How I Live, Why I Live

Creative essay by Susan Walsh

First of all, I don’t live in our basement. Nobody does, not even the cats. Yet it is overflowing with the stuff of our lives. A partially finished area that could be remodeled and made functional is instead a crazy-quilt still life, left to evolve and accumulate at will. Like the detritus of a lost civilization or the bottom of an old purse, our basement reveals our history. And, like most archaeological digs, the most recent artifacts float to the top.

I wonder what cultural anthropologists would make of our debris, really. Like the giant taffeta and foam-rubber ice-cream cone costume, complete with sprinkles, whipped cream and a cherry headpiece. My daughter Sally wore it in an artistic roller-skating competition when she was 11. She fell, landing on her back, a giant pink and white turtle helplessly beached, all the while her coach on the sidelines was yelling, “Get up! Get up!” She came in second to last but her costume stole the show. Now, the celebrated ice-cream cone is stored in a plastic tub waiting to be worn again.

Our basement is a testimony to waiting. Boxes of old photographs sit on a cherry-wood coffee table, as they have since Y2K. They wait patiently to be sorted into lives and years. At least they’re in the basement, I tell my husband. Should a tornado strike we will still have our precious memories. My husband’s former life sits neatly stacked in boxes along the wall where he dropped them when he moved in 20+ years ago. I wonder: Does he not plan to stay? Boxes of my old scripts from various jobs ago also sit where they were dropped. And they too wait—to be recycled into trash or new ideas—or both (since nothing is older than an old commercial). Orphaned furniture waits for new life. The skeleton of my husband’s Le Courbusier Pony Chaise waits especially. He was heartbroken when my cat ate its cowhide cover. Now it stands there, a naked recrimination: You are disorganized, you are lazy; this could all be so much more.

And yet, it already is so much more. A disassembled bunk bed isn’t just furniture that should be on Craig’s List. It’s a flashback. To six-year-old Sally who thought sleeping on the top bunk was the ultimate adventure. And to her friend Rebecca who thought jumping from the top bunk was the ultimate entertainment. That is, until a hard landing sent a ceiling fan crashing below. The Victorian end table is more than a refinishing project; it’s a repository for more important projects. Sally’s second grade Valentine’s Day Mailbox sits there, still covered in pink hearts and waxed paper, still filled with cards. And when I peruse the shelves at the back of the room, I don’t see a graveyard of shadow boxes and bric-a-brac, I see our family at the craft store buying popsicle sticks, bits of moss, a tiny copper kettle, yellow bucket, and building a raft on the dining room table.

Then there are the piles of books, stacked everywhere. All kinds of books—as if a library exploded, or a brain. Yet, instead of the world’s biggest filing project, I see worlds—limitless literary vacations from life—ready to be taken. Excursions I can embark upon at will. Sometimes I combine them with workouts on the home gym (the basement’s only truly functional piece of equipment). One day, between sets of lat pulls, I might share a delightful summer walk with an anonymous 13th century poet. Another day, while doing leg curls, I might learn why humans evolved to be different sizes, shapes and colors. Or gear up for chest presses with The Last of the Mohicans. Mostly I just dabble, other times I become hooked and don’t come up for air until I finish whatever it is I’m reading. Grapes of Wrath went that way.

In select areas of the basement, the chaos is better organized. For instance a small room beside the stairs houses floor-to-ceiling shelves of Halloween decorations. A Hallmark Haunted House, a fiber-optics tree, smoke machine, orange and black twinkle lights, all manner of skulls, skeletons and spider webs, plus witches, black cats, books, even a stuffed vulture—all are carefully packed away. Remnants of Halloween parties past linger throughout the basement. Twisted countenances, handmade portraits of ghoulish faces, taped all around. When the economy had tanked, and we toyed with selling our house, our ghouls saved us from disaster. Prospective buyers found them “disturbing.” We still laugh about it, and say how glad we are the house didn’t sell and, like the portraits that still cling to the walls, we hung on.

Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Christmas—our basement contains them all. Christmas of course has a room of its own. Well, sort of a room. Under our porch, attached to the north wall of the basement is a bona-fide storm cellar. The man who built our house, in 1964, apparently was a cold-war bomb-bunker type or else he grew up in Oklahoma. Well underground, the bunker is sealed by a foot of solid concrete, the walls are solid concrete too. It is, for all intents and purposes, impenetrable to even an F-5 tornado. While we occasionally have taken shelter there ourselves, most of the time, we simply feel good knowing we have the safest Christmas trimmings in all of Oakland County.

And so, our basement is an exercise in entropy. It doesn’t have a plan. But it does have a reason. It is the foundation of our home, where our family lives, where my life is. It’s a symbol of how I live, why I live, and what I live for. Like the human soul, our basement holds what’s good inside and keeps it as long as we need it.