The cobwebs in the basement are thick and clammy. They hang like wet strings from water pipes and electrical wires running along the papered ceiling where, along the edges, you can see the 100-year-old 2 x 4s that are the bones of our house.
The plaster on the walls, reapplied every ten years or so, is peeling again. It curls in thick strands, suspended until the weight becomes too much and the plaster drops and shatters on the floor. Under the plaster is the brick foundation, each brick mortared to the next so carefully you think you might see fingerprints.
The floor used to be dirt, just dirt. Our three-story house with the brick foundation rested on dirt, brown and packed so hard it could be swept with a broom, but still dirt. We changed that though because it was unnerving, it seemed risky to have a house built on dirt, primitive, although the house with its dirt basement had already lasted a long time before we moved in. The house wasn’t going anywhere.
The basement holds many of our things including a black trunk of baby clothes I haven’t opened since my now 46-year old daughter became a toddler. Don’t ask me why. Part of me thinks her tiny undershirts and corduroy overalls may have mouldered after all these years and if I open the trunk and see just the remnants of her infant wardrobe in moldy shreds, it will break my heart. The trunk sits on an old wooden desk in the room where we keep all the old paint cans and vast stacks of record albums that we brought to our marriage but then never played anymore, the music on them tuned, I guess, to our private lives before we met.
There is a tiny bathroom in the basement. It is very narrow with just a toilet at one end, it has been decades since the toilet flushed and would have been nearly as long since anyone ventured into the bathroom at all if my son hadn’t gone in searching for rats. You see, I had found a dead rat in the yard and called an exterminator. He came the next day, armed with a clipboard and a flashlight, and walked around the house and through the basement pointing out the countless ways that rats could get into our house, the tiny bathroom being one. They will swim up toilets, you know, a disquieting fact if there ever was one.
We threw out newspapers and magazines, old furniture, and anything that would be food or shelter to a rat. That is a long list of things, though, so the mound of debris in front of our house was enormous. It felt like we were unpacking a hundred years of secrets and mistakes for everyone to see. Vast quantities of dirty laundry, you might say. But we rid ourselves of rats, in the narrow bathroom and everywhere else in the basement.
Now we have a new washer and dryer and a new freezer. There are shelves for the big pots and cookers that we rarely use. Tools are stored in a set of red drawers, each with its own lock, and the birdseed is in sealed bins. In the back of the basement, though, is our old dining room table. It lies on its side with five chairs. We bought it new after years of using an old farm table that sank in the middle; the new table was a luxury, beautiful and glowing, but over the years, there were scratches and water marks, scorches, and other abuses. So one day we bought a new table, much like the old, but perfect, and when the men came to set it up, they looked at the old table, about to be taken to the basement, and said, “This should have lasted a lifetime.” And the words stung, even though I was paying them and not looking for their opinion, so I’ve kept the old table and chairs in the basement all these years, the cobwebs draped on them like streamers from somebody’s birthday a long time ago.