The house I grew up in sits in the middle of the block on California Street in the Franklin Heights area of El Paso, within walking distance of The Point, a tall copper-colored metal pillar overlooking the southernmost tip of the Franklin Mountains. Nestled in the armpit of the mountain are my schools, Lamar Elementary, Wiggs Middle School, and El Paso High School. My childhood is peppered around this red-brick craftsman’s style home, with flakes landing on each of its twenty-five stairs; leading up to the columns of the porch where I made mud crab-grass-filled pies and recorded myself singing “La Bamba.”
Two years had passed since I’d climbed these stairs. Now as I was doing it, my legs trembled with each step, until I reached the porch and leaned against the cement column, my mom fumbling with the many silver and gold keys on her key ring. Angie, my sister, held the screen door open for her, and I stayed back, not sure of what I would find inside, afraid of the smell.
She opened the door and we trickled in. I stood in the entryway breathing in a combination of outside air, dry and dusty, and inside air, candle wax, sage incense, and mothballs. My footsteps creaked on the worn wooden floor, loud against the wordless silence. The room looked the same, with its brown paisley couch and long green oval coffee table, TV in the corner, but it also looked different, smaller. I stared at the large silver mirror over the fire place, and remembered how it once seemed so high, and now I could see myself from the shoulders up. The sound of my niece, Mica, running up and down the length of the dining room and living room floor, jolted me, the noise of her laughter and loud steps against the wood seemed out of place in the quiet of the house.
“Come here, Mama,” Angie called, her arms out to pick Mica up.
The four of us stood between the two rooms, afraid to walk further I suppose because then we’d be closer to my grandma’s room. With each step I took, I measured each inhaled breath, as if chewing a bite of something new. I wanted the house to smell the same, without a hint of what had happened. I couldn’t handle smelling her death. I needed only to smell the scents of a seventy-three-year-olds’ perfume, pungent, like flowers beginning to wilt.
My mom and sister walked into her room, I walked in last, placing my toe on the flattened green carpet as if testing the temperature of a pool. I couldn’t just jump in. The bed was bare, with only the foam top liner. My mom sat, the mattress bowed in the center. I stood frozen in the doorway. It seemed wrong to sit on the bed where my Ita had died. Days ago she’d gone to sleep and hadn’t woken up. Her daytime caregiver came over as scheduled but found the screen door latched, no answer on the phone. My tío Robert broke the latch and found her, lying facing up. He thought she was sleeping but saw her stillness, her chest no longer rising. He gave her CPR, and then smelled the exhaled breath, stale like dead flowers in week-old water.
My mom sat on this bed, then curled onto her side, knees pulled into her stomach, and began to cry. Her tears washed away the violation I felt, and my legs collapsed, the strings holding me up released. My sister sat on the end of the bed, her hand on my mom’s shoulder, Mica quiet, in her lap. Only sniffles filled the room, until my mom rose from the bed, face red and pinched, and plopped down on the floor next to me, in front of the chest of drawers. My sister and I looked at each other from across the room, then back at my mom, as she pulled open the sock drawer. Pair by pair she squeezed the socks tight, making sure nothing was in them, until she’d made a mountain of socks.
“What should we do with these?” she asked.
The question hung in the air, my sister and I unsure what she wanted to hear.
“We can make a donate pile and sell the things we think we can,” Angie said, her voice high, each word a question in itself.
“Okay, whatever you girls think,” my mom said, wiping at her cheeks. “You know more about that stuff than I do.”
Angie and I cleaned the house out that day. My mom faded into the background, watching my niece as we cleaned and separated Ita’s life into piles. Room by room of the house’s first floor: two bedrooms, laundry room, kitchen, bathroom, living and dining room. We played CD’s of all her favorite music, Javier Solís, Amelia Mendoza, and Vicente Fernandez. The music always made me wonder what broken hearts they’d suffered through to hold that raw pain in their voice. With each room I began to understand. Closets filled with clothes from every era, wigs, shoes, coats, empty cream jars filled with jewelry, money hidden in the pockets of pants she hadn’t worn in a decade. Behind the stove we found a manila envelope filled with gold jewelry. In an eye-shadow palette we found an empty white envelope from the bank. We found old black and white pictures at the bottom of a closet, Styrofoam mannequin heads without wigs and faded faces, three cans of never-opened Lysol and empty yogurt containers. I never realized how much stuff she’d accumulated, some of which I didn’t understand why she had.
Many of the items had a story. These were the only moments when my mom’s face seemed like her own, bright, caught in the memory playing in her mind.
“Mom, look at this dress!” I yelled out, holding a black dress with pink and purple flowers growing up from the bottom.
“I think there’s a picture of your grandma wearing that dress, somewhere.” She looked around as if to find it. “I wore it when I was a teenager, I think to a dance. I thought I looked hot!” She laughed, then stopped short as if she wasn’t allowed to laugh.
“Hey, I wore that dress, too!” My sister said fingering the light chiffon fabric. “Ita let me borrow it. There’s a picture.”
“Cool! Can I have it?” I asked.
“Mija, you girls can take anything you want,” she said squeezing Mica closer to her as she napped. “Your Ita would have liked it.”
Later I cleaned out the china cabinet filled with the same glasses and plates I’d cleaned as a little girl standing on a chair.
“She has so much stuff!” I said pulling out the eighth glass of a set.
“Ay, mija, your grandma was born in 1931, in the depression, four of them with your aunts and uncle. They learned to use everything, not to throw anything away. Pobrecita de mi mamá, creció muy pobre.”
On the fourth day I showed up to the house with a three-and-a-half-bottle of Pinot Grigio hangover and lunch from Taco Tote. Still drunk, I ate with zeal, pouring red chile on my pork-adobado taco. One hour in, in her pink bathroom, I hunched over red chile burning its way up my chest and into my mouth and nose, so dehydrated the chewed pieces of spicy meat lodged themselves in my throat. I coughed, eyes wet, the pain from the four days still worse than the food and bile heaving from my body. Afterwards, I rinsed my mouth, my hands propping me up on each side of the sink, my face red and splotchy in the mirror, my eyes still filled with tears. I closed my eyes, put my hands down, and looked away. I tried to sort through more things, but that day, I didn’t have any more fight.
My mom convinced my sister to call it a day after two more trips to the bathroom. Walking to the car, my sister said, “Great, now we’ve wasted a day because you had to go out and party last night.” I didn’t respond, got into the passenger seat and stared out the window through dark sunglasses. On the drive home Angie pulled over twice for me to throw up. I stood on the side of the silver SUV retching, my whole body shuddering from the force, my eyes closed with each heave, my face red and tear streaked, when I got back into the car.
“Maybe you shouldn’t drink for a while,” Angie said as she patted my thigh. I nodded once, telling her I understood, and turned toward the window again.
A week later I flew home to Dallas, with a suitcase filled with dresses, blouses, perfume, jewelry. My sister stayed for another week to finish getting the house in order. At the El Paso airport I hugged her tight for a long time. “I’m sorry I have to go back,” I whispered in her ear. Nordstrom wouldn’t give me anymore time off. I knew I was leaving her alone with my mom, who sat in a trance staring at memories no one else could see and my tío who had a pile of things in the corner of the living room he wanted, but made excuses each time for why he couldn’t take them. Riding the escalator up to security I had the urge to turn, run back and forget everything, my job, apartment, leave it all, the force so strong my stomach turned and knotted itself into a rock, but I looked forward, unblinking, my feet anchored to the metal staircase propelling me away. The memories in piles of my Ita lay sorted into stacks throughout her home, down the twenty five concrete stairs, onto California Street, down the block, past Brown Street away from El Paso High and my childhood.