Sarah Cedeño

Creative Nonfiction

Sarah Cedeño’s work has appeared in New World Writing, The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Redactions, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. She lives in Brockport, NY with her husband and two sons, and teaches writing at the College at Brockport. She’s the Editorial Director of the national literary magazine Clockhouse, holds an MFA from Goddard College in Vermont, and is at work on a collection of short fiction.



597 South Oakland Ave, Sharon, PA, is full of antique dressers and tables and clocks, family photos, artwork that Grandma and Aunt Andrea (we call her Andy) painted. They painted owls, a replica of Picasso’s “Seated Nude,” portraits of family, paintings of dead deer, paintings of landscapes I’ve never seen in real life. And then there are my great-grandfather’s medical books, diaries, newspapers, beaded rosaries and wooden rosaries and jeweled rosaries and plastic rosaries. And then, cardboard boxes, my aunt’s clothes heaped on the kitchen counters and the bathroom floor and in the shower, and more cardboard boxes, then taxes from 1948 through 1976, and from two or three years ago bound in paper or in vinyl, baggies full of pennies clumped together by age and something sticky.

Something sticky everywhere—in my nose, on my latex gloves, crowding any thought I might have: like, what did I just step on? Or, hey—is that Polish pottery? Or, someone please tell me, how is life worth living? Cobwebs so thick they look like strips of finger-knitting canopied over the mess. And Czechoslovakian cookbooks and sour cream containers, a yogurt from a few years ago with its sour spoon. Sour everything. Old Isotoner slippers, crystal candlesticks, Japanese pottery from Great-Uncle Jack, plants so neglected they look like twisted paper lunch bags growing out of white dirt, tins of mail order cookies expired in 1996 and never opened, five slow cookers, still in their boxes—gifts that were never given.

Mouse poop. Mouse poop everywhere.

Andy had no children. Her husbands had died. This is why she willed the house and all of its contents to my father, who jokes that he is being punished.

“I’ve researched hoarding,” my father says when he first opened the front door. “Aunt Andy was not a hoarder.” We could not step in.

My father explains, now, that it’s laziness, that she became overwhelmed with the mess, which in her diaries she refers to as “the condition of the house.” When we got here, we could only stand on the perimeter and stare into it. It is not something we could touch. My father says it is not a mental disease. But he looks from the perimeter. Even though we are knee-deep, now, he keeps himself on the perimeter.

As a group of workers—only men—shovel their way through each room, they call my name to alert me to photographs or diaries. The name of their company is Aftermath. I admire the person who came up with the name. This is a seven out of ten on the scale, they say. They usually clean crime scenes. They flip through pages of books for money, informing me when something looks valuable, and I imagine some valuable things still ended up on those shovels. I can’t save it all though, can I? Can I sift through the mess in handfuls like a squirrel, stashing my own mess to the side?

My father walks around with a perpetually stunned look on his face. He scratches his beard and makes jokes: “I’m hungry,” he’ll say as he struggles over an open and full container of leftovers on top of a mountain of plastic bags on top of a box of club crackers on top of mildewed towels. Our white HAZMAT suits are pristine in the stale air. I imagine the glorious paradise of an open window and a drink of purified iced water. There is a note on the refrigerator from Andy. She writes: Do not open the refrigerator. It is full of food and has not worked in five years. We are not sure when it was written, but the paper has yellowed. We couldn’t get the door to the refrigerator open if we tried. There are clothes and dirty dishes and books surrounding it.

During this, the first trip, workers fill a forty- and a thirty-yard dumpster with the first floor of Andy’s belongings. This is her layer, what accumulated after Great-Grandma died in 1994.

When we get home, I text my father a picture of my study closet: newspapers and books and frames and photographs and baby blankets and posters and the gift bags from every gift I’ve received in the past two years. I clean it out that day and tell him I cannot judge Andy. Had I been alone, with no children, with no family at all to speak of . . . I mean, I could see how it would happen to a ninety-year-old woman, I want to tell him. I cringe as I text it. I cannot fathom it, and yet I can.

I speak of Andy suddenly to my husband over dinner or when I’m about to fall asleep as though we are mid-conversation about her.

“Did you know she couldn’t reach the light fixtures to replace blown bulbs and so she sat in the dark all winter?” I don’t need to clarify who “she” is anymore. She finds her way into my mind and my mouth at unexpected moments. She litters my life.

After I clean out my closet, I text my father a new picture. He texts back, “I thought you were going to clean it out?”

“Eh. Turns out, I needed most of it,” I text, staring at the plaid gift bag with the tear in the corner. It is filled with balled up tissue paper.

I tell my students that story is born of the perfect storm of character and circumstance. That readers like inevitable tragedy. It’s why we watch the news. It’s why I’ll walk all the way down Park Avenue with my son and my father to watch firefighters extinguish the attic of an old white house, the smell of a burning house both delicious and frightening, the smoky cotton haze like an exhale from the home. South Oakland Avenue was the site of Andy’s perfect storm: a tragedy of illness and isolation. And we are in the aftermath.

On our next trip to Andy’s house, my father tells my aunts and uncles that Andy is my kindred spirit. Everyone laughs nervously as I pick up random items to bring home—a small Red Rose Tea squirrel that collectors call a “whimsy,” a silver figurine of a gnome playing the fiddle with a cat pawing its knee, a few cookbooks, a doorbell, a doorknocker, the tile from the front door.

I don’t have Andy’s disease, but I can understand her need to hold on to what came before she was alone. At some point she couldn’t tell what came before her mother died and what came after.

A couple of weeks ago, in class, we shared our favorite poems. I read my students a William Stafford poem called “The Widow.” It’s this line: “Maybe nothing should move. Maybe this day, the stillness begins.” The photos and artwork on the wall are in the same order as they were in photographs I find from the seventies and eighties and nineties and are of people who left her behind or painted by people who left her behind.

I tell my students Andy’s story. They asked me for updates when I returned from weekend trips to Sharon. I am not good at family secrets.

Sometimes, in her diary entries and letters, there are marks of hindsight in different colored ink, as though she has read and reread and edited her story. Sometimes she says she misses her family horribly, sometimes she says her family makes her miserable. I imagine her watching the detritus grow around her exponentially and feel her suffocation. I look around my study: three bowls of binder clips, five clipboards full of drafts I won’t revisit, seven staplers in various sizes, bricks I stole from places of meaning, 10 vintage coasters stacked on my desk, writing magazines from 2000 and 2005 and in between and beyond, and five boxes full of stationery that I’ll never send—or maybe I will, someday.

One time, in her diary amidst others that are now stacked in my study, my Aunt Andrea prays for cancer.

I can’t be angry with my father for ignoring the element of mental illness here. He is protecting himself—from culpability, from sorrow, from regret, from his own doubts about life. He knows about mental illness: my grandmother had bipolar disorder and now, what we think could have been schizophrenia. But this is not something we discuss often. And his brother, the doctor, is the only one who will recall my grandmother’s episodes, how he and my father were sent to Andy’s for summers when my grandmother was at her worst. I will find a letter tucked in the pages of the Slovak-American cookbook from when Andy stayed with my grandmother during a tough time. At that point, my grandmother had four children. I can see the deterioration of will in both Andy and my grandmother, the lack of understanding between the two, how Andy compared my grandmother to a toddler, called attention to her temper, to how she slept and swore and ate only toast and yogurt.

I started taking antidepressants when I was twelve, and sometimes my mother would say to me, “Everyone gets sad, Sarah.” I could barely eat and didn’t want to do anything but hide in my room, and a day later she would hold me and ask me, “What is wrong with you?” My father would roll his eyes as I cried, and later, she would tell me that he was scared. We set all our boundaries through fear.

I instruct my students to write fiction about what they most fear. Last summer, I thought my worst fear was the pedophile whose yard backs up to mine. Now, I fear that threats are even closer to home.

Andy wasn’t born a hoarder. There are photo albums from the twenties and thirties when she was in elementary school with a photograph of her as an angel in a play, and then there are photo albums from the seventies of Andy standing in a pristine kitchen next to her husband in front of her ivory refrigerator with a steel whisk in her hand. She is wearing an apron and a smile. There is someone by her side. Their counter is bare and I imagine she has recently swept it free of crumbs.

On the second trip to Sharon, we ascend to the second floor, which proves worse. It was her private living space and she still, deep down, had a sense of domestic decency and what was appropriate for first-floor versus second-floor living. It’s the way we vacuum and mop the downstairs floors and leave the upstairs floors alone. Once the shovels disturb the clothing, the smell goes from stale and suspicious to putrid and sharp. The upstairs: soiled underwear, bras on doorknobs, cardboard boxes, takeout container after takeout container. And her dog had to go to the bathroom somewhere. The other dog, a poodle, took up his final resting place under a four-foot pile of clothes. I imagine one day Andy couldn’t find him, and then how her diary said she was having trouble breathing, and how now, we can only see the bones.

My aunt tells me I need to write a novel called Andrea’s Dilemma.

In a book I almost throw away, I find a paper dated 2010, marked OBIT, on which Andy drafted her own obituary. In Andy’s list of the predeceased is everyone she held dear. The list of who survives her is too short, and summed up in one line: 8 nieces and nephews, 19 grandnieces and grandnephews. She refers to herself as an “unheralded philanthropist.” She kept all of us at bay with cards and checks. When she died, she had nearly a million dollars.

“She didn’t have to live like this,” we all say. We didn’t know why we couldn’t visit, until we couldn’t visit her anymore.

In one diary entry, Andy tells how her dog groomer broke into her house because she thought Andy was dead. Andy was so angry and mortified that someone entered her house—and so frightened they would come in again—that she didn’t sleep for a week.

On the third trip to Sharon, and with the first floor swept clean, the Persian rugs rolled up and hauled into a dumpster, the house begins to look almost habitable, and this is when the real despair hits. With the windows opened for the first time in decades and the debris pulled down, the sun hits the concentric rectangle pattern of the hardwood floors and there’s a hint of reflection. This is how Andy would have remembered it from her youth. The fireplace, the built-in bookshelves, and nooks in the library all made to heat and organize and hold those lives comfortably, even Andy’s.

An Aftermath worker holds a dead rat from the basement a few feet in front of my face, its tale stiff like the handle of a pinwheel, and its body is a deflated version of the hairy rodents I’ve only ever seen on “Dirty Jobs.”

My father describes everything here as “petrified.”

“Rat’s not that old, but at least he’s not squealing,” the worker says. I’ve already run to the other side of the room, covering my mouth, and out come three more, on a shovel.

I’ve found families of mice here, but not living mice, their bones clean and smooth. I’ve stepped on one, felt it crush beneath my foot.

“None survived,” the project foreman says, tipping the rats from the shovel into an industrial-sized garbage can.

Three weeks later, when the U-Haul pulls up in front of my house, it is black and rainy outside. It’s December and inside, I’ve decorated for Christmas. Crayola-colored lights on the tree. The stockings Andy crocheted for all of us when we were young hang from my stair balusters.

The contents of 597 have moved to a U-Haul. My father called the back room of my second floor the “staging area,” a room we didn’t use and that I’d spent all day cleaning for Andy’s stuff as if for a houseguest—washing the windows and mopping the floors, emptying the room of clutter. When my father rolls up the door of the U-Haul, my mother and sister cover their noses. A whole houseful of Andy’s furniture, mirrors, memorabilia, mail-order steam grills, about to parade into my already-full house.

It is 5:30 and soon, we have a Christmas party at my friend Anne’s house. I am supposed to arrive early to help set up.

My sons watch as the contents of the U-Haul filter into the house. I pace back and forth as my brother-in-law and nephew ask me, “Where? Where does this go?” and my mother shakes her head, saying, “Oh my god.”

My father says, “You wanted this, Sarah. You told me not to get rid of it.”

I hadn’t been the only one, sifting through this stuff—my mother and sister had, too, recognizing treasure in the wreck: carved wooden puzzles, my great-grandmother’s Singer bust, Czechoslovakian pottery and scrapbooks. And furniture. And lamps and paintings and bags full of pictures that were so soiled I asked the cleaners to put them in a new bag and hide them from me so I would forget how filthy they were and not put them in the dumpster. Amidst these papers, I’ll find a three-page spread about Andy in the Woodstock Union High School Newsletter at her retirement from teaching in 1987 at the age of 65. Her students admired her. I imagine she was strict and sweet, both generous and guarded, congenial and no-nonsense. A guidance counselor named Suzy says of her, recalling a student who was on drugs and wreaking havoc on his family, “Andy took the boy in and kept him at her house for a year. She helped him get through school.” A few paragraphs later, Andy’s quoted: “My father was a 24-hour doctor. He had a tough, tough life. He was home so seldom. I decided I wanted to be a home maker, to eventually marry and have 13 kids.”

Her holiday messages on our answering machine were the texture of fine sandpaper. We never knew what she sat amidst.

Immediately, I try sending small hallway tables home with my sister, a cardboard box full of silver with anyone who would have it, and thankfully succeed at sending my great-grandfather’s WWI and my great-uncle’s WWII helmets and boxes of their dress whites with my father, though he will march them back into my house not even a week later.

“Mom, you wanted that craft table,” I try.

And to my father-in-law: “Can you please take this end table? What is that sludge on it?”

My sons are giddy, jumping in the U-Haul as it empties out; their voices echo into the dark night, asking which bedroom set is theirs. Later, we’ll assemble the early 1900s mahogany twin beds with curved footboards to situate in their room that’s decked out in Star Wars, Angry Birds, Sabres and Buffalo Bills gear. When the U-Haul is nearly empty, I realize it’s so large we all could do cartwheels from front to back. And it had been full.

As the “moving crew” carries armfuls through my front door, the looks on their faces turn to panic. The staging area has filled up. When I walk up the stairs, I imagine the floor of Andy’s room, as we now call it, collapsing beneath 6 dressers, 20 file cabinet drawers, 4 lamps, 4 steamer trunks, and boxes and boxes of scrapbooks and pictures and keepsakes.

I try harder to pawn items off on my family—gold-laced china black with excrement, broken clocks, tennis rackets, my great-grandfather’s framed satin med-school diplomas.

My son’s the first taker. “I’ll take this!” my son Johnny says from the front porch, hoisting an old wooden valet stand under his arm. He carries over the threshold and up the stairs to his bedroom. Little bugs and cobwebs cling to the feet like felt floor protectors. By the next night, where my great-grandfather had hung his starched doctor’s shirts will have become the perfect place to display my son’s hockey jersey. We will also find two large boxes of my great-grandfather’s medical tools—forceps, circumcision instruments, tonsil tools, surgical scissors.

The larger pieces—two secretary’s desks, two kitchen tables, and a 20” x 30” box of WWI photos—are wedged in the shrinking space of my front parlor.

“Hoarding is hereditary,” my dad says, and though he’s joking as he walks out the door with my mother, it takes all I have to keep from throwing myself on his back and begging him not to go.

Though part of me feels happy and full with all the family history in my home, another part of me begins to itch. My house is full of orphan cobwebs and foreign dust. I consider wearing one of the leftover paper respirators from the clean-out that have somehow also landed in my front parlor. Streaks of black run down my arm and my nails are perfect black French tips. I turn the light off in the front room. It is 6:30 and the tree lights shine on the many filthy surfaces of desks and end tables and a kitchen table. Merry Christmas, Aunt Andy, I think.

My husband’s eyes widen as he shuts the front door behind everyone—my sons are gone, too, for a sleepover with their grandparents—away from the condition of the house. We have a party to go to. A drip of sweat falls from the tip of my husband’s nose, and I bury my face into his neck, away from the smell.

Anne’s house is clean and bright, full of cheer and wine and Lebanese appetizers. I smell like Dove body wash and shea butter hair products, and no one would guess where I’ve just come from. Through the joyful faces and clinking bottles, I see the dark windows of my house, where I’ve left my dog with the mess, and if I look hard enough, by the glow of the streetlights I might be able to see the outlines of all the extra furniture. I cannot hold back. I tell many acquaintances what transpired just before the party—though it’s not a story about me I’m telling; I tell a tragedy about Andy.

My husband drinks quite a bit at the party, and it’s likely because he knows what awaits him at home. The rain has turned to snow by the time we leave, and though it’s cold, I hesitate to go inside. Our house is a big old Victorian, but I know that the high ceilings are no match for the smell that’s to come.

As I make my way through the staging area that I now call “Andy’s room” to get to my bedroom, I imagine bugs and mice ascending my legs. My cat will nest in this room for months, and I’ll be afraid to pet her. I'll be even more paranoid she will jump on our bed at night with bugs hiding in her fur.

My husband tries to keep the door to Andy’s room closed tonight, but the cat scratches at the wood until we have to open it. I tell him it’s cruel to leave her in there. With it far too cold for open windows, we breathe in the air from 597.

I wrote ‘Aftermath’ without a whole lot of psychic distance, and that’s contrary to the ‘rule’ of creative nonfiction. The events that led to this essay happened about a year ago, and the essay has been not only a source of processing but also a necessary record. As the house was emptied out, I feared the tragedy would disappear along with it. As much as I didn’t want my great-aunt’s memory tarnished, I didn’t want the physical embodiment of her pain to disappear. It was a necessary piece to my understanding of our family’s mental health, and so writing this became a compulsive activity.