Gertrude’s Stuff

Gertrude’s Stuff

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

Gertrude’s Stuff

The best things in life aren’t things.

Art Buchwald

“Thank you for putting up with my eccentricities,” she said.

“Oh, I don’t mind so much.” Tell the truth. “There is one thing that kind of bothers me.”


“It’s when you go through trash cans.”


“Why do you do that?”

“Well,” she reasoned, “that’s when people give me money. Five bucks. Twenty bucks, once.”

Shrewd, I thought. Not crazy.

“Besides, I find lots of valuable stuff.”

“Like what?”

She smiled a wide, toothless smile. “One time, I was diggin’ around at the supermarket and I found a fast food bag with six packets of catsup in it!”

My great aunt Gertrude and I were sitting on her back porch, sorting through old papers, canned food, and cardboard that she had stashed in metal trash cans for safekeeping. She was hunched over a feed sack filled with old mail. I studied the hand-knit orange hat she wore, in spite of the heat, to cover her matted gray hair. She had on a man’s shirt. The breast pocket was stuffed with so many pencils and paper towels, they stayed put as she bent down.

For as long as anyone could remember, Aunt Gertrude was weird. She loved radios and telescopes, not cooking and sewing. She hadn’t worn high heels since her graduation from Parsons Junior College in 1936. She followed Edgar Cayce and other mystics down a path of woo-woo that caused our strict Methodist relatives to call her crazy. But by far her biggest sin was that she never threw anything away. Nowadays, what was “wrong” with Aunt Gertrude would be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she would receive treatment for it; then, we just referred to her as eccentric and left her alone.

She had not asked for my help. In fact, she barely knew me. I started writing to her the day we buried my grandmother. And she wrote back—volumes: life stories, bits of wisdom, journal entries. We had journaling in common. And we were both single women. Even though it was an unlikely friendship, my thirty-something to her eighty-something, we were kindred spirits. Later, she would tell me that she kept it going because, “You were the only one who hugged me at my sister’s funeral.” That small kindness would change my life.

A few years and many letters passed between us. Then Aunt Gertrude’s across-the-street neighbor called me. “It’s time,” Joe said. “Someone in the family has got to come take her out of that house. She doesn’t want to go.” He was insistent. My aunt had stopped bathing after an army of court-ordered Boy Scouts with garbage bags convened in her yard to help bring her property into compliance with city code. An inexperienced volunteer driving a bulldozer broke the water line and Gertrude never had it fixed. She had taken to hauling water from the garden hose for drinking, cooking, and filling the toilet tank.

Joe and Janette had helped for as long as they could: delivering groceries, mowing her front yard, and inviting her for dinner. When Gertrude’s license was revoked, they drove her to doctor’s appointments—if she would clean up in their bathtub first.

The morning I made up my mind to leave Dallas, I talked to God. “I’ll move to California to take care of my great-aunt; but, I want a dog, a house with a fenced yard, and a garden,” then added, “and a partner.” It was more of an ultimatum than a prayer. “I’ll do this good deed, but I’m getting something I want out of it, okay, Almighty?” Of course, I was joking. I wanted to believe that we all have someone who will be there for us in our old age. For Gertrude, that someone was me.

My father came from Illinois to drive the moving truck the 1,500 miles to Roseville and to move me into a falling-down rented house that overlooked a horse pasture. A week later, Gertrude moved in with me.

For months, I worked by myself knee-deep in debris at Gertrude’s house, sorting treasure from trash: old newspaper, toss; photograph of my mother as a baby, save. It was like an archaeological dig: layer upon layer of magazines, flat boxes filled with buttons and coins, watches, and dry pens. I unearthed letters from 1919 and Christmas cards from the Depression. I uncovered a nest of chicken eggs in the living room, about three feet down, vintage—early eighties if the newspaper stratum was accurate. More bags, boxes, old transistor radios, and acid-bubbled batteries.

And there were antiques, like prescriptions dated before printers and plastic, when headache remedies came in tins, nerve pills in wooden cylinders, and laxatives in blue glass bottles. Each Saturday the narrow path through the house widened. But at this rate we would both be dead before I finished.

One evening a man in my Bible study group announced that he was moving into a new apartment on Saturday and could use a hand. About eight people showed up—in no time the job was done. I knew then that I had to do the unthinkable: ask for help. At the next meeting, I explained that I had come to Roseville to be my great-aunt’s caregiver and that she had filled her house with so much stuff it was uninhabitable. It was awful, dangerous work, but if anyone was available on Saturday, I would really appreciate help. I looked around the group and my nervousness subsided. They were smiling.

“Community Services is donating a Dumpster,” I added. “I have maps . . . and if you come, bring work gloves.” On the way home I bought extra garbage bags, dust masks, and bottles of water. That wasn’t too hard. But will anybody show up?

On the designated day, I arrived early to open the house. I dragged a few full garbage bags to the Dumpster. Doubts crowded in. You’re asking too much. I had been taught that it is better to give than it is to receive. Here I was, begging others to give to me. I sat on the crumbling front step, feeling guilty. You couldn’t handle Gertrude’s stuff alone. You failed.

At five minutes after ten, when I was sure that no one was coming, a car parked across the street. Peace swept over me as the first volunteer walked toward the house. Soon, another car arrived. Joy swelled up to tears. Then another pulled up. In a matter of minutes, twenty people were standing with me in Gertrude’s front yard.

Maybe it is better to give than it is to receive. But I learned a valuable lesson that day. If you can put aside your pride and ask for what you need, when help comes it brings with it an unexpected blessing—love.

Ask. Receive. Could it be that simple? I asked God for a dog, a house with a fenced yard, a garden, and a partner. One month before I moved to help Gertrude, I was walking in the park when a stray puppy was run over by a car. As I carried the injured dog back to my apartment, someone offered to drive me the final mile. Two years later, I returned to Dallas with Aunt Gertrude to marry the man who had helped me. We live in a house with a fenced yard and that dog can jump it. The garden thing isn’t working out too well. God?

Rhonda Richards-Cohen

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