“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
- Psalm 51:7
PART I - The Day the Music Died
She wasn’t always this way.
My father says that the hoarding really began after the death of my sister, Elena. She was two weeks and three days shy of her fourth birthday at the time that she died.
I recall my mother sat in her floral armchair, musing woefully over a box of miscellaneous clutter the day that my father took me. Tears of embarrassment turning the milky whites of her eyes into glass, her voice trembled: “You can learn much about someone from the things they throw away; the things they deem trash and those that they deem worthy to live among them, mama. When something requires more from you than it gives, then, and only then, is it time to let it go.” Our home had always been full, recounts my father, but not in the way I grew up knowing it. It was once full of laughter, of warmth, and of endearment. Walls today covered by looming towers of cardboard boxes and cobwebs were once spectators to the acceptance, love, and solidarity that prospered from my mother’s labor. She was once a good housekeeper–as good as one woman can be with six children under the age of twelve living under her roof–because my father demanded it. “Cleanliness is next to godliness, mija,” he cautions me to this day, with the same domineering tone he bode my mother. But today, my childhood home is a shrine to the death of each of my living siblings and me yet to come. Every glass that our lips have touched, every towel on which we have cleansed our cheek, every morsel to acknowledge our existence is kept in memoriam of the day that we are not here. Grief does not change you; it reveals you.
My mother, Rosamaria, had always had an affinity for keeping things long before we lost Elena. She was once not only a resourceful woman–she was creative. Broken pieces of jewelry from the five and dime were turned into magnets, for every scrap of haphazardly done artwork done by the hands of my siblings to be put on display with pride and hide the rust marks on the front of our white refrigerator. Cracked teacups and saucers that had been salvaged from the Goodwill were reinvented into bird feeders. The melted wax that dripped down the sides of votive candles that burned endlessly on the mantle was later collected and put into bottle caps to make tealights for the yearly ofrenda. My mother had quit her job as a seamstress many years ago after the birth of their third child, my older brother Orion, so that she could stay home to take care of us full time.
The day that my sister died, my siblings, Tomas, Jorge, Orion, Fernando, and Elena, had returned early from their weekly swimming lesson at the community center with my tío. Rain was coming, signaled by the strong gusts of winds that threw blankets of sand into the air and painted the normally blue and cloudless El Paso sky a hazy orange. This had been Elena’s first swimming lesson, and my father recalls her giddiness of being allowed to tag along with her older brothers as she sat on his knee while he tied his boots the morning of that day. My mother was at the stove preparing dinner when the chaos of each of my siblings fighting to not be the last one through the threshold stormed in. Tío had treated them each to ice cream to soothe their distress of their lesson being cut short, and in the mayhem, Elena’s had been knocked from her hand. Her half-eaten chocolate ice cream splattered into the yellow shag carpet. The boys’ swimsuits were still wet, and a trail of souring beach towels was left down the wood-paneled hallway as the four boys scattered their separate ways.
Elena came to my mother’s side at the stove, crying over the loud salsa music blaring from the stereo, and coughing from the spice in the air produced by mother’s roasting poblano peppers on the gas eye. My mother peered down the hallway at the mess that had been left in the wake of her children’s homecoming, and with a gasp and a frightful heart, took to hastily scrubbing the brown stain from the carpet on her knees. My father was due home soon, and she feared the repercussions of the home not meeting his expectations on his arrival. Elena stood over my mother while she ground a hard-bristle brush into the carpet, back and forth, back and forth, and begged tirelessly for my mother to take her to the above-ground swimming pool in the backyard so that she could practice what she had learned earlier at her swimming lesson to show my father. A normally patient woman snapped on the child, and with hate on her tongue, sent her away so that she could clean the mess she had made. And Elena obeyed.
My father had not long started a new job working just across the Texas-New Mexico border as a farmhand at a cattle ranch in Vado. There is a lake in Vado that’s supplied by the Rio Grande, so grass grows there much more plentifully than it does in El Paso. His time clock started as soon as the sun rose, and his day ended just as it set. Elena knew this. She used the sun as her wristwatch, and she was dutifully the first one to greet my father at the door when he returned home in the evenings. Elena was my father’s golden goose, and he was unashamed to say it despite the taboo of proclaiming one child the favorite. That evening, though, as my father stood in the doorway, pushing his muddy boots off of his feet with his toes, Elena did not run to greet him. My brothers crowded the box television in the living room, scattered unceremoniously on the floor atop patchwork pillows and ignorant to anything other than the dancing shapes and colors on the screen before them. My father noticed the faint stain on the carpet where the remnants of Elena’s dropped dessert had bested my mother, but he spared my mother in the kitchen her berating for the time being. He called to Elena who did not answer.
Together, my mother and father searched our three-bedroom house. After all of the rooms had been checked once, they gathered the help of my brothers to check again. Their collective initial confusion quickly shifted to panic after the third pass through the home was unfruitful. My father instructed our family to continue looking through the house while he walked backwards to the kitchen. “Elena was never one to hide, but perhaps tonight she wanted to play a game?” he says. She was small, small for a three-year-old even, so among my mother’s countless chests and storage containers of our childhood memorabilia provided endless hiding spots for a child of her size. “Surely,” he says.
My father, in a controlled frenzy, exited through the storm glass door that led from the kitchen to our terracotta patio in the backyard. It was raining now. He noticed that the door was opened about seven inches when he approached it, wider than my mother would normally leave it when it rained to allow the breeze in. He stood on the covered awning, dirty hands cupped around his mouth, and called Elena’s name into the night repeatedly. He says that from the corner of his eye, dimly illuminated by the orange glow of the streetlight, it appeared that my mother had not removed the plastic float from the pool as he had instructed her to in preparation for the storm coming. While his head turned on a swivel, still beckoning for my sister, he reached over the side of the pool to grab the float and pull it out so it would not be carried away by the wind. Instead, what he had grabbed was Elena’s cold arm. There was nothing that could be done.
One day, when we were older, Fernando and I were sharing a porro on our front porch. By that time, the house had become so cluttered that none of us could hardly stand to be inside. Fernando, his eyes red from his high, confessed to me that that day at the community center, he had teased Elena for being too scared to jump into the water. "It was harmless," he said, "done in the way that older brothers do." Now that he was older, he says he can understand how daunting jumping into the marathon-sized pool must have been–to her, it might as well have been the Atlantic Ocean. She sat the entirety of the lesson on a lounger nearby, watching her feet kicking in the wind, too short to touch the concrete. He blamed himself for her death, as did my father for commanding perfection from my mother and causing her inattentiveness, as did my mother for cowering to my father's hand and resulting in her preoccupation with the carpet. It all seems so trivial in hindsight.
Though I was too small to recall the night the music died on my own, I lived the fallout that it spawned vividly. None of my brothers were home more than they had to be. Tomas knocked a girl up at sixteen and moved in with her and her family, Jorge couch-surfed with anyone that would allow him to introduce himself past his first name, Orion dropped out of school and started working to be able to pay his half on an apartment with an acquaintance, and Fernando turned to a "family" bonded on street values since he had ruined ours. My father finally found the gall to leave the ghost of my sister and the ghost of the woman that was once his wife and moved us to a rental house on the west side of town. I cooked for him, I cleaned for him, and I could do no wrong. I was his silver goose, winner by default.
None of my brothers ever teased me. No one ever told me no. I grew up on a pedestal that sat in the cool shadow of a girl that never came to fully be. I have always been this way. And I never learned to swim.