The recent flood in my St. Louis house has put me in mind of other houses I have lived in along the way. Houses are so much more than shelters. They are more than prized possessions. They are containers of memories. The houses we have lived in and left shape the dreams we have long after we have moved away from them.
When I was little, I lived in a magical house in Wake Forest, North Carolina. It was old and wooden with tall white pillars on the outside holding up a wrap-around porch. The rooms inside were cavernous, and the light pouring in through the windows made square patches on the floors that danced and shimmered throughout the day. The house was full of secret hiding places—a broom closet under the stairs, an attic that smelled of summers past, a basement black with coal, and a child’s imagination.
On cold winter nights the furnace in the basement roared and heat seeped up through the vents on the floor. Sometimes I could hear my father down below shoveling coal into the fire box, groaning from the effort. We children were not supposed to go into the basement, but sometimes I’d slip down to watch him labor. He stripped down to his thin sleeveless undershirt and shoveled the coal into the firebox, the muscles on his long arms bulged and glistened with sweat.
When he opened the door to the firebox, the heat roared out, striking my cheeks full force, turning them a ruddy red. I stared long into the flames licking up around the coal in blue and white tongues, wondering if I’d see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego step out unscathed, just like in the Sunday-School Bible story.
“Don’t get so close!” My father warned.
He put on a thick padded glove and closed the door to the box with a long metal tool.
In the morning he would drag the burnt-up clinkers out to the side yard where they would glitter menacingly.
“Don’t climb on those,” he warned, knowing my proclivity to do so. “They will cut you to shreds.”
He was right.
Once I fell on a stray clinker when I was playing nearby, and it cut my hand as certainly as a shard of glass.
Eventually, he would build a fence around the spent coal. And when he managed to save enough money, he installed an automatic coal feeder in the basement, limiting his trips into the dark depths.
But the basement remained a “no-go” place for children. To enter you had to go out the backdoor of the house, down a flight of outdoor stairs, through a heavy door, and down a steep open wood staircase with an iron railing. It was dark and dank and smelled of clay and sweat. It was beyond the watchful eye of my mother.
Basements and cellars often conjure primeval horrors. Dark, unimaginable things happen in the space beneath the house where earthen floors give way to hidden passageways and tunnels. Monsters lurk in the loamy blackness of the underground.
Stories about cellars are usually tinged with horror. Think Edgar Allan Poe and “The Cask of Amontillado.” As a child, I craved mystery and the tingle of fear that crept along the base of the neck. I wanted to sneak into the basement when my parents weren’t looking. I wanted to find that passageway into the inner core of the next world.
They say if you dream of descending into a cellar, of digging into the dark subterranean clay, you are “in harmony with the irrationality of the depths” (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1957). Basement dreams may be frightening, but they offer endless possibilities and a working through of deep psychological states.
Despite the allure of the basement, I rarely have basement dreams. I do, however, have a very real basement memory.
One cold December evening my brother and I were playing near the heat vent in the dining room and heard my father in the basement working on something. Clang, clang, the sound that rose up through the vent was brighter than the scraping sound he made when he worked on the furnace.
“Fiddlesticks!” he shouted. “Got to keep from cussing.”
His voice rumbled up through the vents in a strangely disembodied way.
My little brother and I giggled uncontrollably, pressing our hands to our mouths with glee. It was fun to eavesdrop on our father. We were spies!
What was he doing?
We asked him when he eventually arose from the pit and washed his hands in the kitchen sink.
“Never you mind!” he barked.
On Christmas morning we discovered his secret.
He had made us a sled.
He fashioned the runners out of the legs of an old ironing board. It was the sound of him pounding the round legs into flat blades that had risen through the vents. It was the moment he caught his thumb under the hammer that occasioned his fit of near cussing.
It rarely snowed in our little Southern town. But at the first sign of a flake we dragged the sled out to the nearest hillside and gave it a push. The wood, the metal, were all too heavy to slide, despite our father’s best efforts. One of us had to drag it down the slope to make it glide.
But the sled rang with love.
We adored our father all the more.
Tunnel photo by Luis Vidal on Unsplash
What an evocative story! I love the quote about dreams of basements and comfort with irrationality. Your story reminds me too of all the crime & horror stories associated with basements. I’m glad that your story has such a happy ending.
It was such an old house. I recall my parents telling me it had been used (and abused) as a fraternity house during the years the town hosted Wake Forest University. I never noticed how worn out it was. To me, it was a magic castle.
I don’t remember the sled. Whst a sweet memory.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis I was terrified that a nuclear bomb would hit. We didn’t have a bomb shelter, but I figured we could survive in the basement. I took a jug of water and a loaf of Wonder bread down there for our provisions. Daddy found the moldy bread weeks later.
Beth, Haha! That loaf of Wonder Bread must have come from one of Mother’s monthly journeys to the Wonder Bread outlet in Raleigh, NC. Remember the freezer full of Hostess Twinkees and Cupcakes?
You write so beautifully! You have that Southern writer’s ability to call up sensory memories that bring us right into the time and place and people you’re writing about.
Van, what a kind thing to say! Thank you!
Best Dad Award. Also, best cuss (fiddlesticks). For my dad, it was always “jeemany christmas” when we were kids but then when we and he got older he reverted to Italian dialect for “kiss my A**” —all one word and much more evocative than the English!
That non-cussing cussing was so awesome. Later I heard him say something like “with friends like that who needs enemas” which absolutely shocked me. He was always very careful not to cuss in front of the children! But occasionally he used “colorful” language!