The day after Aunt Doris’ funeral, my grandmother stands on the block of cement that was her front porch. My mother, my older sister, my younger brother and I stand below in tall grass, surrounded by overgrown hydrangeas. Aunt Doris loved hydrangeas, my grandmother had told us when we first arrived. The ones outside our kitchen window had grown from cuttings of these.
“I don’t know what we’ll find, if anything,” my grandmother says, the house key in her hand. The other is on her hip. She looks like she’s putting on a brave face before we enter a dangerous and uncharted land. “It was bad last time I visited.”
She turns and puts the key in the lock. “And that was when you were six,” she adds, glancing at my older sister over her shoulder.
The door unlocks and she pushes, but something stops her from swinging it open. She leans her shoulder into it, and we can hear something sliding across the floor and out of her way.
“I suwannee,” my grandmother whispers from inside the dark house.
Our group crowds onto the porch while she fumbles for light. From outside I see nothing but darkness, and shapes piled on top of shapes like the skyline of an alien city. Finally my grandmother finds the light switch and flips it on.
My mother’s mouth drops open, her hand protectively gripping my brother’s shoulder as she pulls him away from a precarious tower of newspapers and magazines.
The light switch has also turned on the ceiling fan. Once it picks up speed, papers fly from the tops of stacks and balled up napkins roll like tumbleweeds between piles of garbage. Only a ragged reclining chair is uncovered. The smell of urine and rotten food is overpowering. My sister pulls her shirt over her nose and retreats outside.
We follow a narrow, labyrinthine path through the garbage toward the kitchen. The sink is unreachable, filled with empty containers. There is an empty jelly jar, an empty egg carton, and a plastic container that says it contains peaches, but really is filled with a hairy brown sludge. One cabinet door is missing, and the dishes are crammed together. Broken glass fragments litter the shelves.
I put my hands in my jacket pockets to prevent myself from accidentally touching anything. How could Aunt Doris live in this place? On the way here, my grandmother told us her brother removed Doris’ six cats three months before her death. My grandmother took two of them and he took one. The other three were divvied between his children and grandchildren. It explains the smell, I think as we move single file through the house. And the absence of rats.
A cockroach runs crookedly up the kitchen wall as we step through and into the hallway. My brother steps onto a rug and the floor beneath shrieks under his weight.
“That’s just the register grate,” my grandmother says quietly when he draws back. We tread carefully.
Doris’ bedroom is filled with empty medicine bottles. The carpet sounds sticky under our shoes as we crowd into it, kicking the small bottles aside on our way in.
The bed is covered in a layer of cat hair and mountains of clothes: Flower printed shirts and sweatpants, large beige panties, nightgowns and slippers.
I think to join my sister outside and turn toward the bedroom door. My mother and little brother briefly block my path, forcing me to face her dated dresser. More medicine bottles are scattered across the scratched wood surface. A plastic bottle of baby powder leans between the dresser and the wall, close to falling in between. The mirror is streaked and filthy.
But, all standing upright across the top of the dresser, are several framed pictures. I see the familiar face of my grandmother’s brother, of my sister in her graduation gown. Then I see a picture of my mother and father standing on a vibrant green lawn. My brother, a fat and laughing infant in this photo, is held between them. There is a photo of me and my cousins at Christmas just three years few years ago. I recognize some of these photos from other relative’s houses.
“How did Aunt Doris get these?” I ask.
“She sent my brother and I cards every holiday,” my grandmother answers, tearing her eyes away from the horror show that is Doris’ bed to look at the photos. “Every time, she asked for pictures of the kids.”
It feels strange seeing photographs of my family in this horrible place. I try to think if I ever even met this woman.
“She was at your sister’s graduation,” my mother says, as if having read my mind.
I think back, recalling a woman with frizzy hair in a pitifully small bun on the top of her head. I didn’t know, or ask to know her name. Uncle Rodney, my grandmother’s brother, had been at her side the entire time, helping her keep balanced. She had been enormous in her yellow floral shirt, with breasts that reached to her navel and wrinkled skin swinging from her arms.
For a moment I am touched she has kept these photos all this time, but then I remember she has also kept empty bags of cat food, milk cartons and grocery bags. Aunt Doris kept everything.
“I didn’t know it was this bad,” my grandmother says. “Rodney never told me it was this bad.”
“How could she let it get this way?” My brother has pried himself from my mother’s grip and is getting a closer look at piles of cat feces in the corner of the room.
“Doris was always…” My grandmother can’t think of a way to put it.
My mother picks up the photographs one by one, removing them from their gaudy frames. “Tenacious,” she supplies.
My grandmother hesitates, then smiles feebly. “Yes, that’s it. Doris was very tenacious.”
In the end we leave with nothing but the photos and an urgent desire to shower.
“Wasn’t Aunt Doris at my graduation?” my sister asks as we pile into the car.
When we have left my grandmother’s house and returned home, my mother takes out the trash. I take the magazines from my room and my sister contributes her school notes to our growing pile of things we no longer wish to have in our home.
When we have scrubbed and cleaned and rid the place of all things unnecessary, mother retrieves a photo album from a sealed box in the attic.
We search through until we find a photograph of Aunt Doris.
She is younger in this photograph and washing a car, looking over her shoulder and smiling in exasperation. The color of the picture is faded, but the yellow floral dress she wears looks vibrant, and so do her brown eyes.
We find a spare frame in the house and put Aunt Doris’ picture in it.
“Where should we put her?” asks my mother.
My brother searches the house with Aunt Doris tucked under his arm. He sets her on the table beside the couch, then moves her to a shelf in the hall. She stays there for an hour before he fetches her again and takes her to the kitchen. He places her in the window sill above the sink, facing the hydrangeas growing outside.