My dad and siblings are cleaning out my parents’ basement this weekend. I get occasional texts from my sister with a photo of an Irish wool sweater, or the nurse’s costume Nana made me one Halloween, so tiny it looks like it was made for a doll: “Do you want this?” No, to the wool sweater (I’m allergic). Yes, to the nurse costume (I’m nostalgic). But I really don’t want anything that’s in the basement; I want the basement.
The basement has been such a basic fact of my existence that I didn’t recognize its significance until its dismantling. In my earliest memories, it was a dark, cool, mysterious place, reserved for my father’s tools and model train set. It was a dangerous place, too. We were forbidden from going barefoot, lest we step on a stray nail or fallen screwdriver. My father’s fraternity paddles hung ominously on the wall, marking his terrain. If we misbehaved, his deep voice threatened, “Do I have to go downstairs and get the paddles?” I later understood that Dad would have never hit us with the paddles, but at the time the threat convinced me that the paternal rule undergirding our household could extend its reach to the domestic realm upstairs, where my mother’s gentler authority reigned.
Although the basement was a shadowy place, its power was reassuring. It held everything my father needed to fix things; everything my mother needed to make holiday meals and wrap presents; everything we needed to go skating on Baummer’s Pond in winter, or for a picnic at Lake Quassapaug in summer, including the big, red plastic cooler with the initials HFW neatly printed in indelible blank ink. Once, when I was very small, I was in bed with stomach bug and Dad was in charge of my care. He was working on a project in the basement, and I called down to him to ask a question. He heard my voice, assumed I was throwing up again, and bounded up the stairs with the force of a giant. I was embarrassed by the misunderstanding, yet deeply reassured by the protection that rose up from below.
When I was in middle school, we moved to a bigger house with a bigger basement. This one had space for all my dad’s tools and my mom’s household supplies, as well as a play area for kids. We got the old day bed with the beige vinyl seat cushions and a barrel for the “dress ups”–a stash of 1950’s fancy dresses and shoes we’d acquired from church rummage sales. My sister and I would dress up, play Donna Summers on the speakers my father had rigged up in the ceiling, and twirl around the cement poles. Hot stuff, baby. I’m talking about the bad girls, yeah. My brother had his own area for Legos, the Fisher Price garage, town, and school, and all the accessories that went with them.
Just before I started high school, we moved to a new town and a smaller house with a basement and a crawl space. My parents took over the basement, and our dress ups and toys were relegated to the crawl space, where we would pull them out if they were needed for a skit, costume, or school project. But we’d outgrown our need for a play area and found the nooks of the crowded basement more useful for storing a small stash of illicit alcohol.
After my sister, brother, and I all moved out and established our own households, my parents paradoxically moved to a bigger house with the largest basement of all. My father’s workshop expanded, and my mom’s household supplies spread on expansive open shelves. The play area returned, now reserved for grandchildren, who received the same prohibition about not going barefoot or venturing into “Granu’s” territory.
Last September, we moved my parents to a retirement village, delighted that they’d secured a unit with two bedrooms and a full basement, brighter and more finished than any basement they’d had before. The place was beautiful, with lots of windows and a sun porch overlooking a meadow surrounded by woods. My mom, now diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, would have a smaller home to navigate and access to more activities and services. And my father would have his basement to work on his trains, knowing she was safe and comfortable upstairs. The haven lasted only a year. My mom’s illness advanced, and my father’s stamina eroded. This October, we moved her to assisted living, and now my father is moving to a smaller, less expensive apartment—without a basement.
I’ve been living in North Carolina for 18 years, where basements are rare. Our house has a small dugout for the furnace and hot water heater, accessible only through a trap door in the kitchen floor. We’ve no space to store the trappings of my parents’ household, and I wouldn’t want all that stuff, anyway. What I want is for the basement to be there—that non-magical, underground room of requirement, where I can find whatever I need, if ever I need it. And the next time I go to Connecticut to see my parents, the basement will be gone.