They entered the house to deal with what they knew already, and to start
learning about what they didn’t.
Those who had called over the weekend were unalarmed by the lack of an
answer; however, an absence from church arouses a network of fear. My mother was called
at work early on Monday morning.
Leafy called my mom at 8 o’clock on Wednesdays, after dinner but in the
middle of whatever sitcom was on, and every Saturday at noon. If my mom had plans
for Saturday, she would let Leafy know on Wednesday night, as she did when she invited
her to come shopping, along with my oldest sister, the last time they spoke. Leafy
had declined, perhaps assuming, as the elderly often do, that she would have been
Leafy was my Great Aunt. When my mother was seven, she left San Francisco
with my grandfather and came to stay at Leafy’s. My grandmother chose to remain in
her favorite local bar, back on the west coast.
The only memory I have of my grandfather is from a photograph. He died
of lung cancer shortly after I was born. My understanding of maternal family history
has always been muddied, and pictures are smooth stones that make the currents of
I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t skeptical about entering the house.
It had the unadaptable cleanliness of 1950’s décor, and all of the furniture forced
military posture. The basement was cluttered. I spent the greater part of every visit—every
dry-turkey Thanksgiving and Christmas, every pineapple upside-down cake birthday,
macaroni bake picnic, or after church uncomfortable young Sunday—digging through the
clutter down there. I am only now beginning to grasp what I thought then was nothing.
Jim and Judy Addison have lived in the house across the street from Leafy
for more than twenty years. Judy had seen her come home on Friday night. When the
lights were on late Saturday night it was not out of the ordinary. She called my mom
at work early on Monday morning. She had walked over to check on her, and peeking
through the square window at the door, saw her folded over on the couch, still wearing
My great grandfather owned a store where all of his children worked until
the war. My grandfather, Leafy, and their brother Grover went into the service. Leafy
was a mail carrier while her brothers were in battle. When they returned, Grover married
Nettie, Leafy’s best friend at the post office, and Leafy married Gary, who had served
with her brothers in Europe. They lived five blocks apart for the rest of their lives.
They spent vacations together. Nettie snuck my mother razors when Leafy felt like
15 was too young to shave. She called my mother Tuesday nights at exactly 7:33, and
came to visit Saturday afternoons at 3 o’clock, unless of course, my mother wasn’t
going to be home. At lunch Thursday afternoon, Leafy told her that my mom and my oldest
sister were going shopping.
Nettie called Judy and asked her to please go over and check on Leafy,
which Judy did frequently in times before, and now after Gary’s Parkinson’s. My mom
called Nettie when she got to Leafy’s, and Jim was using a screwdriver to get in.
As luck would have it, my mother couldn’t find the keys in her purse. Jim grunted
as he finally popped the door open. From what they could gather, Leafy had some inclination
about what was happening to her. The house smelled of exhaust fumes where Leafy had
left her car running in the basement when she had come home on Friday night. Jim found
it with the driver’s side door still opened, and the gas tank empty.
Leafy appeared to have taken a shower, thrown on her nightgown, sat down
and just died. My mom tells me over the phone she suspects Leafy wanted to be clean
when someone found her. She left the car and went upstairs as fast as she could. Rather
than drying off, she grabbed the nightgown and that was it. The couch is sopping wet
where she had been slouched over.
Nettie hadn’t been inside Leafy’s house for six years. Cancer had taken
one of her legs and given her a steel hip, making the steep flight of stairs into
Leafy’s house impossible for her. Every event that once had been held there was moved
to my mother’s house when Nettie came home from the hospital. In fact, the first year
that my mother cooked her own holiday turkey was the first time eating it wasn’t traumatizing.
I was a teenager, but old enough to notice the unspoken recognition my mother was
Grover wakes up at night and wonders outside, lost in the driveway. He
gets scared. He cries in what Alzheimer’s leads us to believe are random intervals.
But memories raise the river of the mind, and the first flood plain is our eyes. Nettie
had been up all night convincing him to come back inside. She was still asleep at
8:43 on Monday when she would normally have called Leafy to schedule lunch at Delightfully
Yours, where the three of them ate lunch together almost everyday. When Leafy didn’t
answer the phone at 9, Nettie called Judy. Judy called my mother. My mother called
Nettie. My father left work to pick them up. When he arrived, Nettie folded her walker
and sat in the front, and Grover was floating calm in an eddy, excited to visit the
sister he thought he hadn’t seen in 3 years.
The body was gone by the time they arrived. Nettie let Jim and my father
carry her into the house. Nettie and my mom sat in conversation. Grover’s ears were
damaged in the war, and he only spoke if he was sure he wasn’t interrupting. Anymore,
he doesn’t seem to notice. He stands up and walks between them, my mother and my great
aunt, and sits down in the wet spot where his sister had been for the last three days.
Monday evening my mom tells me over the phone that they thought briefly about warning
him it was wet. He sat down and said nothing.