The entirety of my father’s life fit in two cardboard boxes. I picked them up from the care center a few days before the family came together to grieve. When I’d asked him what kind of funeral he wanted, he said, “No funeral. I don’t want people standing around all sad and shit. Just throw my ashes over the side of a boat, and make sure you don’t throw them into the wind.” And then he’d laughed. He didn’t understand why I wasn’t laughing, too.
That might have been the last time I saw him as himself, before the cancer metastasized from his lungs to his kidneys and brain. So we didn’t have a funeral. But we did get together at my uncle’s house, where we told stories about my dad’s adventures in a world that didn’t understand him with people who couldn’t help but love him more than he ever loved himself.
Nearly every item my mother owns—enough to fill three storage sheds—has been labeled with the name of whoever will inherit it. She tells the story behind each object to make sure the inheritor understands why they will get it. “Your dad bought these candleholders for me when he got out of prison,” she told me one day. “Ray was so pissed. He didn’t think I should accept gifts from my ex-boyfriend, but I told him someday you’d want them. They were expensive, too. They’re probably worth something now.”
The candleholders, two wooden wall sconces, once held tapered candles behind shields of glass. Decades and a multitude of moves later, the glass has long since shattered. The rustic stain has faded, and the sawtooth hanger on the back of one is barely holding on. I don’t remember seeing them on the walls of any of our many homes.
My half brother and half sisters have all heard similar stories about their dads and the things they’re supposed to want when Mom dies. Some of these objects have sentimental value. Some are “collectibles” she believes will help her kids or grandkids financially. Most have no real value at all, but she still bends over backward to pay the storage bill, often before paying rent or buying food, as if the units protect her self-worth.
I guess I can’t blame her. She and her twelve siblings lived in a shack in rural Idaho when they weren’t spending time in the orphanage—they were the only ones there whose parents were still alive. Her dad died when she was thirteen. By then, only eleven children still lived. Gloria died from thyroiditis, Lawrence from leukemia. So when her mother drank herself into a stupor and beat her remaining children bloody and bruised, no one in that tiny town said a word. The kids had already been to the orphanage and back. Mom grew up clothed in little more than shame. Collecting clothes and gadgets and dishes and dolls seems a reasonable obsession, even if she struggles to keep herself above water while she hoards and hoards and hoards.
Every poor person has a story about realizing they were poor. Mine happened at the second of six middle schools I attended, when the teacher of the talented and gifted program told us we were going to stuff boxes of school supplies to give to poor kids during the second semester. Mrs. Webb, a churlish woman near retirement, often complained about how ungrateful and disrespectful young people were. To announce the project, she said, “You kids need to know how good you have it. Some kids run out of pencil and paper in the middle of the year and can’t afford to buy any, while you kids sit here sniveling about not getting your favorite album for Christmas. Some kids didn’t even get food for Christmas. Some kids have to ask someone for it.”
She emphasized certain words as if they carried the weight of a thousand backpacks. I spent that afternoon trying to decide whether I was some kids or you kids. When I got home, I compared the date of our community service project to the date my mom had on the calendar to pick up school supplies, hopeful I wouldn’t be packing my own box of charity. I mouthed the words “food” and “ask.” Our Christmas dinner had come from the food bank. My second-semester notebook would come from a box packed diligently by myself and my peers.
The only gratitude I felt during the project came from seeing how plain the spiral notebooks and pencils were. No one in my class would recognize some kid among them.
To someone raised outside the poverty cycle, it probably seems strange not to know you’re poor. But we’d moved from rental to rental across three states on the West Coast and once to Maryland, and I’d never had a friend who had much more than I did. We knew which church gave out the best school clothes, how to trade our paper food stamps for non-food items, and that tax season beat the hell out of Christmas any year because it was the only time our families had enough money all at once to buy something nice. We knew money mattered because we’d heard the words “We can’t afford that” hundreds of times by middle school. We’d been teased about our clothes, and we’d wondered if we would ever get something when it came out instead of when it went out of style. But none of this necessarily meant we were poor. It was just normal.
Ultimately, I think the way Mrs. Webb emphasized her words hit me like a #10 can of commodity meat not because it taught me my family didn’t have enough money, but because it taught me the world viewed me differently as a result. Some kids needed food. Some kids had to ask for it. Some kids were a tool used to shame you kids into being grateful. And so it was in the presence of you kids that I learned to be ashamed.
Commercial fisherman, pizza deliveryman, cabdriver, carpet cleaner, drug dealer. My dad earned his living as each of these things at some point during his life, but the last job title stuck with him long after he’d paid his debt to society. No one who met my dad would guess he was a self-described felon with a fifth-grade education. He had an uncommon intelligence about geography and science, and he could play most classical songs on his guitar after hearing them only once. But anyone who knew him understood that he couldn’t walk away from drugs or booze any more easily than he could walk away from the color of his eyes—or his criminal record.
By age thirty, he was rejected by employers and landlords alike because of crimes he had already paid for, but he’d believed himself unworthy long before that. My grandparents immigrated to the United States and worked their way to the American dream. They expected their children to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and do the same. A couple of them did. But my dad ran away from home at thirteen and traveled the length of the country with a guitar strapped across his back. The one time he talked to me about that period of his life, he told me he’d spent those months hitchhiking and learning just how unreachable the American dream was. He met veterans who lost themselves in the war and came back only to find they’d also lost their families and homes. He met artists trying to live their passion in a world that had forgotten why it needed art. And he met people with mental illnesses whose parents, spouses, or children wouldn’t or couldn’t accept a different version of life than they’d been promised.
I don’t know whether he started hearing voices before, during, or after this adventure, but I suspect he saw something of himself in all of those people. I don’t know how he ended up back home or how old he was when he did. But like much of society in the fifties, my grandparents believed mental illness existed only to the extent that some people were weak. My dad’s inability to conform to their expectations left him with a sense of shame he could never shake.
In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether he turned to drugs to calm his mood swings or to get my grandparents’ voices out of his head. The end result—stronger hallucinations, deeper lows, wilder highs, and a criminal record that rendered him ineligible for most safety net services—created a cycle of underemployment and need. My dad knew that many of the people he loved viewed him as a loser, a flake, or a lost cause, and he accepted the world’s perception of him without question.
Sometimes when he was drunk or high, he’d call me and ask if I’d forgive him if he ended it all. I’d say, “No. I love you. Have you called your doctor?”
He’d disappear for a few weeks, and we’d all wonder if this was the year we’d get the call about his suicide or some reckless act that cost him his life. Then he’d show up at dinnertime one day, thin and haggard and acting like nothing had happened. He’d tell stupid jokes (“I’m so good at sleeping I can do it with my eyes closed!”) and inappropriate stories (“I once woke up next to a one-toothed woman; let me tell you how it happened”). I would let him in and never say a word about his disappearance—partly because he made me laugh, partly because I feared what he would do if I told him how much it hurt when he took off like that, and partly because the taste of his guilt overpowered the taste of garlic potatoes and dinner rolls.
Dad lived with my grandmother until she died, steeped in reminders of never being quite enough. Four DUIs and some jail time later, he rented a room in a house shared by other people who couldn’t pass a background check because no other landlord would take him. My husband and I had four kids and lived in a three-bedroom apartment. There just wasn’t enough room for my dad, too.
One day over lunch, Dad said, “Ed keeps stealing my cancer meds.”
I raised an eyebrow, red flags popping up like milepost signs stretched along a freeway leading through his criminal history. If someone at the house was dealing drugs, Dad could end up back in jail. I didn’t know whether a person could get chemotherapy in jail.
He saw the worry on my face and, as he often did when trying to read my body language, misinterpreted it. He leaned toward me conspiratorially and whispered, “Don’t worry. I’ve been stealing his Meals on Wheels as revenge.”
Not long afterward, the oncologist told us that his chemo was palliative only. When my dad asked me if it was okay if he stopped getting it, I said, “Yes. I love you. Call your doctor.” A social worker helped me get him into an adult care center where no one would steal his cancer meds and hospice could help us all prepare. When I went to visit, I always found him sitting at the table on the back deck telling stupid jokes and inappropriate stories and making everyone laugh.
After he died, I wasn’t surprised to find a crumpled aluminum Meals on Wheels tray wrapped around a pipe and a gram of skunk weed tucked under the clothes filling one of his two boxes of belongings. Medical marijuana was legal, but Dad had a felony record for drug distribution near a school and no medical marijuana card. My husband and I both worked for school districts. Having a gram of illegal pot in the house with our young children could well have put our employment at risk. My dad was who he was until the very end, sucking everyone around him into fits and starts of equal parts hilarity and dismay.
I’m sure he wouldn’t have understood why I wasn’t laughing.
The word “poverty” conjures images of stark absence, but my mother’s storage units are packed to the ceiling. The corner edges of the cardboard boxes near the bottom cave inward so the stacks would lean if they weren’t crammed wall to wall. When my parents met, my mom had three kids, two ex-husbands, a drug problem, and not much more. She worked as a go-go dancer in a club best known for its prostitutes. Her silence about this period of her life reflects the self-reproach she’s never been able to voice.
Mom says she fell in love with my dad’s talent and kindness, that she chose him as my father for those two qualities. “You were the only one of my babies that was planned,” she says. She’ll tell the story of how she died three times giving birth to me as if I had some conscious role in the whole debacle. I am supposed to love her with my whole heart, and I carry the weight of my guilt everywhere because I don’t. I am supposed to forgive her, and I carry backpacks full of shame because I can’t.
I spent my adolescent years bouncing between guardians, even working fifteen hours a week to earn my tuition at a boarding school so my mom could gallivant around the country with the newest stepfather. I lived with my dad most of my sophomore year for the same reason. One morning, Mom showed up before dawn and took me to a restaurant for an omelet and a choice: go on the road with her and be homeschooled by two people who didn’t graduate high school, or move in with my oldest sister, her third husband, and their five kids.
Despite my experience in Mrs. Webb’s class, I saw education as a way out. Because we moved so often, school had become a safe space where I could dream of something better, even if I never really believed something better would happen. I chose to go to my sister’s, where I could at least have real teachers and a real chance.
My mom viewed my choice as a betrayal. Back at my dad’s house, she handed me a black trash bag and told me I could take whatever I could fit. I threw in some clothes and my poetry and called her a bitch.
She backed me against the bunk beds and slapped me. “You should be grateful anybody wants you!” She backhanded me. “All those boys coming over!” Slap. “I might be a bitch, but you’re a little whore.” Backhand. “Where’d you even learn to act like that?”
My relationship with my mother could best be described as on-again, off-again. The last time I stopped speaking to her, she’d called the cops on us for suspected child abuse. She was really just pissed because we were going to move out of state so I could go to graduate school. I might never know whether she believed what she told the police or not. She saw child abuse everywhere because that had been her experience as a child and a mother.
She grew up in the forties and fifties, the daughter of an alcoholic single mother with untreated epilepsy and anger issues. Part of Mom’s childhood took place in an orphanage, the rest barefoot and mostly naked, walking between junk cars her brothers were periodically chained to. The sisters, locked in closets when they were unruly, had it a little easier at home and a little worse in foster care. The jagged scar down one of her wrists speaks of the time after, but I don’t know how long after. The first abusive husband? The second one?
Eight years passed between the phone call she made to the police and the day I told my sister she could invite Mom to my dad’s memorial get-together. I figured it wasn’t possible to have a child with someone and not need some kind of closure when they died. I don’t know what I expected her to say when I saw her. Maybe “I’ll miss him, too” or “I’m sorry.”
“I still have those candleholders,” she said. “They’ll be important to you someday. Especially now.”
When my husband and I moved to Oregon in 2006, we held a weeklong yard sale and sold everything with the slightest bit of monetary value. We needed enough in savings for a deposit, first and last month’s rent, and food until we could find jobs. Starting over that way didn’t feel brave or dumb. It simply felt necessary, a conscious choice to do whatever it took to break the poverty cycle.
My hardest-won possession provided us with hope: a college degree. Like many first-generation college students, I believed education would alter the future so much it would erase any lingering trace of the past. So while my dad collected experiences and my mom collected stuff, I collected knowledge. It never occurred to me there were places where almost everyone had a degree, many of them graduate degrees with which my bachelor’s could not compete. Six months after we moved, I finally landed a job as a secretary.
A swarm of mixed feelings kept me up at night. I earned twelve dollars an hour—five dollars an hour more than I’d earned in Idaho, but still well below the poverty level for a family of our size. I answered phones and typed letters, lowest in the workplace hierarchy. We lived in affordable housing, which turned out to be just another name for low-income housing. We could hear every breath our neighbor took through our paper-thin walls.
It’s hard to be proud of a job that doesn’t make ends meet. I wanted nothing more than to escape a system that was designed to help but was so full of hindrances it created a generational cycle of need-ask-need. When my oldest daughter wanted to take a costly extracurricular French class at the middle school and join the track team, I heard the words “We can’t afford that” come out of my mouth in my mother’s voice. The next day, a letter came home offering my daughter a waiver for the French class fee and a backpack full of school supplies. A familiar sense of shame threatened to overwhelm me entirely.
The younger kids would be in middle school soon, too. What if they wanted to join clubs and teams? What if we needed the back-to-school clothes drive next year—and the year after that? What if they felt like I did when I was in school? I worried our kids would be seen as some kids forever if I didn’t do something. Still convinced education was the answer, or perhaps too stubborn to admit I’d been wrong, I tried a different kind of learning.
I took a financial literacy class and a homeownership class. I learned strategies to reduce our debt, save for a down payment, and eventually purchase our first home with an FHA loan and a lot of help. The house represented a kind of stability I’d never had. The front porch seemed to lead directly out of the shame cycle, the roof protecting my family from an unwanted legacy.
We moved our sparse belongings in exactly one week before my dad died.
My aunt and uncle came down from Washington to visit my dad before he passed. We sat on the back deck while my dad and my uncle told crazy stories about younger, more adventurous days. I listened and fidgeted with the keys to Dad’s van. I’d had to take them from him a few weeks before when the oncologist told me it wasn’t safe for him to drive anymore. Guilt still nagged at me. The van was the only thing of value Dad owned.
When I drove him back to the care center that day, he said, “I love your house. Good place for kids. Nice backyard. Private enough to smoke a bowl. Two bowls!” And then he laughed so hard he couldn’t stop coughing, cancer stealing his breath away a little at a time. The center’s manager helped me get him to the front door. I fell into a memory of holding him upright from his car to his bed while the scent of whiskey overran my senses.
The rattle of his cough brought me back to the present and reminded me he was dying. I hugged him. He hugged me back. Then he looked at me and said, “You’re the best thing I ever did. I’m so proud of you.”
My mom insists she didn’t lose her house; she put it through a short sale. Technically she did, but she always fails to mention the number of times the house went into foreclosure before that. Sometimes my older sister and I would scrape together enough money to pull it back from the brink. Sometimes a government program would step in instead. When the fail-safes finally ran out, a short sale was the only option remaining.
After the sale, she moved all her carefully labeled belongings to storage units. She lived in a fifth wheel for a while, reminiscent of the year she and I lived in a camper in my aunt and uncle’s backyard. The people who owned the property where she parked eventually asked for rent money she didn’t have, so she sold the fifth wheel for five hundred dollars and moved into the loft of a barn at a friend’s house. At seventy-one years old, she climbs up and down a ladder to her “room” and talks about turning it into a studio for making stained glass. She found all the tools she’d need at a yard sale. She gathers more stuff, and her stuff in storage gathers more dust.
We talk on the phone a couple times a month. Sometimes she brings up some item she’s tucked away in those storage sheds because “someone might want it” or because “it will be worth something someday.” The last time we talked, I told her I thought she should let some of that stuff go. Give it away. Sell it. Take that expense out of her fixed-income budget.
“When I’m gone, you’ll be glad I didn’t,” she said.
Maybe she’s right. Maybe my siblings and I will work our way through each piece with some sense of nostalgia, but I think it’s more likely that I’ll take the candleholders and leave the rest to people who don’t resent it. I own almost nothing from my childhood because every move meant winnowing down what would fit into the moving van, and the stuff she would someday pass on to us kids took precedence over the stuff we kids already had. I look at those storage sheds now with equal parts embarrassment and scorn.
It occurred to me at some point—I don’t know when—that my dad’s life fit into two boxes because there weren’t enough things in the world to make him feel better about himself. So instead of trying to fill the void with stuff, he carried music and memories of people and experiences everywhere he went. The items he chose to keep helped me see him in a different way. A paint-by-numbers painting my aunt had done for him, an old paperback copy of a book he and his brother both loved, a poem I wrote in seventh grade, and two “Best Grandpa Ever” T-shirts my kids bought him for some Christmas or birthday took up the bulk of the second box. Sentimentality captured him as surely as anyone, or maybe these few objects helped him see himself as a person worthy of love.
I learned to accept my mother’s attachment to those candleholders after my eleven-year-old son passed away. When we sold the house and moved to Roseburg, we carefully wrapped the pieces of his wheelchair, unused for almost a decade, and carried them with us. We keep a box of his clothes, his favorite toys, his favorite movies. His snow globe collection sits on a shelf next to my dad’s cell phone, van keys, and last book of matches. Both my son and my father loved to laugh more than anything. When I touch the things they owned, I hear their laughter and remember parts of myself that could have easily died with them.
I know my mom will continue sacrificing everything to keep those storage sheds, and I’ll continue to wish she’d pay her rent and buy food first. But I’ve realized her behavior stems from a generational pattern of loss and shame. She experienced the death of her father, a brother, and a sister before she turned thirteen. She lost other siblings to child protective services and still more to disease and drowning and drugs. She’s one of only five still living and the only daughter to have survived past fifty. I can’t even count the suicides, the accidents, and the disappearances that take up space in our family history. Every fresh loss intensified her knowledge of who and what she didn’t have.
I used to believe Mom hoarded because stuff represented the opposite of the absence she grew up with, and maybe that’s true. But maybe the act of hoarding is also a way of fighting shame about the past, replacing it with hope for the future. Maybe each and every one of her things serves as a physical reminder of love she received whether or not she thought she deserved it, and every label she places on the back of them is meant to remind her children that they are people worthy of love, too.
2 comments have been posted.
What a powerful essay. I'll carry it with me. Thank you for sharing your story and the stories of your parents.
Erin Popelka | May 2021 | Spokane, Washington
Wow, this is so, so incredibly powerful. Thank you.
Alexis | May 2021 | Portland