I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. My siblings are significantly older than I (8yrs, 9yrs and 16yrs respectively) and I was often left to entertain myself within an eerily empty and quiet house. It was this freedom (and boredom), that lead me to explore the nooks, crannies and forbidden places and spaces in the house I lived until I was 13.
Every once in a while I would nose around my parent’s night table drawers, my mother’s a jumble of stuff that for some reason included one of those rubber things that blows wax out of your ears. I would sit on the bed and while using her phone just squeeze the big bulb at the end like an old-fangled stress ball pointing the stream of air on my cheek. There was also a circle of pills of different colors and corresponding numbers that when you twisted the plastic package you could pop the pills out of flimsy foil. I did that when I would use the phone too, having no idea what in the world they were (I now know they were her birth control pills. Oops.)
My father’s top dresser drawer was very neat, some old coins, a tie-clip or two and some money-clipped cash. He didn’t like me being in there so I generally kept out when he was home. Like my daughter does now, I would often watch tv from their bed with my mother, all snuggled up with her while she played with my hair. She liked having me there.
I explored in closets (my mother’s wigs in Lucite boxes, her pocketbooks with chicklets and tic-tacs collected on the bottom), random drawers and cabinets in the dining and living rooms (where I would often found boxes of chocolate intentionally hidden from me because of my adolescent weight problem), and leafed through books that were out in the open like “The Joy of Sex,” “Helter Skelter” and “The Exorcist” (There was a book called “Barefoot Boy With Cheek” that I forever tried to figure out what the hell that meant. I just Googled it— “Barefoot Boy With Cheek” provides a laugh-out-loud humorous look at college life.” I’m sorry I never bothered to read it.)
It was our finished basement that held the most intrigue. The only time anyone REALLY used it was when my father would pen his monthly column for some estate planning journal where under no circumstances could he be disturbed. His desk had little cubby holes and on it a black, metal rotary phone that made such a distinct sound when it was dialed that I have never forgotten it. We were only allowed to make long distance calls from that phone, the line being only one number different from our regular more public number.
There was an off white vinyl white couch that I don’t think anyone ever used and a photographic black and white portrait of each of my parents. What I wouldn’t give to know what happened to those.
Our laundry room served double-duty as my brother’s darkroom, the slats on the door covered with a blackout covering. It was pretty cool in there and I knew better than to ever open the door when my brother was printing his photos. Negatives hung on lines and there was always the smell of photo chemicals seeping out through whatever space hadn’t been fully covered. I had little patience in there, waiting for the timer to say that you could move the picture from one tray to another with tongs.
There was a black metal rickety bookcase that had the full set of Bobsey Twins and Nancy Drews and years of National Geographic. I was most fascinated by an old junior high school health textbook that had colorful illustrations of kids touching toilet tanks and not washing their hands, and my favorite, a little boy sneezing on a girl, with a big X through the spray coming out of his mouth and nose. For whatever reason, I looked at this every time I went down there.
The epicenter of discovery, the Pandora’s Box, the keeper of history and simpler lives lived was the crawlspace, concealed behind hanging clothes in a long, wide closet. I’d crawl under some sort of low-hanging metal awning to the first spot where I could almost stand fully upright. Once there among the piles of boxes and low, open shelves, I would pick the most compelling spot, pick something that would hold my weight, sit down, and begin to explore. I remember my oldest brother’s Lionel trains that weighed a TON and felt resentful that this was never set-up while I was growing up. There was an old microscope with a box of glass slides and other accessories that someone must have used at some point. There were hat boxes and old files. There was a department store shopping bag with love letters from my father to my mother and those are what I remember most.
There were early Valentine’s Day cards from him to her, praising her beauty and the way she made him feel. They were written in his swoopy handwriting that takes a long time to get used to, the sentiments all so genuine. It made me happy that my mother, despite her very tragic life, was loved in this way.
The crawlspace was a peaceful, dusty world unto itself. It was jarring crawling back out of there and climbing the basement stairs back to reality. Life was so innocent down there, a place in time that didn’t include me but gave me a glimpse into a world that did in fact exist in my family, my history, my life