asked, "that it always has to come to an end when you're having such a good time?" My mom told her not to worry, that she could stay as long as she wanted, they'd just slip the bill under the door when they finally needed her to leave. "Well, maybe we'll stay another day," she responded, then continued thoughtfully: "You know, it's a funny thing. We must have stayed at this hotel before--they've got my name written on all my clothing!"
But some days do not go as well. My mom comes home a wreck, eyes red from crying. She isn't sure if she's doing the right thing, locking her aunt and uncle away in a nursing home. Those are the days when Alvena accuses her of doing it all, and really, she isn't wrong. It was my mom that helped the Borough move them into an assisted living environment, but not to go in and ransack their house, stealing all of their belongings like Alvena insists in her raspy, cackling voice. My mom hates even rifling through their things long enough to find old family pictures because she feels like she's intruding. But if she hadn't, I don't know that they would have lived through the winter.
It's crazy to have to think that, as though we'd just left them there to die all these years. But they refused to accept help. My father and uncles had tried a number of times, offering to do work on the sadly dilapidated house. But they insisted they were just fine on their own, hiding behind their shaded windows, with a single bulb in the iron chandelier to light the entire first floor. They'd lived on their pride and their paranoia, foregoing humanity itself. They lived like homeless people in their own home. And that's what my mother has to keep reminding herself of: even if they don't realize it--even if they never realize it--she's doing good by them. They were always her favorite aunt and uncle, and whether they like it or not, she is doing her best to repay them for it.
I hope that they do come around. If not to be able to understand what is going on, then at least to be able to appreciate it. To understand that we're not trying to lock them away, but give them a chance to live out their lives in comfort. With warm beds and good food. With people taking care of them better than they ever took care of themselves. It won't be about them coming to appreciate "all the hard work we did" or anything of the sort. Just that we love them and care about them. That's all I hope they realize.