I didn’t want to go in. That was obvious. Even in less disastrous times than these, the occasion of my father’s death, I never really wanted to enter his house. The smell for one thing. When you first opened the door and the odor of mold hit you in the face, you wanted nothing more than to pull your t-shirt up over your nose and mouth, prevent that smell from entering your body. Or maybe you wanted nothing more than to turn and leave, find sanctuary in your car, your oh-so-clean car, even with the lingering smell of a quick McDonald’s lunch after your long drive. The smell was easy to explain. Numerous years of basement flooding had destroyed the drywall throughout the downstairs rooms.
But it would not be until later that day, when my husband and I, and my brave 70 year old uncle who should not have volunteered to help with this task, descended the wooden stairs that led to the basement from the front door of my father’s rectangle ranch house, that I would realize the extent of the damage. How all of the toys—a baby carriage, a Lite Brite, one of a pair of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots–, the boxes of school papers, the stacks and stacks of books my mother collected from years of teaching first grade, the antiques she had collected from her travels to Europe before she met my father, had been slowly drowned by the creeping water and nothing ever salvaged.
The bugs were another problem, but you saw those before you even entered the house. The decaying front entry way that I remembered being added to the house when I was 7 or so, was covered with Japanese beetles that looked like harmless ladybugs but were carried their own particular stench if you touched them, daddy longleg spiders having weaved their homes into the corners, and the boxelder bugs, strangely menacing with their black and white armor.
The evidence of rodents was obvious immediately there too. Holes chewed into the walls, causing insulation to seep out like dirty cotton candy. If you were brave enough to enter the house and look, for example, a water glass, you would see more evidence of mice, maybe rats, creeping in and out of cupboards and Tupperware as they perused the kitchen looking for scraps of food amid yellowing boxes of Morton’s salt, Hamburger Helper, and amber bottles of pills long since emptied.
When had he given up? Maybe he had long-since decided that if he couldn’t make things what they once were, keep a material sort of shrine to keep my mother’s memory alive, then he would shut his eyes to the decay and dreams of days when my mother’s collection of tea cups say washed and gleaming on the dining room table, awaiting the women from Ladies’ Aid, but he had time to steal just one more date cookie, the same kind his mother had made when he was a boy coming in from the fields.