By Melissent Zumwalt
Dad believed that the countless objects he amassed held value, and he took great pride in that. My parents had both come from families of working poor and weren’t familiar with terms like 401K; my dad played keno as part of a financial plan. Being able to pay their bills in full and on time was a Herculean feat. When my dad died, there were no life insurance policies or inheritance to claim. There was only his stuff.
I was raised in the countryside of Oregon, but my mom often recounted a story of when we once lived in town. I was still a baby then. She and I were home alone together. Holding me on her hip, she answered a knock at the door and was surprised to see a policeman. He told her this was a city and there were ordinances. She was going to need to clean up her yard, or he’d have to fine her. With the pride she took in her appearance and her impeccable housekeeping skills, she choked up with embarrassment. She didn’t mention my dad, that the mess was his. She spent the afternoon with a neighbor woman feverishly cleaning up the small yard and garage. When my dad came home, he was enraged. He screamed at her, red-faced, for touching his things, accusing her of trying to get rid of him. My dad was over six feet tall and barrel-chested. When angered, he was a charging bull.
Mom had a decision to make; either leave him or accept this craziness as the life she had married into. She was a young mother, seeking stability for herself and her family in whatever form she could find. She wanted us to stay together. She looked for a way to make it work. Within a week, she found a house for sale in the country, and they moved every last item away from the judgmental gaze of city life. Mom always wanted to move back to town, but Dad’s stuff kept them rooted until the day he died.
When I was growing up, we would constantly find new things strewn about the yard: battered oxygen tanks or a discarded boat motor, pieces of sheet metal twenty feet long and wine distilling equipment. How he got some of those things home single-handedly remains a mystery. He had an idea in mind for all of it; he would cultivate a vineyard or engineer a new type of sea-going vessel. Not one of the plans ever came to fruition, but he refused to part with a single thing.
There were rare occasions when mom spotted the latest addition out in the yard and couldn’t contain herself. “What is that? What’s that metal for?” she’d demand.
“I’m going to build a two-person passenger plane,” he replied. ”I can fly you to Chicago to visit your sister when it’s done. Think of the money we’ll save on airfare.”
Out in the countryside of the Willamette Valley, my dad was free to accumulate to his heart’s content. The wooden skeleton of his barn sagged with rot, unable to contain the vastness of his imagined treasures. The contents piled up to the rafters and cascaded out, covering the yard and becoming entangled with the rampant, wild vegetation. There was no system to any of it. Wherever he put something down last, that’s where it would stay, and he heaped new things on top of old as he brought them in.
When he passed away, my husband and I began working to help my mom prepare the house for sale. As I looked out over their property, I realized I would have to touch every relic of our lives from the past four decades. I would have to revisit each painful moment; and ultimately, I would have to grieve that his entire lifetime of ambitions amounted only to the worthless piles stretched out in front of me.
Dad always bragged about his vintage coin collection, his prized guns, and his classic cars. For safekeeping, the coin collection was stored in a locked briefcase shoved under the bed. The combination had long since been forgotten. We pried it open to find a sea of wheat pennies and US state quarters encased in plastic. We found two-dollar bills squirreled away in his sock drawer. A coin collector assessed nothing we brought in was worth more than face value, including the plastic-enshrined quarters. At work, an older colleague of mine had also recently lost a parent and he would say things like, “I’m going to be out tomorrow; I need to tend to my parent’s estate.” I thought about this phrase as I slammed plastic-enshrined quarters against the kitchen floor to break them free of their casings: “I am tending to my parent’s estate.”
Dad had left his two-dozen assorted guns and boxes of ammunition lying haphazardly in a pile on the garage floor. We were too frightened to touch any of them, not knowing whether any remained cocked or loaded. My uncle, who we had not seen in years, showed up to claim them all. That would be the last time we heard from him.
Dad’s automobile collection consisted of nine vehicles in states of mild to severe decay. He constantly talked about his intention to resuscitate each of them to the glorious condition of their heydays, and the amazing fortune he would reap. The best car of the lot was the one pick-up that still ran. The driver’s seat was broken into a permanent position of recline and the rearview mirror dangled by a thread. Most perplexing of the bunch was the 1972 Chrysler Crown Imperial.
Even in my earliest memories, the Chrysler never ran. I never saw it driven, never saw anyone start it up, never even saw anyone open the driver’s side door and sit on one of the plastic bench seats to reminisce.
In the early years the Chrysler sat adjacent to the driveway. After a decade without improvement it was decided—I’m not sure exactly who decided—to move it to the back of the house, near the barn. In Dad’s mind, this probably equated to progress. The car needed to be near his tools if he was going to repair it. In my mom’s mind, I’m certain she just wanted to get the eyesore out of sight from the general passerby.
In Oregon, the elements of nature are subtle. There are no bone-rattling earthquakes, the complete and sudden devastation of hurricanes, or the intensity of a Midwest blizzard. There is only the rain, the omnipresent dampness. It seeps in quietly, seemingly harmless. But left unchecked over time, that ubiquitous moisture is power.
Over the years the two-ton Chrysler turned from dusty rose to a bleached mauve to forest green, covered in moss. The sodden earth began to consume the car—the tires buried up to the rims. And out of nowhere, the descent of Himalayan Blackberry, vegetation that seemed like science fiction.
When my aunt came to visit a few years back, she looked out the family room window onto the overgrown backyard and asked, “What’s that red thing sticking out of that bush?”
Sheepishly, my mom murmured, “That’s a tail light.”
Brambles had grown up and around the Chrysler, devouring all of it except one final piece of tail light. They grew twelve feet tall, surpassing the height and width of the barn, engulfing not just the car, but the expanse between the car and the barn, using both as makeshift trellises.
After Dad passed away, I wasn’t sure my husband and I were up to the challenge of unearthing the car from the grips of the brambles. But my wiry husband assured me we could do it. Not knowing where or how to start, we each simply bought a new pair of work gloves and hedge clippers.
On a crisp winter morning, the smell of wood smoke permeating the air, we embarked on our odyssey. I began clinically, like a novice surgeon taking the first cautious snip. The weed was covered in stickers, shooting out in catawampus directions like an army of angry penknives. It clawed at us with vicious tentacles, pulling at our arms and legs. We emerged from the bushes with scratches everywhere, on our backs and faces, blood dripping down our forearms.
Soon I was hacking and lunging with unquenchable hostility. Questions cascaded through me. What other daughter had to engage in an activity like this in the wake of her father’s death? Why did he leave this mess for us to clean up? Why didn’t he take better care of things? Why didn’t he take better care of us?
After several days of relentless toil we stood smugly over the decimated thicket and beheld the Chrysler in full exposure. The initial victory was sweet; we felt like laborers excavating the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Once we turned our attention to the car, our spirits sank. The windshield looked like a kaleidoscope. The interior seats were brittle and splintered, the ceiling upholstery torn and dislodged; where the passenger side floorboard once existed there was now an irreparable hole. After waiting for decades to be restored to its former glory, the car was unceremoniously sold in an estate sale, purchased by an anonymous buyer for the paltry sum it could fetch as scrap.
I looked up the number for Molalla garbage service online.
“I’d like to arrange for delivery of a drop box.” I used terms I found on their website and hoped I could translate my needs into their language.
“What size do you need?”
Barn-size? “What are the options?”
“Our smallest is twenty yards. That’s 7’5” by 16’ by 4’7” and the largest is forty yards. 7’5” by 22’ by 6’8”.” She rattled the numbers off with quick efficiency and I hurried to jot them down.
I shoved the figures imploringly in front of my husband with a “???” and a helpless look on my face.
“The biggest,” he mouthed back to me.
“The biggest one,” I responded. I feared the woman on the other end would question me. What does a well-spoken young lady like you need with a dumpster that large? I thought she would doubt me. That’s really large, honey. Are you sure you need something so big?
But she did no such thing. She merely asked when I wanted it delivered.
I responded without hesitation, “As soon as possible.”
For over two decades, with joy and fear I’d envisioned the day I would walk into the barn and clean it up. In my imagination, I’d be wearing knee high rubber boots and would have somehow gotten my hands on a Hazmat suit. In reality, I wore a grey Army t-shirt (Dad’s) and my mom’s jeans with an elastic waistband. The clothes were foreign to me, which fit the foreignness of the experience. It is hard to remember what my gloved hands touched first, but once started, I was transfixed. We had always been forbidden from touching his stuff. This would never have occurred in his lifetime.
On our first pass, we filled the forty-yard industrial dumpster in less than three days. It was so full, I’d end up owing over-tonnage fees. We’d only scratched the surface, though; we decided the rest would need to be addressed in stages and subsequent visits to the dump.
As we loaded the bed of my father’s truck with memories from my childhood, I was mystified to find decomposing rolls of shag carpet Dad had removed from the house when I was eight years old. My mom made plans for its disposal back in 1986. But Dad demanded to keep it; he planned to repurpose it. How did he think he was going to repurpose used 1970s Granny Smith apple–green shag carpet?
The hundreds of pairs of identical, fringe-beaded earrings intrigued my husband. The summer before I started high school, my dad was fired from his job. I don’t know if he looked for other work and couldn’t get anything, or if he became enticed by a pyramid scheme before he ever got that far. He sent money in to some unknown destination, and in return, he received a set of beads and string. He simply had to construct them into earrings and make five times the profit on his money. Except, of course, his beaded constructions were never purchased, leaving us with hundreds of sets of identical earrings and a hole in the bank account. When my childhood friends asked what my dad did for a living, it was hard to explain.
My mom hadn’t had reason to visit the dump in ages, but she thought she remembered the way. She was mistaken. Neither of us had any idea where it was. Unbelievably, in the year 2013, neither of us owned a smart phone or GPS. My mom’s idea was to roam through the Wal-Mart and ask for directions.
Upon entering the store, Mom instructed me, “Look for someone who looks like they’d know where the dump is.”
“What would someone who knows where the dump is look like?”
Without missing a beat, she said, “Someone like us.”
I gazed over at my mom, a reflection of myself, in her messy flannel shirt, muddy boots, and stocking cap pulled tight over her ears. We burst into raucous laughter at the absurdity of it all. Silently, I also prayed this would not be the instant I run into someone I knew from high school.
Once we found our way to the facility, I stood at the edge of the platform and tossed our mold-infested memories into the dump. It is hard to throw away a life.
In the next round, we rented a metal “drop box”, another forty-yard container we’d fill to brimming and sell the contents for scrap. I was determined to get all the riding lawnmowers in there. Dad bought a new one every few years on credit. Whenever he mowed for the last time in the fall, the lawnmower would stay put right there on whatever the last patch of grass had been, uncovered all winter, until the next spring. After several cycles of this, the machines would rust into disrepair, the wheels would lock up, and he’d buy a new one. On the day he died, there would be four riding lawnmowers scattered around the yard, immobile.
My mom, husband, and I groaned collectively under six hundred pounds of riding lawnmower. In perfect synchronicity, we exhaled and lifted on the count of three. We progressed across the backyard in inches. There was a point where I looked down and saw I had gashed my leg. Blood ran into my shoe. I felt nothing. I was a robot-o-tron with one thought: Metal in the bin. Not metal to the dump. Surprisingly, many things had morphed to a point where it was impossible to tell what their origins were.
Mom begged me to come inside the house and spend time with her.
“Mel, why don’t you take a break? We can visit.”
“What do you mean? You can take break. I want to keep working.” Throughout my life I’d been merciless with my own belongings, throwing things out without a hint of sentimentality. With all that was in front of us, how could she think of stopping with so much still to get done?
“It’d just be nice—to visit for a while.”
“We can talk while we work. I came to work.” At my response, her shoulders slumped with a heaviness I didn’t understand. I was oblivious to the loneliness of my recently widowed mother. I felt nothing except a driving desire to finish this. I had to finish this.
Among the ruins, I found a handicap bar, the kind attached in restroom stalls. When I was ten years old, my dad worked security at a rehab facility and brought the bar home. I had begged for a ballet barre in my bedroom. The stolen handicap bar was his solution to purchasing a real one. When he showed it to me, it didn’t look sleek and pretty like a real barre, but it would be mine nonetheless, and I was excited in the way only a child could be. The bar sat on the floor of my bedroom, awaiting installation, until I left for college. Seventeen years later, I threw this symbol of my dashed childhood hopes into the dump.
And then there were the papers.
Stashed into dozens of file cabinets, boxes, nooks and crannies, we uncovered every “official” piece of paper that had ever entered our home. Every phone bill, bank statement, tax return and department store receipt since 1974.
Some of it was just plain odd—prescriptions my mom had received for conditions long since forgotten; the pay stubs I’d received from my first job at age fifteen.
Some of it inspired a spark of pride—a commendation memo Dad had received for some task he’d completed in the Army Reserve.
Much of it told something deeper.
The court summons addressed to Dad for stealing from his employer (items which were likely still sitting out in the barn at the time he passed away.)
Business cards that had women’s names and phone numbers scrawled on the back, which my mom pulled angrily from my hands.
Written warnings Dad received for being too aggressive with his co-workers.
A lay-off notice addressed to Dad when the cannery shut down.
Records from a financial consultant when my parents filed for bankruptcy.
Notices from the IRS regarding the lien they had had on the house.
Through these papers, the story of our family was told.
We burned all of it.
After many months, we were coming to the end. We’d worked our way across the yard, to the outer reaches of the barn and into its depths. Only the “wine distillery,” a slapped together addition at the back of the barn, remained. Dad fermented cherries into a putrid concoction he generously called “wine” and then boasted of his plans to sell to major distributors once he’d produced enough jugs. After all we had dealt with, this final hut would be simple. The structure and everything in it were completely dilapidated. I just needed a stash of garbage bags and a bit more endurance.
The space was more disgusting than I had anticipated; it smelled like the walls were doused in cherry wine. It was nauseating. I hastily started to sweep whole shelves into a sack. But the stuff—a conglomeration of rags, plastic tubing, cardboard boxes—was molten and disintegrated under my touch. I discovered glass beakers that still had a deep burgundy substance in them, solidifying. I stepped in something far too squishy and found myself gagging reflexively.
Before I knew what was happening, I was doubled over, convulsing, tears soaking my face. I cried until I felt empty. I crumpled onto the waterlogged plywood serving as a floor.
In that moment, I finally understood. I was not cleaning up my dad’s selfish mess; I was cleaning up the remnants of a disease. This yard, this barn, were not merely the objects of a careless man who brought home too many bicycles. He had a psychological condition. I was only able to recognize this after he passed away, after spending countless hours cleaning out his things. I had spent my life feeling so much anger toward him and so much shame about the turmoil we were forced to live in. But I could not hold on to that resentment. Just like I would not feel irritation at a stroke victim for slurred speech, I could not continue this animosity towards my dad for a mess he couldn’t stop himself from making.
I saw now he was not collecting garbage—he was collecting possibilities. The possibility of a gleaming classic car, the possibility of success and accomplishment. He wasn’t a perfect man and didn’t follow through with his plans, but he was able to believe in the impossible. And there was beauty in that.
Out there in the space that had been the source of so much shame and humiliation, I was able to find my own form of forgiveness.
MELISSENT ZUMWALT is an artist, advocate, and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. She learned the art of story telling from her mother, a woman who has an uncanny ability to recount the most ridiculous and tragic moments of life with beauty and humor.