Over the span of twenty years, I’ve dedicated entire weekends to organizing my mom’s basement. I’ve packed its contents into boxes time and time again: three generations of old toys, old clothes, old everything Mom insisted we keep, only to find the boxes opened up a few weeks or months later, their contents strewed all over tarnation.
I theorized Mom had forgotten what was in the boxes and that’s why she would take everything out again, but after so many times of packing and repacking the basement, I decided not to do it anymore.
I remember rejoicing when the sub-pump malfunctioned and flooded the basement, leaving half the stuff down there unsalvageable. Regardless, the basement still grew into piles of junk. It loomed over our conversations every time Mom and I spoke to one another, a topic I found as pleasurable as sucking on cardboard. It was a suffering chore that needed to be accomplished before our lives evolved to be the kind that spent its time wandering through rolling hills of leisure.
I knew this and would yank at my psychological harness and scream to myself, “How come I have to be the one to clean this *&#@ up? Other people contributed to this mess too! Not fair.”
Once, I wrote my dad and E. a ransom letter, hoping they would help me with the insurmountable task:
Come and get what’s yours at Mom’s by [‘x’ date and time], else I will throw it away .
I stepped it up and called Dad, “So, you know, that spooky clock that looks like it came over on the Mayflower, I’m going to throw it away unless you come get it.”
Supposedly it had been in our family for generations. Legend was it chimed 12 times whenever a Stone Family member died no matter what time it was, wound up or not. None of that mattered.
Dad suggested, “Why don’t you put it up in your place?”
“No room Dad. No room.”
I didn’t want a haunted clock. I wanted him to come get it and then help me clean the basement.
“My obligations are here,” he told me, and his words rolled off me like rocks.
Obligations. I know all about those, the basement being one of them. It sat there, still messy, still waiting to be tidied, and with the sale of Mom’s home, the realtors pinned a deadline to the task.
I felt cursed by the basement, an evil magnet that drained my time and energy. Resentment triggered my actions to be harsh as I burrowed through it with haste; there was no time to be sentimental about any of it. Bye-bye dear toys I grew up with, Grandpa’s dentures (why did we keep those?), and chests full of baby clothes Mom cherished and saved. I put them all in a pile to be taken away.
When I came to the darkest corner of the basement, the one I saved for last, I moaned at the stacks of expired cans of corned beef Mom had intended to send to the Philippines that needed to be hauled away. Underneath them, I found sealed boxes I never noticed before.
I squealed with heebie-geebies as my brave husband dragged the boxes up the stairs for me, imagining all the spiders, centipedes and silverfish slipping from their moldy homes in the boxes to scurry over his bare hands.
There were seven of these boxes. The enormity of them panicked me as they sat perched like large cocoons on the living-room floor. I was almost tempted to throw them away without looking to see what was inside.
I opened the first box and began to sift through years of homework assignments, greeting cards, letters, pictures and newspaper articles: artifacts my parents decided were sacred enough to carry with us everywhere we moved.
My feelings of resentment and entitlement that I should be doing something better with my time subsided once I began to take my time with the contents in the boxes, and soon I found myself absorbed in them.
For three days, I had the pleasure of waking up, brewing a pot of tea, setting up a cozy seat with a trusty sister-dog before surrendering my thoughts and time to pictures and letters of my both my family and people I had never met before. As I read and sorted, I came to know a family and its members that have been long forgotten in a different way. They became more dimensional beings to me, with relationships and travels, heartaches and successes. They were young and hopeful, fell in love and fell away.
The two people who remained constants in the boxes: my parents. The artifacts served to tell their stories from before they met, up until their divorce, 18 years later.
By the time I found myself at the bottom of the last box, I was sad my time with them had ended.
The notes and letters: I decided to throw away, regrettably so as I try to recall some of the ones I read before slipping them into a garbage bag.
I ended up consolidating the seven large moldy boxes into five small newer boxes. As I stacked them away in my own darkest corner, I felt sorry for myself for just a second, wondering if maybe I was the only one in the world who cared about them. I saw myself forever harboring these boxes the way my parents did and I couldn’t decipherer whether the boxes were a blessing or a burden, another obligation.
I also wondered what would happen to the boxes when I was done caring about them as well.
In a dream, I rent a place in the desert and invite my parents and brother to go through these pictures with me. We learn about and relive the stories depicted in them, in between long hikes and home cooked meals.
The things we ended up keeping from Mom’s house:
- Mom’s collection of Baby Jesus’,
- some furniture,
- three boxes of clothes,
- washer and dryer,
- Mom’s car,
- and her plants, which froze in the truck on the trip to Wisconsin. Now they sit in the south window of our apartment. I had been nagging Bill to throw them away until noticed tiny leaves sprouting from the once frozen hibiscus tree.
Maybe it’s a sign of the fresh beginnings that are on their way.
What’s the best thing you ever found in a basement?