She has been dead for 26 days, and I am haunted. Not by her ghost. It couldn’t be that easy. I know how to deal with a vengeful spirit. No, I’m haunted by her apartment and the way it smelled.
Weird, right? Why should an apartment I’d never set foot in before three weeks ago be haunting me? I guess it isn’t really the actual apartment, but everything it represents, and everything I tried to forget, and now can’t stop thinking about.
My mother was a hoarder. She was mentally ill. She suffered from depression for possibly her entire life. She was emotionally and mentally abused as a child. Sexually as well. Add in my narcissistic bully of a father, and she never stood a chance. Mental illness was not something anyone talked about, so she never got treatment.
Her depression manifested as fatigue, disinterest in life in general, mood swings, and hoarding. I remember going upstairs into the house we lived in before we moved to Oregon, and one room was entirely full of old clothes of mine and my brother’s. Baby clothes. They were covered in cat feces and urine, but she cried at having to get rid of them. I remember my parents fighting about that.
After we moved, first to Oregon, then Wyoming, her illness manifested in not cleaning the house. Dishes and laundry piled up. In later years, she loved to tease me about washing the dishes with cold water. The reason I washed dishes with cold water as a teenager was simple. Every dish and pan in the house would be dirty, and it would be my brother and I’s job to wash them. The hot water heater only lasted so long. So yeah, I ended up using cold water to finish. But she never remembered it that way. Because she wasn’t sick, everyone just hated her.
Walking into her apartment was a shock. I expected it to be dirty, and it was. But then again, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I actually told my husband and my brother on the phone that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The smell was there though. That smell is ingrained in my DNA. Stale cigarette smoke. Spoiled food and mold. Dirt. Dust. Animal waste. Dirty laundry. But the apartment wasn’t as dirty as it should have been to smell that bad. Then we started opening closets.
Every closet was full of garbage. Bags of garbage. Every kitchen cupboard and drawer was full of dirty dishes and pans. Empty cans of Febreeze all over the apartment. Overflowing trash in the kitchen and bathroom. Expired food all over the place. The bedroom and bathroom were full of dirty laundry. The thing about the trash? The garbage chute was less than eight feet from her front door. She only had to walk across a hallway to get rid of the it.
Every day since then, that apartment flashes through my brain multiple times a day. That smell that haunted my childhood. Can you be haunted by a place and a smell? I guess you can. It didn’t occur to me until a few years ago that I spent my childhood years smelling like that. Like cigarette smoke, old garbage, mold, pot smoke. No wonder the assistant principal of my high school searched my locker at least once a week for three years. I’m sure he thought I was smuggling cigarettes or pot to school. What a disappointment it must have been that he only found notebooks of my writing, mixed tapes, and library books.
There are four boxes of my mother’s things in my guest bedroom right now. Most of them are items that can be easily cleaned. There is an afghan and two quilts as well however. They are saturated with that smell. I can’t bring myself to open them yet. I tell myself every day that I need to open those boxes, get those things in the wash with every cleaner known to mankind, and get that smell gone. Every day I find a reason not to do it. I wish her ghost had decided to haunt me instead.