Meditation on My Basement's Life

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, covered the dirt with concrete, 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 it 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. When we bought it early in our marriage, the table had been a luxury, beautiful and glowing, but after many children and countless meals, there were scratches and water marks, scorches, and other abuses.

So, one day we replaced it with a newer 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.

Coming to Terms with the Fade

It’s not as if I don’t look in the mirror every day. It’s not like I haven’t tracked the lines in my face. There is no turning back the clock. You had your turn. There are worse things than being old. This is the lecture I give myself every day, not in a sad way, but in a way.

My husband has been going through 37 years of accumulated files, newspaper clippings, letters, and photos as part of his preparation for writing a book about the organization he founded and from which he just retired. This afternoon, he walked the ten feet from his office to mine and handed me a stack of pictures. This picture of me from thirty years ago was on top.

First of all, I still have the sweater.

Secondly, I look so bright. It was the brightness that got to me. My hair really used to be that color? I looked that vibrant? And I thought of looking now at pictures of my 47-year old daughter. She glows in those pictures. She has a big career and a big family and her days are strenuous and glorious at the same time. And that was me then. I glowed. That was my turn, I guess. My turn to glow.

And then there was the long fade. Or, rather, there is the long fade. Because I don’t think the fading process has quite ended. A pessimist would predict the fading to end with erasure but I prefer to stop short of that. Still, one can become only so gray before one is indistinguishable in the landscape.

When I turned 50, my husband bought me a t-shirt that read “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple” and I shoved the shirt behind a heavy, very scratchy wool sweater in the far reaches of my closet. Eventually, it found its way to Goodwill. Now I wish I had that shirt. I need to wear purple so people will see I’m still here, despite the long fade.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we’ve no money for butter
.
– Jenny Johnson

 

 

 

 

 

Advent 5: Dress Up

Nancy Pelosi is the glory of old.

She is the white suit, high heels, red lipstick glory of old. She is the I know what I believe and what I have to do glory of old. She is the I’ve got the votes or I wouldn’t be doing this glory of old. She is the “Don’t mess with me” glory of old.

I’m no Nancy Pelosi. I don’t have a white suit or red lipstick but I do sometimes count votes and I’m working on saying “Don’t mess with me” but in a more subtle way since I think people might erupt in laughter if I said it like she did. “Don’t mess with me.” Oh my. How fine. How very, very luscious.

Book Thief

Tonight my dog, Swirl, went into my office, picked up a 406 page library book entitled, “An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back,” and carried it back to his bed. When I discovered this, the book was open and Swirl had a chapter in his mouth. I grabbed it just in time.

He didn’t take “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which was laying well within his reach on my bedside table and I was glad for that but puzzled. Going after the library book required so much more effort.

I took “One Hundred Years of Solitude” from my brother’s house in Texas. It was on a shelf with several mysteries and photographs of him and his wife when they were young. There was a bookmark in the book about fifty pages in and I figured that either he or his wife had reached the same point everybody does with this book. They can’t keep it straight, they can’t follow, they can’t believe, they can’t cope and it’s because they have no patience.

I know this because I tried reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude” about a hundred years ago because everyone smart was reading it and I wanted to be in that club. But I quickly became weak and discouraged and the book got lost somewhere.

Then I saw the book on my brother’s shelf and thought, ah, my second chance! I knew he wouldn’t mind. He is beyond the point of reading books now so I tucked it in my backpack and started reading it on the plane home. The window seat at dusk, then dark, the little light above haloing me, blurring the other passengers, alone and suspended in air is the way to read this book.

I am on page 99 but in no hurry to finish. There aren’t other books in the queue. This is my only book right now. It kind of requires that kind of exclusive commitment. Getting to page 458 could take me months, years even. But I don’t care. I have patience now. And the illusion of having all the time in the world, a notion as fantastical as Marquez’ story.

Rendered Mute Friday Round-Up

I’ve spent a week at the You Need to Stop Kidding Yourself Rodeo and it hasn’t been all that much fun. I went from wearing my age like Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors to shaking the layers of dust off the gray tattered cape that is my current life. I believe they call this a mood swing. Age is both a blessing and a pisser.

A big full service, 12-pump, fancy dancy gas station that had sushi, for Christ’s sake, had no fucking donuts today. I had been thinking about a cup of coffee and a donut for miles on the freeway. I could feel that donut in my hand, the anticipation was that physical, tactile. We stopped, went in. I got my coffee, extra hot, extra cream, and then searched for donuts but no, there were no donuts because, as the lady said, “the hunters bought them all.” And she pointed to the little fruit pies. As if.

Before he became very ill and unable to drive, my older brother, bought himself a maroon Cadillac. I went out to his garage to see it. There it was in its glowing deep red glory and I wondered if he’d had a chance to hand wax it like we’d waxed his MG together when I was a kid. I went back in the house to show him pictures of my old Thunderbird which I hand wax. And we bonded over that – cars – as only people who spent a lot of time around Detroit do. Cars were what we wore.

I am rendered mute by the overwhelmingness of the passage of time. There were times visiting my older brother last week, sick as he was, that I nearly choked on the bricks of time in my throat, the disbelief being so enormous, my recollection of him as a young man, shirtless, washing his car in our driveway, the sun blazing, all so vivid and real. In the bathroom, I’d study my face in the mirror, try to smooth the lines away with my hands, and realize this is where we are right now. This is where we are.

There is joy. It’s around here some place. It’ll turn up. It’s like when you know you lost your necklace somewhere in the house. You’re going to find it at some point, so no need to panic. I miss my necklace, that’s for sure, but it’s here somewhere, under a cushion or a stack of papers. It will just appear one day, out of the blue, and I’ll forget I ever lost it. That’s how it works with joy. I know this. It’s not my first rodeo.

Golden

I pushed the button for the 14th floor, the tower suite. I got off the elevator and looked down at my feet. I was barefoot. This seemed crazy to me although I often go barefoot, not to meetings, though, never before had I been barefoot at a meeting. 

I considered leaving but decided that no one would notice my bare feet. Later, during my meeting with the very powerful 14th floor dwellers, I realized I was wearing my pajamas. They were my up-north flannel pajamas, pajamas that had already served time in the big city and had been relegated to cabin wear. They were reversible, tan on one side with brown stripes on the other, and the stripes had somehow bled through to create a curious abstract design on the tan side. They were also snug, which I thought gave me a tailored look, the bottoms fell right at the ankle.

No one seemed to notice that I was wearing pajamas so I decided to shrug it off. In a heart-stopping moment, it came to me that I’d neither washed my face nor brushed my teeth, my mother’s admonition to always be neat and clean blanketing me with shame, but I nodded politely when the 14th floor dwellers asked me to sample their new prosciutto. It was then I realized their business must include meat.

I drove my convertible to my next stop. There, the new adoptive parents of six children greeted me at the door and ushered me into their many kids’ bedroom which was filled floor to ceiling with bunk beds. It made my heart sing that all six children were barefoot and pajama-clad and I was flooded by a sense of belonging rare for a social worker. Next the parents showed me to a second bedroom, also crammed with bunk beds. “You have too many beds,” I advised them. “It will lead to excessive sleeping.” But they had already nodded off and weren’t listening.

************

I pulled back the blue curtain above our bed and saw the stars collecting in the southern sky. We had gone to bed early, having drunk too much beer and then rum, following the news from Texas that my brother’s lung disease was rapidly worsening and that he may not have long to live. It was so urgent, my niece messaged, that I should call him, but the device I need to use to make phone calls wasn’t charged so we decided that I should send a Facebook message which my nephew would read to him.

All this transpired while my husband and I sat in a local bar waiting for a pizza. I tried to put into words what my brother had meant to me as a child, our having grown apart in the so many years since, but everything I wrote sounded used and glossy so I erased the words, over and over again. I wanted to thank him for taking care of me as a little girl, the baby of the family, while my father worked all day at Sears and then played in dance bands at night for extra money and my mother spent her days ironing and privately nursing her bottomless depression. My father’s absence and my mother’s preoccupation bonded me to my brother who was nine years older and always vigilant about them and me, watchful for when he needed to step in, when he should swoop me off the backyard swing and put me on the bar of his bike, saying “Hold on to the handlebars, Red!” Off we’d go with his friends, sailing down the hills of our town to the Fish Hatchery. He never explained why his five-year old sister was coming along and his friends never asked. I was safe and happy with my brother.

I tried to say that to my brother. I tried to thank him for those rides and all the times he made me feel special and loved but I just said, “Thank you for saving me. I love you.”

In the dark, I reached for the phone off the high night stand. There was no message from my niece. My brother must still be alive, I thought. Unless my niece had fallen asleep and decided to wait until morning to tell me. There was no way of knowing. He was across the country, further away if you count the years we hadn’t seen each other. I blamed the situation for my vivid dream, my wandering around office buildings and people’s homes barefoot and in pajamas. I took it to mean I was nearly naked and unprepared for everything that was happening and I rolled over then to stare at my husband’s back.

************

Tonight, there were messages back in forth between me and my niece. I sent an essay I’d written about my brother years ago describing how, when I was about 6 or 7, he convinced me there were elves who had parties every night under the bush in our front yard. He’d take me by the hand, tell me to be quiet so as not to scare away the elves, and then point to the tiny footprints where the elves had all been gathered seconds before. “Oh Red! We scared them away!” he’d say and then we’d go looking again the next night and the next. It was years before I realized the footprints were the impressions made by his fingers in the soft earth. He always called me Red or Short Pants. That was how I signed the message I sent him the night before. Short Pants.

I didn’t ask my niece if she had read the elves essay to my brother. It wasn’t my place to decide what he should hear and what he shouldn’t. It was her decision, so maybe she read it to him, maybe she didn’t. It is a little late to try to be close to your brother, I told myself. You’ve had years for that and you let the years pass by. But then it hit me that we were still close, despite the time and the distance, because we’d grown up together, he had raised me in so many ways. He carried me on his shoulders when I was a little girl, not just for fun, but to keep me safe from deep water. That is what we had connecting us – his valor and my trust – and that was golden. Then and now. Golden.

Hygge Friday Round-Up

Hygge (hue-guh) is the art of wintering gracefully. It’s about making the ordinary lovely and warm but in small everyday ways, intentional but undetectable. It’s a Danish thing. I have a Danish friend whose name is Marcia. She takes hygge with her wherever she goes in that she is always warm and unhurried, glad for the company she has, so everyone around her feels like they’re special and glowing. I want my house to be like that this winter. So that is what this girl remembers about being here.

This week I feel like I have a protest sign tattooed on my forehead. Everywhere I go, I’m pissed off about something and I feel myself slipping into one of those old crank types that attends every public meeting taking furious notes with a chewed-up pencil and yelling “Point of order!” all the time. I was a guest speaker in a graduate class on nonprofits this week talking about activism and community organizing and I told the students that you can’t have everyone hating you at the same time. I might have come close this week.

Our next dog’s name is Punchy. I think we are punchy for getting another dog. It’s ridiculous and an overreach but much like our entire lives have been so we are oddly comfortable with the idea. Punchy is a 10-year old Alaskan Husky, a sled dog currently living at Nature’s Kennel, Swirl’s old hometown. Like Swirl, he probably doesn’t have a clue about living inside, going up and down stairs or walking on a leash, but we know he will be sweet and simple and stoic, also like Swirl. Two retired sled dogs – what on earth could possibly be better?

I love winter. I love weather and snow and cold. But I say this before winter starts its terrible habit of beating the shit out of me, before I’m breathless from shoveling, or picking myself up off the ice after falling. Right now, I love winter. I walked through Lake Park near our house this morning, alone, just me and Swirl, and felt as lucky to be alive as I have ever felt. It might be fleeting but it is true, as true as life can be.

I am all about being an honest elder. I am unabashedly old. I don’t deny, pretend, shrug off. I’m this. I wear my age like Joseph’s coat of many colors, it keeps me warm and glorious. And increasingly I realize that I am protected by the fact that I have nothing to lose. Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose. Precious and sweet and powerful it is, this being old.