Stone steps lead down to our basement. They are worn and slippery, pitched so steeply that if you’re not surefooted, you could tumble down and fall hard. We affectionately call our basement “the dungeon.” The floor is partially sand and partially concrete. The ceilings are low and laden with over 200 years of pipes and wires: some new, some old, many simply remnants and no longer serving a purpose. A wooden door inside the basement leads to what was once a tunnel, presumably left over from Civil War days when slaves were spirited out to the railroad. The basement reeks of not only dampness but of history. At this point, it also holds a chronicle of our family.
My husband and I did not have a basement when we first married. It didn’t matter, however,since there was nothing yet to store away. Everything we owned was new and had an immediate purpose. When the first baby came, we bought a crib and changing table. When the second and third children came along, we bought youth beds and dressers with diminutive drawers protected with plastic child locks. History was only in the making. Nothing was tired, out of date, or past its use.
It wasn’t until we moved to a house in the suburbs that we got our basement. It was then that my mother-in-law mothers cleared out her closets and attic, and returned the many things my husband had left behind. Our basement holds his bulletin board from teenage years and cartons filled with old term papers, even coloring books, and letters exchanged with who are now old friends. Our history together is stored in the basement as well – the crib, the stroller, the cheap lamps we bought when we first married. I saved sentimental things like the kids’ tricycles, our daughter’s white wicker bassinet trimmed in eyelet, and our first stereo with turntable. There are boxes marked with bold magic marker for each child’s specific school year – boxes bursting with finger paintings, report cards, even moth-eaten sweaters and favorite toys. My “saving” is clearly a response to the fact that my mother did not save any of my childhood memories: Barbies, Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins all went to charities. The little saved from my youth takes up little space.
The basement is said to be the soul of a home. It is filled to the brim with a tangible counting of every day of our lives. We have rarely acknowledged the storage. We have glossed over the boxes, waiting for a day when we have the courage and energy to sit down and sift through – let the pieces tell our story.
Mark and I have now been together for over 17 years. In many ways, it feels like a lifetime, and in other ways it seems like a blip on the radar screen. We’ve been busy all those years – paying bills, having babies, working at our jobs….trying to find time.
It has always been a running joke among our friends and family that Mark and I are as different as night and day. How delightful, they say, that opposites attract. How did they manage all these years? They nearly marvel. Clearly, we have mastered the art of looking the other way: Where Mark drives a car with dexterity and patience, I honk my horn relentlessly, arriving at the red light no sooner than anyone else. Mark falls asleep within 60 seconds of his head hitting the pillow. I toss and turn and end up with the television boring me to sleep. At dinner parties, I am guilty of political sparring while Mark listens to my diatribe. He sits on the edge of his seat, hoping I won’t get too fired up and say something that might be embarrassing. He thinks I am too unconventional; I think he’s too conventional. On one hand, he finds me amusing, on the other he prefers if I would simply not speak. He thinks I talk too much; I think he talks too little.
Marriage can end up in basements. We put many things in storage, hermetically sealed and saved for a later date, or perhaps no date scheduled at all.
This past weekend, Mark and I drank wine and talked until the wee hours of the morning, sitting at the kitchen counter in much the way we did when we were not married to each other but when the name for what we shared was “The Relationship.” That was the time in our lives when it seemed so vital to have a complete knowledge of one another. As we both approach our birthdays this month, taking us into that over-40 plateau and that precarious mid-life time in a marriage, we dig into the “basement.” There are lots of cobwebs. Metaphorical boxes covered with layers of dust whose labels are barely decipherable. There are expectations that haven’t yet been met and dreams that haven’t yet been realized.
It’s more complex than friends simply remarking that Mark blasts The Beatles and I blast La Boheme.
We’ve been dusting off the boxes. We can smell the stale dampness in the air. We found the kids’ rusty Radio Flyer leaning against our boxes of love letters. We toyed with the idea of cleaning out the basement. But we couldn’t agree upon or decide what to keep and what to throw away and as we sift through, we’ve decided it’s probably best to save it all.