Seven Rooms to Keep Me
The First Room
In our three bedroom ranch that sat in the middle of our neighborhood, there was a full walk-out basement. In the seventies, it was divided into three distinct spaces; a great room with our furnace, water heater and steel support pole in the center, a laundry room with a double basin utility tub and electric washer and dryer, and the dirt room. The dirt room was named for the mountain of earth that stood behind its heavy steel door. The previous home owners left the basement unfinished, not minding the presence of so much loamy soil, richly full of worms, bugs and spiders, their legs and bodies crawling and squirming just under floor where they walked, ate and watched television. I suppose we all live this way, with the earth under our feet, but to have this brown dirt mountain encased in an unfinished room downstairs would creep me out today.
Perhaps this unfinished aspect helped my parents negotiate a fair price, for if problems could be fixed by steady labor, skill and patience, my father put on his jeans and went to work. Rolling his t-shirt sleeve over a pack of Kools, he picked up a shovel and started hauling. His vision was for this room to store row upon row of home canned vegetables which he would grow by the bushels in his farmer's sized garden. Hunger in childhood was the silent machine operating behind the motion of his muscles, the memory of scarcity and suffering manifested in his sweat. The dirt room would also become a second workshop for maintenance projects and handmade gifts he would craft in the late hours, away from curious eyes. Christmas was his favorite holiday, the element of surprise a sacred law to preserve magic for children.
Yet first room that kept me--- busy and active during the long, cold, gray and wet Michigan winter was the great room of the basement, the place where my imagination was free to follow inner leadings, uninterrupted scenarios taking shifting forms in the theater of my mind. My capacity for dreaming and pretending expanded below the surface and business of family life; down in the basement I discovered me. The basement was a place for solitude and discovery, quiet except for the mechanical operations of water through pipes and footsteps overhead.
This great room had a smooth cement floor and painted walls. One year the walls were covered in texturized "popcorn" paint, which we loved to pick at with our fingers, leaving white dust flecks on the floor. It was once a space for learning to ride a bike received at Christmas, but most often my personal roller rink. I had a tan plastic record player which I placed on the water heater, enjoying my mother's collection of vinyl records. Jan and Dean's Dead Man's Curve was my favorite skating music. I laced up my bright blue roller skates and whipped myself dizzy around the basement floor, feeling a connection to pop stars who drove around hairpin curves at a deadly speed.
In the farthest corner of the basement, a child sized set of appliances stood with a wooden table and two chairs. "House" was my favorite game, and still is today. What was once the serious work of childhood is now a form of serious play. Back then, I was very protective of my imagination and when a neighborhood friend would come to visit, I was often bossy in my "house," failing miserably at my attempts to have them play my way. I never wanted anyone to mistreat my dolls or be careless with my toys. Today I'm learning to let go and live with clutter and processes beyond my control. It's a happy life when you learn to let go. It's taken me a very long time to stop being disappointed that every person plays "house" a different way. Because of those differences, I now celebrate that a family home is a shared space for learning, togetherness and love. Down in the basement, when it was just was me, my Raggedy Annie, and a set of pretty blue flowered dishes, I was content in the blissful solitude where conflict and negotiations were not present.
The great room of the basement was also the room where we outfitted ourselves for a day of play in the snow. At the big glass sliding door, facing the eastern sunrise, we sat looking out over the perfection of a white landscape where no feet had made their impressions, thrilled to the soul by this magic that sparkled in white gems and promised to float softly on our faces, landing like tiny cold feathers which instantly disappeared on our warm skin. Through the glass door of the basement, we saw an expansive land of white covering the gently rolling fields and our stately elm transformed by shimmering, glistening crystals. Once covered fully in snowmobile suits or bibs and coats, mittens, scarves, crocheted hats and boots, plastic baggies over socks and inner layers of long johns, corduroy pants and turtle necks, we were ready for the hill. This was the same hill that the builders dug into to build the basement. At the base of the hill a tall pine tree grew that marked the property line between neighbors. It was our favorite hill despite the obstacle: this tree taught us how to steer. Riding down the hill on our toboggan, three of us together with our dog, is one of those childhood memories that becomes more sacred over time. I once read a writer's admonition to be careful with writing memories, because once written, the writer is left with the written version in place of the image recollection. Although a sacred flash of past feeling, I now dare to write what it felt like to be smooshed all together on that wooden toboggan, me in the back, Roger in the middle, Kenny holding on tight to the rope in the front. We yelled together all the way down and fell over in a pile. When we later learned downhill skiing, the separateness of the sport left me nostalgic for a sled.
When we were called in for mugs of hot Ovaltine on the stove (disgusting stuff, but warm anyway), we would go back in through the basement door, peeling and peeling off the wet layers of gear. We carried our mittens and socks upstairs to dry on the registers, where the forced air would suddenly fill the room with the scent of steaming wet wool and polyester. It was a fresh smell, like laundry in the rain.
Below us in the basement, the dryer clicked with the sound of zippers on sopping wet snowsuits, and we patiently waited to go out again, running through the drifts under the stars.