Southern Mansions in Decline

Velma, my North Carolina yard sale buddy.

I used get at least one visit per week from my nanagenarian friend Velma. Our current home is two blocks away from her houses but I lived a few doors down from her, back in the early 1990s. (Plural, she has two 100+ year old houses, side by side, and all the trees in the yards are named after dead uncles, aunts, siblings. She talks to the trees, addressing them by their proper names.) If you tour the South, you’ll see houses like hers everywhere, never knowing the truth behind them.

When she comes to our house, it’s because summer’s hit full force and her house is too hot. Mine’s cooler. My front porch always catches a breeze off the river. It’s a pleasant place to sit with sweet tea and conversation. There are a thousand Velma stories to tell and I wish yall could sit on the porch with me while I try to remember them all.

This is an introduction to Velma. The story about her relationship with the one-armed bootlegger will come soon enough, but yall need to get to know her to appreciate her tales.

She still drives but not far from her home base. The state can’t take away a driver’s license just because someone complains, it takes a doctor’s order to do it. And complain people do. Her station wagon is filled with all the local streetside detritus she’s collected over the last five years or so. There’s just enough room for her to climb into the driver’s seat. It’s a cockpit with a control panel made of discarded newspapers, baby dolls, abandoned broken cribs, chair legs and food wrappers. If she ever had a wreck, she wouldn’t need a seat belt, she’d be crammed in so tight she wouldn’t move upon impact. Yes, it’s not safe, yes we know it. This is the South where this exists and we accept it as part of our lives in this tiny teeny town where everyone knows everyone.

She drives to the senior citizen’s center for lunch every day and then sometimes — out to her daughter’s for dinner. Sometimes I feed her but she doesn’t like my cooking, it’s too modern. In truth, it’s too chewy as her dentures aren’t fitting too well these days.

Her refrigerator went on the fritz last summer and she finally got a new one (used). It’s too big to fit through the kitchen door, so she has it in the living room. Says, “I”m getting used to having it in there, don’t want it moved.”

She knows we’ll move it, take the door off its hinges, make arrangements to remove the old one. Her daughter also offered. Velma likes to keep things the way she has them. Exactly the way she has them. No changes. This is understandable to those who deal with the elderly, I think. My Mom didn’t want us to move the furniture around in her room. Difference is, Mom didn’t have 6 foot high stacks of magazines, used Styrofoam food containers, books, dolls, broken furniture, sconces and faded silk flowers filling up her room.

When we clean anything at all, even dusting, she panics. She’ll stand at the door and tell us “I don’t want anything changed. It’s fine just like it is.” Then she invariably requests we move her rocking chair closer to the window. Rob does as she asks, and about five minutes later, we hear her dragging it back to its original position. She occasionally lets us vacuum but it’s as if even the dust bunnies have value.

She started storing Styrofoam plates in her oven. Forgot to tell her son who turned the oven on to preheat and the kitchen had a mild fire. Mostly smoke damage but the stink was neighborhood wide. She has this cackle laugh, “hee hee … that was a fine mess I made” when she refers to the fire. “Got that fire department crew here in a bit of a hurry over nothing but some melting plastic. Roddy should have known better than to turn on the oven without looking, every fool knows to do that.”

Velma loves yard sales. Oh Lord, she’s the North Carolina equivalent of my Arkansas Aunt Katherine from the 1970s. A couple weeks ago, Velma came by sporting a lovely purple and green 1980s Dynasty-inspired blazer with huge shoulder pads. As she walked past me into the house, I noticed a piece of masking tape with “$1.00” written on it in black magic marker. As I reached up to pull it off, hoping she wouldn’t notice my movement, she hesitated and said, “leave that there, I want people to see what a bargain this coat was.” The masking tape is still on there. I saw it yesterday when I ran into her at the Pig. She is Aunt Katherine all over again.

Her twin sister Vivian died a few months back. Alzheimer’s took her. She was 93. Vivian’s children ignored Velma. Did not notify her of her sister’s passing until the next day after it occured. Left her name out of the obituary. Paid no attention to her, except a little “hey” wave, at the funeral.

The cause of their nastiness? Who would inherit the two historic district houses, side by side, right smack on the river — six blocks from downtown. There are only seven houses on the east side of town with that kind of access to the water. The surviving twin would receive sole ownership of the property prize. It’s the way a trust was written by their father, decades ago. A house two doors down is for sale, listed at $850,000. The lots are at least 250 feet deep and 50 feet wide and sit right on the river.

During her lifetime, Vivian’s son and daughters were allowed total access to both houses anytime they desired, because they were legal guardians of their mother and could access her property with full cooperation of the law. One daughter lived, rent-free, in one of the houses for eleven years. When the Alzheimer’s reached a stage where hospitalization was needed, the children began scavaging through the houses — taking almost everything out of the family’s china cabinet then they began removing the homes’ glass doorknobs and antique fixtures. The antique doll collection. The furniture.

Velma lives in one of the houses. They took the deadbolts out off the front doors and replaced them with a new ones. Kept the keys for themselves. Gave Velma the key only to the house she lived in and locked the second one, next door with all her stuff in it, they kept the key to that one.

It’s worth noting that Velma is a hoarder. The psychological condition type. A disorder, real and all-consuming. Vivian was too. The houses are filled to their attics with stuff. Unimaginable amounts of fabric, glass jars, fast food restaurant styrofoam containers, newspapers, clothing, dirty discarded baby dolls, costume jewelry.

“Wow, there must be a Rembrant hidden in that house”, “what if some of that jewelry is 18 carat gold?” Just stop right there. No. Nothing is valuable. Really. If there was anything worth taking, Vivian’s children already took it. Remember — they took the doorknobs. As I’ve said before, watch an episode of Hoarders and you’ll know that not much of value goes into the hoard.

Vivian collected dolls along with Velma. The creepy eyelids staring out at us when we enter the living room can really send you reeling. She purchased a glass display case from Hilton’s Men’s Store when it finally succumbed to small town economic reality. It’s filled with used, worn-out, overly loved stuff animals and dolls. Hundreds of them, piled in the case, staring out at us as we change light bulbs and fix the front door where it’s sticking.

It’s difficult to go upstairs. Yes, yes, yes… it’s all a fire hazard. You never know what’s inside your neighbor’s houses, there are women like Velma everywhere. Men, too. So, I’m on my way upstairs to fix the light on the top landing and I’m overwhelmed by canned goods. Hundreds of jars of jams, jellies, tomatoes and green beans. When I asked about them, Velma said, “The sixties were hard on me, that’s when Doc left me for that woman. I knew I’d run out of food for the kids so I stocked up real good. I still feed myself from them years.”

Oh God. I know yall are saying I should clean out the shelves and get rid of the food but if you’ve ever watched an episode of Hoarders, you know that’s not possible. And I love this woman, if it’s not clear from my comments. I truly respect her and what she’s been through. Life made her a hoarder. It’s not something I can rewrite and make better.

When Velma eats at the Senior Center, they give her the left-overs. Some of the food served is “last day fresh” from Food Lion. Salads, deli food, fruit, milk… bread. Velma brings it to me. She says, “I’ve brought you some manna.” I always tell her thank you and try to get as much of it out of her over-stuffed stationwagon as I can. It makes me feel guilty to trash it all but it’s not healthy to eat out of a dumpster, twice-removed.


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Valerie MacEwan

The Dead Mule @deadmule writer, thinker, advocate for an ethical society, publisher online for 25 years.