A Disassembled Room


Three preteen boys are falling over each other trying to open an antique door at the front of my house. “Stop! Do not go out there!” My voice booms through the living room. They turn back around, still in motion, still trying to squeeze through the door. “Because it is dirty, that’s why.” I watch them fumble back toward the living room, leaving the door half open. The three-season porch is the reason I bought the house. The porch has twelve windows facing the large oaks on the boulevard and floor-to-ceiling mahogany-stained paneling. Today an inch of dust covers the room, and in the corner an ashtray overflows with cigarette butts. Two empty tallboys of Hamm’s beer sit on a table. It is an embarrassing mess, but also, the last place I had a drink with my son’s father, in the days after New Year’s Eve at the beginning of 2013. Since he died by suicide that cold snowy January, and I cannot bring myself to clear the room out. I have been told by numerous people, “It’s time.” But I don’t want to move a thing. The room that made me fall in love with the house is a dirty shrine—one I rarely enter. One that fills me with memories.

I don’t care if I get the room back.


In the days after our drinks on the old wood porch, in the week and hours leading up to his death, there is an endless catalog of mundane, diurnal tasks that my mind refuses to let go of.  They sit like an index file waiting to be pulled. Sweeping, cleaning, packing. Carrying the garbage out. Sorting. These small tasks trigger a small fear, a remembrance—sort of like when I see the first aquamarine pool of summer and the chlorine hits my nose and I think, “Remember how we always got hot dogs and grade soda when we went to the pool?” But instead, it’s: “Remember how you swept the house and then he died?” Now I see a broom and think, Remember how painful and debilitating it was to lose him after you swept the house? Or worse, Maybe if you had been keeping tabs on him, he would still be here.


After a while, I stopped sweeping the house. Taking out the garbage. Throwing away pieces of paper. Discarding straw wrappers. Giving away baby clothes. Removing things. Selling things. Life became about acquisitions, and never about disposal. There could be gains, but never losses.


Years before, when I was twenty-two, I lived in a garbage house with my boyfriend Denny. It was decorated with torn tapestries, second-hand books, and garbage. It took a few years to build it all up, and after we broke up, it took a few years to tear it all away. Used books slipped under my feet: The Kabala for Beginners, Your Chakra Reader, Advanced Music Theory, A New Apothecary’s Guide to Absinthe. Under the books were the cat shit and energy drink cans and dead San Pedro cactuses. I often slept on the black futon next to the buried Macintosh computer and the empty big gulps. I didn’t open the oak closet doors because I was afraid his model airplanes and my giant cardboard boxes full of amethyst beads would fall on me again. I ate take-out to stay clear of the kitchen, covered in grease and paper and dirty dishes. I was an accessory to the mess, another object in a sea of objects—all of us in some state of disrepair, decomposition, or obsolescence.  

Ten years after Denny and I broke up I found photos of us together. His step-father’s meticulous mother asked us to get the photos taken, because after dating for four years and graduating from college, surely we were on the verge of our engagement. It was a classic, soft-focus JC Penny Middle-American portrait. We are stuck together, his hands firmly clasped on my shoulders, because it’s what they tell you to do in the portrait studio, and it’s what they tell you to do in the movies, and it’s what they tell you to do on rainy afternoons in catechism class. I imagined there was some natural protocol. Post them to social media? Send them to ex—or his step-grandmother—with a cute note? Hold a ritualistic burning of the pictorial evidence of our love to symbolize the lost flame? Instead, I put them in a drawer in the kitchen, saving them for I don’t know what.


List of things can’t throw away: old concert tickets; credit card statements; key chains; dead houseplants; retired toothbrushes; broken jewelry of any color or origin; small metal objects; empty pens; shoes that don’t fit me; torn bed sheets; ribbon; broken kitchen utensils; expired condiments; unidentified VHS tapes; wooden boxes regardless of their irrelevance or ancestry; books; magazines; broken electronics; nuts, bolts, and nails; obsolete foreign currency; plastic rosaries; dead batteries; and anything that reminds me of anyone I’ve ever known. 


It probably started before this, but the first time I know for sure was at age eleven when my Grandpa came to live with us. Grandpa and Granny had filled the space for forty years, but since her death a few years earlier, he had rambled around it alone, eating dinner at the large dining room table next to her ashes, cooking on the same old stove she had used, her jar of bacon fat in the corner, her flowery soap bar and her gold necklace still in the drawer next to the sink. I wore army green khaki shorts and a white t-shirt tucked in. I was trying to grow my curly hair out past my shoulders and testing out some new, rather average-looking bangs. 

Even with five of his kids there to take things home, no one needed this much stuff. But I wanted everything. I packed hardback books, picture frames, the record collection full of Pérez Prado and Paul Anka and all the Lindy Hop classics, into the back of my mom’s minivan. I lost my battle for old grape jam in the basement, for the broken dishware, for the chipped vase, the packs of hard candies found buried in the hall closet. But when the callous, minimalist grownups were busy arguing over who got the honey pot, I found the half-finished sewing projects that my grandmother abandoned decades ago. Curtains and tablecloths disassembled, Butterick patterns pinned to them, potential skirts and party dresses waiting patiently in the bottom drawer for someone to come back and find them, finish them. I gathered them up and carried them out to the car.


I’ve been seeing a nice blonde therapist in the suburbs for about a year. She is cheery and uses a white board to explain everything. She draws a map on the board to explain the ‘self-talk’ I will do when I go to throw things away. She says I will admit that it is hard, that it makes sense that throwing things away is sad. “But,” she says, “we’re going to do it anyway.”

When I start to learn about hoarding, I read that it is marked by a persistent difficulty with discarding and pronounced distress at the thought of it. The disorder results in the accumulation of items, regardless of their value.  The vast majority of hoarders report symptoms starting in their youth. A hoarding tendency, sort of like a ‘hoarding-lite,’ is often caused by a stressful life event, an association of meaning for personal effects that may or may not be related to the trauma, and a temperament that leans towards indecisiveness. Leans toward indecisiveness. Should I keep it? I’ll set it back down and decide later. The disorder pairs well with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. While my spunky, young, well-dressed therapist is talking, I take notes, but mostly I think about how what she is asking me to do is impossible. 


I read the book Delete by Victor Mayer-Schonberger which champions the virtues of forgetting and lays out the complexity of human memory. I had become fascinated with the digital archive we were creating with cell phones and social media, partially because the week after my son’s father died, I realized I couldn’t access most of the photos we had on an old hard drive. Many people have lost their photos, to fires, to years, and now, to technological mishaps. He tells us the digital archives we create can be damaging. He tells us about hyperthymesia, an extremely rare disorder causing a person to remember almost everything. In the few documented cases, the patient can remember nearly every day of their lives. This extreme remembering can be debilitating, and depressing, as these patients can get lost in their past. I have become heartsick over losing one photo, even though I now have thousands of my son growing up. 


After his house sold, my Grandpa lived with our family in the summers. He spent his days walking up and down the block, talking to our badly-behaved husky, playing cards, and reading Louie L’Amour novels. I could usually find him in the kitchen, cutting up fruit. 

“Hurry up and eat these before they go bad.” 

One day he asked me to find his Robert Service books. They were books of poetry that I had never heard of, but I had never heard of most of the books I had carried back from Grandpa’s house. When I couldn’t find them, Grandpa called out east to my aunt’s house to see if she had them. Later that afternoon I offered to ride over to the library. He shook his head and said, “I want to find my books,” and I wondered what they had in them, what it was about those books that made them matter.

Grandpa’s Robert Service books eventually reappeared. He couldn’t see the type very well, but it didn’t matter because he knew the words already. He had memorized the poems, mostly ballads, years before, to recite to his Boy Scout troops, and to his wife and kids, around the campfires he lit in the Northwoods of Minnesota. Neuroscientists and psychologists have studied how the brain memorizes and retains songs. Unlike the hippocampus and the other regions of the temporal lobe that retain long-term memories, there is a different part of the brain that helps people remember songs–it operates almost like muscle memory, like riding a bike, or even playing an instrument. They think something about the rhyme helps us remember, making ballads and songs our generational courier before pen went to paper. Something about the words themselves, how they play off each other—the way they come up through our throat, dancing over our lips, the sounds similar but different—let us remember them even when years have gone.


When I first read Matt Bell’s book, The Collectors, about the infamous hoarding Collyer brothers, I was instantly drawn to the oranges. Langley, the younger Collyer, had been caring for his older brother Homer for years after he went blind. His age, blindness, and the deep hoarding hellscape of the home had made it impossible to care for himself, and Homer relied on the diet of oranges that Langley believed would bring back his sight. In the spring of 1947, the brothers died together in, under, and on top of the newspaper, bed springs, grand pianos, disassembled car parts, rusted bicycles, children’s furniture, books in thousands, chairs broken and worn, old umbrellas tied together, and orange peels—orange peels over it all. While one brother was crushed by rubble, the other sat, blind in his chair and starved to death. I have never really questioned the fantastic nature of the story, or the beautiful retelling in Bell’s book. I have only wondered what it is that I have in common with the Collyer brothers. What they lost and what I lost. How anything could penetrate us to the point that we could think, that anyone could think, this was anyway to live. We share a fixation something could cure or soothe us, but the wires are crossed. The balm is junk. But I have to believe there is a seed in all of us, an impulse to keep, and an impulse to let go. Then it starts in an instance: we have both levers, and then one day we don’t.  


My house—the one I picked for the three-season porch looking out on the oak tree lined boulevard—is in a large working-class neighborhood in Minneapolis. Jim had been my neighbor since I moved on to the block a few years earlier. He stands on the sidewalk in front of my lawn chatting with the other neighbor, the one whose dog, he says, “is likely to kill someone,” and points to my yard, to the patches of brown and gray, the circle of crabgrass, the flocks bent over in the sun. Jim’s parents have moved to the nursing home, and their house a few doors down is for sale. When their house hits the market it looks like a shrine, like it did in the 1970s, when the two boys had a room in the basement and the two girls had a room upstairs. He tells me: the realtor has got it all wrong. Nothing, nothing needs to be updated, everything works great. The wall paper he scrubbed clean in the middle of the July heat is charming. But I know whoever moves in will tear the place apart, and Jim will never be able to stand by and watch all the things being carried out to a giant green dumpster that arrivea the week after the sale goes through. I know he has a little bit of it, the nagging that I know too well, “But if it’s gone, how will I remember? If it’s gone, were they ever really there at all?” 


When I was young, my Scottish uncle told me that ship captains memorized poems to entertain themselves while they spent days at the helm. He said that memorizing one made it easier to memorize another one, and some captains knew hundreds of poems by heart. Scientists have found that recalling a memory builds the connections in the brain, bringing them up again and again cements the memory further. On my uncle’s advice and my grandfather’s example, I started to memorize poems. Getting them down in the first place took a while, but I did one and then another. I started with clothbound books from my grandfather’s house, books that smelled like sweet dust, and had pages so thin and even they felt like silk when I flipped them between my fingers. The first was Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” noted for the alliterative symmetry, something I knew nothing about at thirteen, but I did like the way the letters repeated–its hardest hue to hold. I liked the contrast of green and gold, their hue and the sounds they make coming from inside me, and I found that my ability to visualize the images, to tie them to something concrete—a forest at dusk with the leaves shimmering—made the words stick in my mind.  


In the fall of 2019, the disassembly room built in the Philadelphia Flyers stadium was unveiled. It was designed to let fans take their aggression out before the game. The article talks about the fun of unleashing rage and the temperament of Philly sports fan. But it’s the picture I can’t get past. On my newsfeed is a photo of a smashed television screen, broken mugs and plates littering the floor, something that might have once been a ukulele. It is instantly familiar. I’ve had these deconstructed rooms everywhere I’ve been. It looks like the corner of the dining room I shared with my boyfriend Denny when I was twenty-two, the three-season porch on the front of my house, the small room in the corner of my basement—with the single exposed bulb and the baby crib pieces, the metal base of a desk, piles of waterlogged books, a rug, frayed at the edges, a tear running down the middle. I’ve seen it in other people’s homes too. People like me. Rooms of refuse. I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a disassembled room inside me somewhere. A place where everything is broken, a place piled high with the remains of years and loss that I carry around with me, won’t let go.


As Marie Kondo reached cult-status, my co-workers tell me about her book. They tell me about her show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. My friends describe the process. You want to keep stuff that “sparks joy.” They describe thanking a piece of clothing for its service before giving it away. They explain that if you haven’t worn something in six months it should go. They say that tidying up is spiritual, about envisioning your best life. I have a visceral reaction to rise of Marie Kondo and her methods. I can’t stand her. I nod and smile and think Marie Kondo can take a flying leap. I never say, “I’m not going to do that. I can’t throw away a used napkin, let alone the contents of my closet.” For me, Marie Kondo is telling the world to do the opposite of all my instincts. I don’t want to envision an ideal life; I want the people I’ve lost to come back.

Traumatic events have a strong link with hoarding tendencies. The act of keeping material objects serves as a coping mechanism for grief, loss, and post-traumatic stress. Some patients even describe the experience of throwing away or losing an item as similar to the emotional experience of losing a loved one. The loss of the item then is traumatic, too. It is permanent. It is terrifying. The treatment is empathetic, cautious. It is recognizing the underlying loss, and then asks the person to disconnect the accumulated items from the real-life trauma, emotions, and grief. I know all this and am trying to practice it. 

But I also think people with clean cars are serial killers. I think people who live with empty walls are sociopaths. I want to be surrounded by things that remind me of living, even if many of those things came from people who are dead. I struggle to reconcile the therapy treatment with the comfort I find in clutter, in being smothered by the womb I built, by my own disarray.


Ten years ago, when I was finishing up grad school, we celebrated Grandpa’s 100th birthday party at my aunt and uncle’s house on a lake in central Minnesota. All his grandkids, great-grandkids, some Boy Scouts he helped raise on camping trips out in Boundary Waters were on their way. It was a hot July afternoon. We hid under table umbrellas, shielded the sun from our faces with our left hand and held warm, sweaty beers with our right. In the early evening, when the sun was still shining but not as bright, my uncle lit a fire on the far side of the lawn, and the sixty guests filled in the rest, sitting, chatting, waiting. After a few speeches, my grandfather was asked if he wanted to recite his favorite poem, Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Without his books to read from, without any practice, with a few small hesitations, just shy of his 100th birthday, Grandpa made his way through all 68 lines in the poem.

It certainly wasn’t part of my grand plan to keep an ashtray full of cigarette butts for eternity. To hold on to every picture. To let my pockets fill with straw wrappers and fortune cookie fortunes and gum wadded up in napkins. To save every drawing my son handed me. To stack every birthday card in a drawer, just in case. I didn’t know it would lead to the holding-on-to of other garbage-like items too. I didn’t realize the stairwell would pile high with boots that fit no one. I didn’t know that years would pass quickly and losses would accumulate. I didn’t know a person could bury themselves in grief.


I kept memorizing poems through junior high and highschool, after Frost, there was Rudyard Kipling, and Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Service. Eventually homework and a burgeoning teenage social life took up more of my time. I’ve carried those poems around with me for years, and when I go to recite them now, poems I haven’t heard in years are still there. Committed to memory. I would recite them on long drives or quiet walks, mostly curious if I still knew them. Sometimes I would learn them again if a line went missing. What is wilder still is that when I recall them, I remember the places I have been when I have recited them—the blueberry path lined with birch trees, the afternoon light on the pale pink walls in my childhood bedroom, the smell of the floorboards in an old New England farmhouse, the feel of the rough fabric on the pants I was wearing. I can see how the memory has memories, like pockets, filled with green moss, campfire smoke, and slivers from the rough porch wood at the house we moved out of long ago. I cannot go back to some of those places, but they reappear in an instant—the sound of the Mad River rushing over small stones, the smell of spruce after a summer rain, the taste of Red Rose tea with milk and sugar—when those ordered words come bouncing down my tongue, streaming from somewhere inside me, bringing with them all the places I have been. 


Themed month logo by Honey Gilmore, essay art by Sumayya Ansari

M.D. McIntyre is a writer and plant enthusiast living in Minneapolis. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Sycamore Review, The Southampton Review, The Rumpus, Entropy, Rock & Sling, and other lovely journals online and in print. More from this author →