This is not the scary house where the woman lived.
This is actually a dorm in St. Louis, Missouri. In the summer of 1977 I had a summer job as a recreational worker with teens living at Epworth Home for Girls. These young women were a difficult bunch and my job was to motivate and challenge them with engaging activities, projects and jobs. I was feeling pretty proud of myself one day when I was able to talk 4 of them into doing a house cleaning job. A worried husband had called Epworth looking for someone to help his sick wife clean house. The girls decided they were up for it, if they could use the earned money to go horseback riding.
This photo looks like the kind of house I remember. There was nothing scary about the outside as we approached it. The girls were relieved to know I had planned to stay with them for the afternoon of team cleaning. I prepped myself, knowing I would need to offer lots of encouragement, prodding, and reminding about their horseback riding goal... if they got lazy.
A Hoarding Issue
The fact that no one was coming to the door when we rang, made us begin to feel uneasy. Something didn't feel right, but we certainly didn't expect anything as bad as what greeted us when Mrs. Van Bray finally opened the door! There were no TV shows about hoarding in the 1970's to prepare us. Today if you Google hoarding, you'll get one hundred photos like the one above. If I had owned a cell phone back then I could have had my own collection of photos like this. Then again, I probably would have called our driver to come back and get us. But we were stuck. Our driver was not returning for 3 hours.
What We Saw
It wasn't easy following Mrs. V into the house because you couldn't even see the floor. The shades were pulled, so the dim living room appeared to be inhabited by eerie, looming creatures. It was really just the fact that every piece of furniture was heaped with trash and clutter. The smell was overwhelming in the small stuffy rooms. The thought of attempting to take on this horrifying chore would have terrified a professional cleaning crew and here I was with a group of already emotionally fragile girls. They looked at me with panic in their eyes and I tried to reassure them. "Just a few hours. We'll see what we can do."
Where to Begin?
I tried to remind the girls that Mrs. V was sick. She'd had leukemia for a year. Her eyes looked glassy and she winced as she moved her large body in slow motion. She told me to bring her rocking chair into the kitchen so she could supervise. And put it where? I asked Mrs. V if she had any trash bags, but she fretted over what I might be thinking of throwing away. I obviously didn't understand the mental illness she also suffered from. The only things she allowed us to pitch were some moldy half eaten Big Macs, but not the Styrofoam boxes holding them. We spent 2 hours climbing over and squeezing around heaps, while we "organized" and restacked and sorted through Mrs. V's clothing, cans, TV Guides, jar lids, dishes, clothespins, knickknacks and trash. It was very clear that we would make no noticeable dent in 3 hours.
Mrs. V began to grow agitated, telling the girls to work faster. "This house needs to be clean by the time my husband gets home!" I gently explained that we couldn't possibly finish, but we would do what we could. I continued encouraging the girls with whispers and gestures until Mrs. V began to cry. I was ready to give up. The girls and I were queasy from being in this filthy mess and we seemed to be causing Mrs. V more frustration than relief. I asked to use the phone and called my supervisor at Epworth. I gently explained the situation and asked for her to speak with Mrs. V. Mrs. V ranted for a minute before slamming the phone down.
Even though we had "worked" in our bewildered state until we were picked up, Mrs. V refused to pay us anything. By the time we dragged our weary, sweaty, filthy bodies into the school station wagon a new energy had washed over my group. As the car AC blasted, 4 furious voices, hollered out the hellish details of our afternoon. Before long the car was filled with squeals and laughter.
Thanks Mrs. V
You taught my girls (and me) a valuable lesson that summer. When we first got in the car we were enraged that you didn't appreciate how we had tried to help at all. But by the time we finished ranting and laughing, we each had a word or 2 to share about your sad state. It was painful to imagine living a life like that. We felt totally trapped in that world for 3 hours, but that was the life that you lived every day. Your sad situation bonded us in a most unusual way. We needed no Outward Bound experience to challenge us to work like a team. Your house was our mounatin and I think we ended up feeling stronger about ourselves because we faced that challenge.
I think I would have handled things differently now. I'm sad to say, we probably wouldn't have even gone in your home. It would have been clear you needed a different kind of help, than ours. But I would have sent you some flowers. I wish you could have known that we really did care about you.
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers