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Home Is Where The Heart Breaks

Was my aunt and uncle's house in Montreal a warm family home, or a hoarder's paradise?

Posted on February 17, 2015, at 4:01 p.m. ET

Alice Mongkongllite/BuzzFeed

The first 18 years of my life were spent waiting for a mythical place. What I knew of Montreal growing up were the weekends in the suburbs of the West Island, sleeping on a creaky foldout in a house filled with chatter and laughter. My aunt’s suburban mansard house in Pointe-Claire seemed to me a castle full of trinkets. I wandered around in the afternoons while the adults napped, gently examining the details on the Precious Moments figurines that lined a shelf in the living room. I read the labels on tiny souvenir liquor brought back from vacations: little round bottles of Mozart Chocolate Cream from Vienna and decorative drums of Niagara ice wine. Big bottles of mostly creme liqueurs and tequila gathered dust on a giant lacquered oak chest in the dining room.

The term “hoarder” wasn’t in vogue in the early '90s yet; my aunt and uncle, Goo Ma and Goo Jeung, were simply avid collectors of insignificant tchotchkes. Every surface was covered with random figurines, crystal animals, Christmas cards spanning decades, and silver frames around smiling people. Lace was everywhere — covering the tables, adorning windows, hanging under beds. Their daughter, Vanya, an aerospace engineer who lived with them, collected Coke cans from all over the world and foreign candy containers in flavors like eucalyptus and piña colada. My uncle kept his library of books and an impressive collection of discounted Blockbuster VHS tapes in the cavernous basement.

As a child, on our monthly visits from Toronto, I found the basement terrifying. The darkness got to me — I would turn off the lights at the base of the stairs and run up as fast I could, and then lean forward to slap the top step with my hands. The kitchen to where the stairs led was the safe zone, a warm space filled with the smell of soy and ginger chicken and laughter, the domain of my dear Goo Ma, a large and happy woman in a pink apron.

The restaurant that Goo Ma and Goo Jeung owned closed down in 2001, so they went to China to do missionary work for about four years. The house was left occupied and unchanged by my cousins, Vanya and her brother Wilbur, who were then in their mid-twenties and spent much of their lives in other places. By the time of my aunt and uncle's return, I had grown out of a precocious childhood into my sullen teens, while they seemed less joyous, less lively, ashen-faced and travel-weary. On the weekends we visited, I'd leave the quiet, green-spotted culs-de-sac of the suburb for the city, where the streets were lined with spiral staircases, and where beautiful people smoked on second-floor balconies. Goo Ma and Goo Jeung stayed at home those days, cooking and cleaning for that night’s dinner. After dinner Goo Ma would crack open a pomelo with her formidable hands, leave the pulp on the table and pass around pieces of the giant citrus fruit. It was good for digestion, the adults explained. At night I wandered the house listlessly, blowing dust off stacks of books.

The summer before I started university in 2007, Goo Ma’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Lung cancer had come back. I woke up to the sounds of my dad sobbing on the phone at 7 one morning. She had fallen into a coma. We left the next day. The drive from Toronto was quiet — at least, I think it was. I had my headphones on.

We stayed at the house in Pointe-Claire at night and went to the hospital the next day. The seven of us sat in the waiting room of the Montreal General silently. My cousin Vanya walked in and out of the room, giving us updates, and then finally, she returned with red eyes and told us that we should go in to say our final words. My parents did, while I stood watching them from the hallway dumbly. The plastic tubes running along her body, bald scalp, and antiseptic hospital gown rendered her unrecognizable from the bouncy happy woman who ushered us into her aromatic home of curiosities.

While my uncle and my dad settled final details with the hospital, I looked for Vanya. I found her in the hallway, peering through the glass door at Goo Ma, trembling, tears and snot falling from her face into a puddle on the hospital floor.

The funeral was at Mount Royal Cemetery.

I moved to the city the next week to start university.

For the following years, my uncle spent his evenings pacing sullenly around the house, examining things. He watched movies and read a lot — I never knew what to talk about with him so I asked him about books. His voice grew quieter, more timid. Every time we saw him, he seemed lose a little more color on his face and whatever hair remained. The house creaked a little more heavily in the silence; it was sighing in the absence of my aunt. Two years after the death of his beloved wife, Goo Jeung died. A heart attack in the middle of the night.

He left the house and all its scattered objects to Vanya.

Inevitably, most of the people you go to university with in Montreal don't stick around. Sometimes they go back home to their parents, working odd jobs and saving up for grad school or at least for somewhere nicer, where they don't have to pick up a second language and the political situation is a little tamer. Or they move to Toronto in search for more career options, better internships, more money, and the hope of some job security. I did both, because I could do both. After I graduated, it took 10 months in a condo in North Toronto to realize I couldn't listen all the way through an Arcade Fire album without smelling the weed and beer-stained grass of a Montreal summer day spent in the park. I had spent four months fact-checking full-time by day and wiping tables and shuttling plates of half-eaten fish 'n' chips in a dark, subterranean faux-British pub under the concrete fields and glass office buildings of Toronto’s Financial District by night. The only thing I enjoyed about how I spent my days was complaining about them.

And so, a year after graduating university in search of broader horizons, I found myself back in Montreal. Within two weeks of moving back, I found myself unable to find a job or an apartment, and had gotten my laptop and overnight bag stolen from the back of my parents’ car. After a somewhat tepid reunion, my no longer long-distance boyfriend had a difficult time dealing with our newly recovered proximity and broke us up over the phone — the medium we had spent most of our relationship communicating through.

Once again, I was in the house full of trinkets, this time for two months. Vanya was off to Japan for a very long business trip, and she needed someone to house sit and water her plants. She left me her keys, a pantry full of dry goods that might not have been touched since my uncle died, her Wi-Fi and Netflix passwords, and a refrigerator full of Sapporo. I spent my brokenhearted, unemployed days crying over the phone to my mother imploring her to remind me once again why I decided to move back. I smoked joints and drank beer in the overgrown backyard. I wondered if my uncle and aunt could see me from above, corrupting the home that they had so laboriously cultivated for so many decades. The house was an entity, its contents were physical embodiments of these people who were no longer there, and the Sapporo bottles filled with crushed cigarette butts and weed dust were reminders that, no matter how temporarily, this was now my home.

I wandered the house listlessly at night, blowing aging particles off the frames of family portraits on top of the lace-covered piano. There was no trace of soy and ginger chicken in the house's thick antique air made heavy and stale in the windless suburban summer.

Lost in this familiar archaeological site, I tried to piece together the story of a family by the impossibly varied items they left behind. A lace window curtain overlooking the yard with an L-shaped tear in it. Family photos, mugs congratulating someone on turning 50, picture books marked with crayon, and a lottery ticket dated 1998 bookmarking an anthology of DH Lawrence stories. Dust was inescapable. The walls had absorbed the best years of a family’s life, absorbed the boisterous laughter and gentle wafts of Chinese herbs, the small, quick strides of a child bolting up the stairs. Its weary frame creaked as my slippered feet paced the kitchen. Still, coming up from the basement, I would turn off the light at the bottom and sprint up as soon as I could, leaning forward to tag the top step. It wasn’t the same safety zone, but it was the only thing that still kept the darkness from wrapping around my ankles and pulling me back under.

Time moves on, of course, and I did what any artistically inclined young adult in Montreal does — I found an absurdly cheap apartment and a job at a café. Two months is a long time to wallow, particularly when you’re an hour and a half from the city without a car. When the opportunity came to move in with a friend in a hip, young area opened up, I was none too eager to rejoin the rest of society. When I moved out, I took with me Vanya’s inflatable mattress and an old wooden lamp and carelessly left a bottle of Sapporo half-filled with cigarette butts in the backyard. This was three years ago.

These days, when Vanya comes home, she walks up the granite steps and unlocks the door just as she did when, 20 years ago, she was a teenager and could feel her parents' presence just by the aroma of boiling herbs wafting out of the kitchen. I asked her once what her university years were like, and she replied, “Not as fun as yours.” I moved out of my parents' as soon as I could and became, for better or for worse, a writer. She lived at home to take care of her parents, graduated from her undergrad and master's from a prestigious school, and maintained a close-knit group of friends from church. She's responsible, extremely well-traveled, close to her family, and fluently trilingual; all these qualities I increasingly envy.

She and her husband have a kid now, and they live together in the house. I haven't returned since I moved out. It’s nothing personal — they’re busy with renovations, work, and raising a child, while I’ve been making up for my fun years by being a productive and responsible adult. And, to be honest, we’re not that close. We see each other occasionally for dinner at my uncle’s house. I’m constantly trying to prove to Vanya that I have matured and grown up, no longer the same sad loafer who drank all her beer and ran up her internet bill on Netflix those three summers ago. I ask about the house a lot, probably too much, fishing for details on their kitchen reno and the new upstairs floors. It feels like I’m inquiring about a distant family member who I once spent a lot of time with. I think about my uncle and aunt moving through the dust, peering from the photographs at the rooms which have been rejuvenated by Vanya, now a mother herself, and her family.

I imagine them all padding around with little feet on the shag carpet, filling the rooms with warm smells of her mother's recipes, replacing the '90s Christmas cards with ones from this millennium. The house is a home again, to these people who love the tiny things that piece together a portrait of a happy family, whose tears in the lace mean something because, incrementally, everything means something, even the white particles that gather on forlorn objects.

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