As family gatherings often are, ours is total chaos. I’m from a family of seven—more now including spouses and kids—and this Thanksgiving fifteen of us gathered to celebrate. As always, there was too much food and noise, packs of dogs running out into the rain and bringing their joyful muddy selves back inside, a burn barrel night where we torched old bills and scraps – articles my parents save for the occasion, the murder mystery party we’ve adopted as one of our rituals.
It’s fun and exhausting, perhaps more so because we all come so far to be together. It’s hard not to binge out on catching up amid the fray.
This year marks the last Thanksgiving we’ll have at my parents’ house. With five wooded acres, fifteen miles from the nearest town, a couple of knee replacements and other surgeries, my parents are finding it hard to take care of the place. Anyway, we seem to be a moving kind of people. I think for my parents this will mark the seventh time they’ve moved together, and we hope next summer will be the last.
Moving will be no small task. Like so many in their generation, my parents have a lot of stuff.
They’re not hoarders, exactly, but they do love a bargain, and they don’t love getting rid of things. “I might need that,” Mom says, and Dad, “I’m going to fix that.” The result of this philosophy is rooms gorged with belongings, a three car garage they usually don’t park a car in, and difficulty with the decision-making required to downsize their possessions to fit into a smaller next-time house.
There’s a lot of work to do, and since my brother and I are the siblings who don’t sit down very well, we take on a project each time we visit. It’s usually something my parents can’t do themselves, like chopping wood, cleaning the roof and gutters, clearing brush by the creek. But now, helping them come to terms with their possessions, namely which ones need to go to the dump or the giveaway bin, is our primary occupation.
Every time I shuffle through my parents’ things, I’m mindful of what I’d feel like if it was me at the spear end of this game. It’d be pretty shabby, conflicting, confusing. Which, I think, is exactly how my parents feel, though they’re open to the help from their kids. They’re overwhelmed and know they can’t do this next move on their own.
Still, it’s a funny thing to do the job right in front of them. Understandably nervous, they take turns evaluating what we’re getting rid of. They might need it. They’re going to fix it, they say.
Dad picks through the piles when he thinks we’re not looking and takes things back. He hides them inside the house until we leave. Mom wanders around talking about projects she aims to get done.
This visit my brother and I tackled a part of the garage, which is to say we went through boxes full of things that haven’t been opened in five moves. Shoes that haven’t been worn in so long their soles are disintegrated. Collections of broken toasters, lamps, rotary telephones. A box of Top Ramen from 1987. According to my brother, they don’t even make that flavor anymore. Vases, baby clothes, tools, dried flowers.
Near the end of the day, we’d dug down to a layer of boxes underneath a shelf. I reached in, pulled one toward me and opened it. Decanters, it read in Sharpie on the side. A desiccated mouse who’d almost made it inside the ripped tape rested on the top. My brother and I had already found eleven or so mice in our garage travels – it’s one of the perks of country living, the mice, and made worse because my parents’ cat Sam died last year.
I opened the box to find six decanters wrapped in paper, a pretty tidy packing job, my Mom’s work. When we were kids, my sisters and I called them genie bottles. My favorite was an iridescent gold one with indented circles.
The decanters were in there alright, along with my favorite. A closer look revealed a whole lot more than glass bottles, though. Cloth, hair, shavings, and shiny bits of things I couldn’t identify had been smuggled in and laid among the papers. Three dead and shriveled carcasses greeted me on the top of one decanter. I took the box out by the burn barrel and unloaded it. We agreed to get rid of the decanters.
In one corner of the bottom I found a mound of poison pellets, around which eight more mice were arrested in various poses of distress, their little front paws raised up in surprise near their mouths.
By then my sisters had wandered out to see what was going on. We stood looking at the box on the ground.
“It’s like Mauschwitz,” one sister said, and another elbowed her.
“Its’ the country,” Dad said, then shrugged. “See? We need another cat.”
“That’s probably enough for today,” my brother said.
“Twenty-three mice,” I said. “I think that’s a record.” The last visit I’d found fourteen.
We unwound the decanters and set those into the giveaway bin, and threw the box into the burn barrel. I stood a minute and watched the flames consume it, wondering how long those rodents had been in that box. There were many other such boxes in the garage, and eventually, someone would have to deal with those, too.
I understood, suddenly, a little bit about my parents’ inertia in getting ready to go. We were very far away from getting a whole lifetime full of possessions to a new place. It WAS overwhelming. The stuff, the change, the uncertainty, the saying goodbye and starting over and the sheer work involved with all of it. Not to mention the mice.
The next day, as I was packing to leave, I went back inside the house to make sure we hadn’t left anything. And then I found it.
The faux leather-sided decanter with a replica of a Rembrandt on the side. Dad had trash-picked it from the giveaway bin. He’d washed it and put it in the dish drainer after I went to bed.
Mom was in the kitchen making coffee and nodded her head at it. “He always liked that one,” she said.
I decided he could have his secret. After all, I’d done the same and kept my favorite. I might need it.