I don’t like to go into the basement and look at all my old, grimy stuff. I have intended to phone 1-800-GOT-JUNK for months now. But there are some items in the basement that hold stories and are ripe with nostalgia. I can’t part with these bits and pieces of history. I’d be throwing away the stories they hold.
Old-fashioned cross-country skis and boots, long ignored and covered in layers of soot, reminders of frosty afternoons in the Adirondacks, ski-skating over snow-covered pine needles and moss.
Two by fours haphazardly leaning against Ed’s idle worktable where he fashioned our futon bed frame and Katie’s bench with birds painted on the side. Rusted nails, bolts, varnish can tops, and a hammer head lay scattered in sawdust shavings and wood chips.
Mildewed board games with ripped cardboard tops stacked on make-shift shelves: Scrabble. Parcheesi. Monopoly. A French edition of Chutes and Ladders from when we operated the group home in Montreal, all covered in twenty-five years of cellar grunge, laundry lint, furnace ash, mouse turds, and dead flies.
Everything smells musty. It’s too dirty to touch. But it’s all too evocative to give away.
The boxes in the far corner are filled with crinkled age-old, yellowed newspapers protecting a set of dishes I thought I’d want way back at an estate auction when I was in my mid-thirties. Katie was a just little tot and played with her Dakin stuffed dog on the grass behind my chair under the auction tent. The house was full of things that used to be part of the family that once breathed life into the walls and furniture. Item upon item taken from the house and delivered to the auctioneer. Items left over from lives with the same set of hopes and dreams that probably abounded among the people under the auction tent bidding on the personal treasures and mundane, everyday paraphernalia that eased or confused or complicated the lives of WVS and his family. Picture frames, an oak sideboard, a grease-stained kitchen table, with matching ladder-back, rush bottomed chairs, a set of silver spoons with WVS engraved along the length of the handle. I could hear people wondering – what nationality was this family? German? Irish? Did the father rule with an iron fist? Did he terrorize his wife and children into conciliatory behavior? Or was there laughter and lamplight and love around that oak kitchen table as the children knocked over glasses of milk and dropped buttered bread upside down, letting grease soak into the wood grain?
Out came a set of hand-painted, rose patterned dishes, probably wedding dishes, probably the good china. I wondered what special meals were prepared to honor these, their company dishes. Did their family argue over who would carve the turkey? Did they have rare roast beef with Yorkshire pudding at Christmas? Did they serve family style? Or did Father dole out the food and pass the plates politely to his right? Did they serve lighter than air sponge cake and home-churned peach ice cream on chipped dessert dishes? Was there a baby crying somewhere in the house during dinner? Did Grandma insist, “Let me go, Verna, you just sit there and finish your dinner. Put some meat on those bones.” Did Grandma bring the baby back into the dining room and sit between Aunt Jewel and Cousin Agnes as they oohed and aahed over the sweet, precious thing - the spitting image of Grandpa, and say in rotation - “Why, just look at those eyes.” and “It’s the darndest thing!” and “My, my!” and “Mark my words !” ? Is that baby now a great-grandmother rocking aimlessly in some nursing home common room gazing at, but not hearing, “Wheel of Fortune” re-runs, waiting for a night-shift aide to come and take off her sticky supper bib?
I never used that set of dishes. Perhaps I just couldn’t layer new stories of my life over those of this family. It would be like casting their life into oblivion. As long as these dishes remain packed in the very newspapers that were folded so carefully and gently around the fragile cups and dinner plates, then maybe their stories will stay alive somewhere in the minds of the long-ago children turned grandparent and great-grandparent.
And perhaps if I don’t give anything of mine away and I let my basement possessions wait for some garage sale or estate auction, a young mother will wonder about me, making my life significant and real in her imagination while her little girl plays with dolls in the grass.