Friday, August 19, 2005


I spent last weekend sorting through my parent's house. My sister and brothers were there; so were my kids and husband. We needed twice that many people. And a dumpster. And a well-placed match.

It's been a constant battle to get my dad used to the idea that we are going to have to sell their home. We talk to him a little every day about it. Initially, he ranted and screamed at each of us, cursing and threatening. Over the past month or so, he has softened a bit, but he still flares up from time to time. He is adamantly opposed to selling the house. He built that home with my brothers back in 1969. Through the worst of times, he and my mom hung onto that house. Through years and years of unemployment, infighting, separation, and financial hardship, he and my mom managed to keep the house. It was the one thing that was stable in our lives, really. The house.

Viewing the house from the street is pretty impressive. It is a beautiful structure. Very modern ranch home with cathedral ceilings and expanses of glass on a huge lot in a prestigious neighborhood. It has weathered storms, survived decades of kids and pets, stood firm from Nixon to Bush Jr and spent decades out of vogue only to recently return to cool with the resurgence of all things 70s.

Inside . . . . a very different story. With his health as with his house, my father's credo has been if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and if it IS broke, ignore it. That outlook paired with his penchant to obsessively buy and hoard things, all kinds of things, has made the house a disaster area. His 2400 square foot basement was, up until May of this year, packed to the rafters with hundreds of rolls of vinyl wallcovering. Over 500 rolls that weighed about 75 pounds apiece. The really heavy duty commercial stuff that you would use in office buildings or hospitals. He was sure that it would be a goldmine, that he would be able to sell it and turn a HUGE profit over what he paid for it at a bankruptcy auction. When he bought this stuff 15 years ago, the basement had only enjoyed about a year of freedom from storing hundreds of airplane seats, purchased at the Air Atlanta bankruptcy auction. Selling those seats was a blessing and a curse. He and my mom really needed the money from the sale, but selling them for a profit only encouraged him to hoard more.

It was something my dad had resorted to in the late 80s after he had burned his last bridge in the aeronautical engineering world and was unable to get any more lucrative contracts. He started buying and selling. Well, wait . . . let me correct that. He started buying with a faint notion of maybe selling. He just loved the buying. And the keeping. And the hoarding.

He has never been able to let go of anything. He and my mom have had half of a garage all these years because he parked his 55 Ford Fairlane there when it stopped running in 1969. It had been his sister's car, and when she passed away in 1957 at 27, the car was given to him and my mom. Once it gave up the ghost, he insisted on keeping it but never intended to fix it; he just wouldn't let go of it. Anytime anyone visited the house, the first thing they would see when they pulled in the drive was this dusty, tarp covered monstrosity (they don't have a garage door, its open). Inevitably, someone would ask "What's under the tarp?" followed by a lift of the corner of the tarp for a peek. This would usually generate a gruff reply like "Don't touch the car - just leave that alone!" Grace and tact . . . that's my dad.

My dad hasn't set foot in the house since before his ill-fated car trip and wreck back in early December of last year. My mom moved to her apartment when he left to go on the trip, despite her begging and pleading with him not to go. He was on his way to Florida to sell his wallcovering to contractors and homeowners dealing with storm damage. He had just received the news that Mama was moving out, that she couldn't take living like they were living anymore, that she had done all that she could to convince him to do something besides sit on the sofa watching Home Shopping Network and ordering hundreds of dollars of crap every month. She was tired of living in her bedroom, avoiding him, watching him as his health slowly deteriorated before her eyes, watching everything except his temper grow weaker and weaker as their house fell into disrepair and her savings dwindled trying to support the increasing costs to upkeep the huge house that they could no longer manage.

In all of these months, a few things have happened to the house. The wallcovering is gone. I tried to sell it on Ebay, and had no luck. I listed it on Craigslist for free, and still had no takers. Thinking that we would have to pay someone to haul it away and dispose of it, we breathed a sigh of relief when my ex-husband (who kept up a friendly relationship with my mom and dad over all of these years) sold the lot for $2,000 and had the buyer come get the stuff. It took the buyers 3 trips with 4 workmen and a tractor trailer truck each trip to get all of it. The few rolls they left behind were the ones that had been crushed under the weight of the stacks and stacks of wallcovering. It was a blessing to have it gone, even though there were 50 or so rolls left to deal with. My ex-husband came back this past month with a dumptruck and a couple of workers and made three trips to the dump with what remained in the basement (wallcovering and other junk), and amidst howls of protest from my dad followed by quiet resignation, we gave my ex the old 55 Ford in exchange for all of the labor and disposal costs. He has coveted that car for years, and will likely spend the money to restore it. Besides, he had saved us thousands of dollars in labor and disposal costs by finding a buyer for all of that godawful wallcovering. Seemed fair.

Then the floods and storms came through in July. Everyone and everything has limits. The old house stood bravely as the water flooded and receded. The basement filled with a few inches of water, and water poured into the attic space through vents and weak spots, I guess. It was a quiet kind of damage, not apparent from the street. The house looked the same from the outside, but the inside was slowly, slowly being overtaken.

As soon as we knew that water had gotten into the house, we called my parent's insurance company. I reported the damage to FEMA. There were so many claims in this area and so few adjusters that it took until this past week for anyone to come out and inspect.

When we went through the house this past weekend, we all saw it: mold. Mold on the cathedral ceilings, mold on the carpeting, mold on their books, pictures . . .

My brothers tore down a bit of the ceiling and drywall and the insurance man stopped in his tracks. He has to escalate the claim up to some other level of adjuster; he called them the "Mold People". It is likely that the contents of the home will be a total loss, possibly even the drywall, ceilings, flooring, everything.

We were counting on selling the house and buying another smaller one for them near me. One that was new and clean and easy to maintain. One that cost less than what their home would sell for, so that they would have some cushion. You know what they say about best laid plans . . .

I was laying awake the other night, thinking about everything, and it dawned on me how metaphorical it all is. My dad, who has been strong and hardheaded all of these years, never sick a day in his life, was walking around with a heart that was essentially 90% blocked. My mom, who held a bedside vigil with him for months, seemed to be an endless well of stamina, was succumbing to cancer before our very eyes. And their home, the solid brick center of our world for all of the years that we grew up, seemingly the same from the street, is being consumed by the minute with creeping mold.

Some would say karma. Some would say inevitable deterioration. Some would say coincidence.

These days, I'm not saying much of anything.

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