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Mama died at home on a Sunday morning. During the cancer, our rambling two-story brick and wood home in the hills of Topanga, a rustic canyon outside of Los Angeles, fell into in a state of neglect and disrepair. A formerly charming brick and wood hillside house, it was nearly pitch black during the day, shaded by enormous overgrown oak and pine trees. The steep concrete steps leading to the front door were crumbling, piece-by-piece. In the waning days of summer, the trees prevented light from brightening all but a small corner of the living room. What was left of our family, consisted of a dad and his two daughters. My sister Sterling was seventeen and I was nineteen. We were too sad to notice it wasn’t a cheery place to live anymore. Inside, Sterling and I were numb with grief. My dad was too, but he had an unusual way of showing it.
Outside, nature bloomed green and alive in the adobe red hills of the state park behind our house. Hawks circled the cloudless blue skies hunting for prey. Rattlesnakes slithered along hot, dusty trails. Black vultures with wrinkled pinkish-red faces hovered over the steepest ravines, ready to devour the decaying remains of small animals.
On a weekend morning in September a few weeks after Mama died, Sterling drove and I rode in the front seat, down the winding hill from our house. We were tired so we changed our minds at the last minute, deciding not to go to the movies. Instead, we stopped at Joe’s Market for groceries. We selected a few basics, loaves of bread, a half-gallon of milk, cheese and dry cereal and loaded the groceries into the car. We’d been eating sandwiches and cold cereal for so long, it was hard to remember anything else. Once in a while, we’d cook something hot, like enchiladas. After, we’d feel sick and stick our fingers down our throats to feel better. Our vomiting didn’t have a name like bulimia or binging and purging. It was just something overhead when one of us was in the bathroom for too long. It was never acknowledged but accepted as part of what our lives had become.
Sterling sped too fast up the steep winding road so we didn’t see the cardboard “Garage Sale” signs along the road, written in our dad’s unmistakable left-handed block lettering. Pulling up to our house, Mama’s clothes and shoes were laid out on blankets in our driveway. Handmade signs welcomed people to buy Mama’s belongings for $1, $5 or $10.
Sterling was the first to jump out of the car, leaving the engine running and the door wide open. She grabbed pieces of clothing, yanking anything she could take from unsuspecting neighbors who swarmed the garage sale. “These aren’t for sale!” she screamed. Pine needles stuck to pieces of wool sweaters. Shirts had been tried on, sleeves left inside out. “The garage sale is over!”
We couldn’t stop. We fought hard, like brown field mice in the grip of the vultures who’d descended upon our driveway, attracted by the putrid smell of fresh death. All sound dimmed, faces blurred, time evaporated. We charged ahead, moving frantically, instinctively. We needed to save Mama’s possessions because our lives depended on it. We were teenagers, unready to say goodbye. We were wounded soldiers who’d just lost our leader in battle. Mama’s life had been abbreviated at age fifty, but we kept moving, broken but alive.
Grabbing even the smallest trinkets, we hurled them into the car, shouting at my dad to get away from us. “Stay back!” “These are Mama’s clothes!” Neighbors scattered quickly. Their eyes were wide, offering glances of fear mixed with pity. The only thing we could see were Mama’s favorite clothes that she hadn’t been able to wear because of the cancer. Her purple velvet pants, abandoned.
Then, everything I remember happened in a flash. Sterling threatened to hit Ingrid, a German woman whose kids we’d played with. Ingrid backed up, holding out her arms to Sterling as if to embrace her. We cursed them all. SCREW YOU. GET THE HELL AWAY. A few people mumbled quick apologies, as they shoved crumbled dollar bills back into their pockets, dumping their purchases. We’d held garages sales in the past. Mismatched plates and cups, a collection of previously loved dolls and bikes Sterling and I had outgrown were sold happily for a few dollars. But this was the last garage sale.
My dad, lonely and eager to move on with his life, had attempted to rid the house of Mama’s stuff by selling it. It had been about a month and he’d already started sleeping with Libby, a divorced lady down the street. “Couldn’t they have waited a decent amount of time before they’d started screwing each other?” Sterling and I asked each other through hollow eyes whenever Libby emerged disheveled from my dad’s bedroom after a night with him. My dad, a white guy, had been married to Mama, an African American woman, for a long time, so we thought it was strange that he’d suddenly started an affair with a white woman like Libby. Still, we didn’t dwell on it, only exchanging looks and rolling our eyes whenever Libby was around. Behind her back, we’d make fun of her premature gray hair and frumpy clothes. Nothing was the same around our house anymore.
Sterling and I sat on the ground for hours after the garage sale, unwilling to move when my dad suggested we come inside. Crying quietly at first so you couldn’t hear, then sobbing loudly, wiping snot with the back of sleeves, across our faces, into our hair, we carefully folded Mama’s favorite sweaters and smoothed her long, flowing cotton skirts. Her wrinkled silk blouses were separated in a pile for dry cleaning. Sterling had salvaged a scuffed suede handbag, its long fringe still dangling intact. We put her shoes, mostly worn Birkenstocks and flat brown leather boots, carefully back into their boxes. We combed the ground for a missing handmade silver earring. We shoved a box of family photos onto the car seat. Finally, as night fell, we carried everything into Mama’s bedroom, placing it all back into her closet. Next to the bed where she died.
For weeks after the garage sale, we didn’t speak to my dad. He hadn’t meant to upset us, he’d said. He was just trying to clean up the house. Night after night, a chilly silence filled the air as we passed each other in the kitchen. We’d rescued Mama’s clothes but she was still gone.
Christina Simon is a mom, writer and animal lover. She is the senior nonfiction editor for Angels Flight Literary West. Her work has been featured in Salon, Angels Flight Literary West, The Broken City, Proximity’s blog, True and XoJane. Christina writes about the ultra-competitive world of Los Angeles private school admissions at www.beyondthebrochurela.com