Basement Cleansing

We first moved to the house on Marcella Heights Drive when I was in third grade. Before that, we’d lived on Quint Avenue. Can’t you tell the difference just by the names of the streets? Quint Ave: old school, stately, could run a corporation. Marcella: a woman, perhaps a busy one, and current. And Heights Drive? Indecisive at best.
It was the late 60s, and having a rec room was where it was at. Our new house had a rec room, complete with linoleum, wood paneling and a tan brick fireplace. Center stage was the hi-fi, flanked by a handmade upholstered banquette and trestle table so the grownups could party like it was 1999. The TV was in the corner, and the turquoise chenille sofa from our old house’s living room looked right at home with the pole lamp and blond furniture that came along for the ride.
On the other side of the wall from this ultra-functional rec room was the combination laundry room/furnace room/beat-up piano and ping-pong table room. It was a room with a cement floor that worked for roller-skating when outside wasn’t feasible. We spent hours in this room as kids. Before the ping-pong table arrived, we had a small-sized pool table that we used within an inch of its life.
As we grew, this room became more of a dumping ground than a playroom. Our old puzzles, toys, trophies and records were piled unceremoniously onto the ping-pong table. Two paddles and a ball stayed in sight though, as if someone would decide to just play around the cast off dishes, prom dresses and troll dolls.
No one ever had the notion to clear any of it out.
Until, that is, I found myself the sole heir to all this bounty after my parents had both passed away, in 2006. Surveying the scene for the first time with a new eye, I picked up a smooshed but still grinning red Christmas elf – just like the Elf on the Shelf popular in today’s toddler’s Christmas worlds – and said to my husband, “Every bit of this is ours. Every last Harry Belafonte album, poker chip and BB gun. Honey, we’ve hit the jackpot.”
It took me months to be able even start sorting it all out. Each piece I touched brought forth a slush of memories. It surprised me how much my life really did flash before my eyes as I cleared out its remnants.
And it wasn’t just my life, as it turned out. I discovered my mom had saved every single cancelled check from her bank from 1953 on. For an entire afternoon, I went through the envelopes, learning how she’d spent her money, and how little there was to spend back then. She lent family members a surprising amount of the little she did have.
These were the kinds of things I learned; things that made other things make sense.
Things that swept through a lot more cobwebs than just the ones behind the old refrigerator with the pockmarks of rust all over its front that was kept in the basement to hold a stockpile of beer and preserved corsages and boutonnières from every dance my brother and I ever attended.  
Here’s the funniest part. Now, years after the last box and bag were carried out of the lower level of that house, in my mind, it’s all still there.
When I think of an object that sat in that furnace room for most of my life – and I think of holding it in my hands, for a moment I think I can just run down those steps and grab it. I know right where it’ll be.
Never mind that the house has had two new owners since I last shut the door.

Somehow, the overflow debris of my family’s life will forever be stored right where we left it. 

6 thoughts on “Basement Cleansing

  1. Kitty, we could have lived next door to each other. I distinctly remember our rec room. 🙂
    Over the past few years, I've had to clean out more than my fair share of houses of relatives who've left an enormous and long literal paper trial. Like, why did my grandfather, at the age of 85 still have his pay stubs from his military pay from WWII? Even more puzzling was the fact that I pulled a purple heart (yes, THAT kind of purple heart) from the back of his desk drawer. I never knew he'd received one until my grandparents passed away and I had to clean out their house.
    Amazing the things we learn about our family once their gone isn't it?


  2. I'm a little verklempt.

    Also, that was our exact rec room, right down to the ping pong and the mini-pool table. Well, except our hearth was fake. It was from the '70s and it had fake logs and a little lit up roll of cellophane that was supposed to look like flames. It also had a blower fan for heat that stunk.

    Loving these posts Kitty. They remind me a bit of my favorite local writer who used to have a column in Atlanta's Creative Loafing, Hollis Gillespie. Well, the way I feel when I read them reminds me of how I feel when I read Hollis.


  3. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Julie and Becky.
    I'm a little amazed at the universality of the rec room/junk room! And Becky, that fireplace – we had that, too, in the old house! What a strange thing, and not exactly safe, right?

    Julie – love the secret purple heart you found! Life is funny.


  4. How could you rifling through your basement bring back a flood of memories for me?

    And that thing about the checks and discovering something about your mother–I so get that. After my mother died, I realized that I could still learn about her. And you don't even have to be going through *her* things: the information is out there in the world everyday. I see someone do something and realize that's not how my mother would have handled it. And in seeing that, realize exactly who she really was. And still learn from her.


  5. Really great story. Funny, we never had a rec room but I was always so envious of kids that did and in my mind it was just like that without the sad parts.
    If my mother dies before I do, I'll be a little nervous to sift through her things. Not the 28 chock-full-of-nuts tins with old pens and pencils, the other stuff.
    Excellent story Kitty!


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