The Basement

The latch was attached too high up on the door for me to reach by myself. I think he arranged it that way on purpose. There were few things my grandfather denied me, but a trip down the basement by myself was certainly one of them. Though, that latch made a distinctive rattling noise when he opened it – one I could easily recognize from anywhere in the house, and I would always come running when I heard it. There was nothing quite as exciting as going down the basement.

I was simply fascinated by the place. It was dimly lit and smelled of damp brick and cement. There was a thin old carpet that ran down the stairs. Those steps creaked when he walked down, but not when I walked down; I was just little and didn’t weigh enough to make the stairs creak. There was a banister that would wobble when you held onto it but was too high for me to reach anyway. I always held onto the wall on the other side as I slowly made my down.

That is, until my grandfather saw me following him down.

“Hey, now!” he’d say when he’d turn around and see me, not raising his voice too loudly for fear of making me cry. I could cry to get almost anything I wanted, within reason, but the basement sat in the grey area so luck played a part.

“Pop! I wanna come too!” I’d squeal.

“Alright! Alright. Stay there.” he’d say, resigned, and then either take my hand or carry me down.

Sometimes he only intended to make brief trip down just to get something for my grandmother and come back up, and in those cases I wasn’t allowed to come. My grandfather had an obsession in which the rest of the family found no small amount of humor. Pop did the shopping in the household and when certain items would go on sale at the local market, he would buy them by the caseload for fear that they would never go on sale at that price again. It was his way of sticking it to the greedy grocers who were always raising prices, much to his chagrin. Pop kept track of such things and inflation irritated him to no end. If a can corn cost ten cents more than it did five years ago, then damn it, he was going to stick it to Pathmark next time it went on sale. Part of the basement was filled to the gills with non perishable grocery items. When the apocalypse came, Pop would have enough dish detergent, toilet paper and ivory soap to make it through.

Of course, when friends and family came over, he was always very generous with his booty, so it’s unclear whether he ever actually saved any money.

“Look what I got on sale.” he’d declare as he filled my uncle’s arms with cans of Comet or tomato sauce.

My mother used to ask him, “What are you going to do with fifty cans of cranberry sauce? How often do you use this stuff?”

“Ahhh! Ya never know.” He’d say.

Yeah. Ya never know.

I’m fairly certain that, at the time of his passing, he still had stuff squirreled away down there that he’d been collecting over half a century of Columbus Day sales. So in the end, I guess the grocery store won.

In any case, whenever I heard the basement door’s lock rattle I’d come running to see if I could be part of the adventure down the basement. I simply loved the place. It had so many interesting nooks and crannies and… things!

The big brick pillar in the middle of the basement had a little iron door built into the side of it that was probably rusted shut from decades of humidity. To me it looked like a bank vault door or the door to some old safe, and I was certain that something exciting must lay just within – a treasure map, perhaps. I was never able to convince my grandfather of this and never did persuade him to help me open it.

There was a bump in the floor that looked to me like a secret door to the underworld. I was endlessly fascinated with archaeology at the time, and was convinced that it was the entrance to the crypt beneath. Pop told me it was just the spot where workers had dumped the leftover cement when they laid the foundation, but I knew he was keeping a secret from me. I would scrape all around it with a stick but could never quite get my little fingers into a gap to pry it open. And Pop would always see me and put an end to my work.

My grandfather certainly wasn’t thrilled that I had such a fascination for the basement. To him, it was a place filled with dangers made even worse by my curious nature. To me, it was a place of mystery that I never grew tired of exploring.

I was always so disappointed when Pop would go down there to work on some project or other and wouldn’t allow me to come. Back then I was certain that he was working on something mysterious and exciting that had to be kept secret. Now I know that he just needed to focus on what he was doing and couldn’t be watching me. And when it came to the basement, I needed keeping an eye on.

Once, for my birthday or Christmas, some aunt or uncle – I don’t even remember now – bought me a kid’s tool kit. These weren’t the plastic Fisher Price jobs either. No, these were real tools, if a little old fashioned. I remember the set clearly. It was a plain pine box with a handle on it and clasps on the side like a big wooden brief case. When you opened it, it had all of these carpentry tools carefully arranged and held in place by little wooden latches. You’d turn one latch to remove the saw and another to remove the chisels or plane. It even had a drill – the old kind you held with one hand and cranked around in circles with the other – even an adult would require about 5 minutes to drill through a board with it.

In truth, the set was geared toward someone a little older than I was, but I wanted to do a project using them and Pop told me he’d help me. All we needed was a project. Pop suggested a bird house, but I had another idea. I had seen a window box on Sesame Street. Ernie had one outside his window where he’d watch the Tweedle Bugs play. I wanted to make a window box for grandma. He agreed.

We opened up my tool box brief case on a table. Pop set up a pair of saw horses, fetched some boards from behind the clothes dryer and we got to work. I think it quickly became clear to him that the project was going to be a nightmare and take forever if he had to help me do it with my own tools because almost immediately after we started he began retrieving the man tools from the wall above his workbench. I moaned a bit that the whole point of the project was to allow me to use my new tools, so a compromise was struck. I would begin the work with my tools and he would finish with his. If a board needed cut, I would start with my little hand saw, he’d let me cut on it for a while, and then he’d take over with his. If a hole needed drilled, he’d let me start with my hand drill until I got tired, and then he’d finish with the electric one. It was a brilliant bit of diplomacy on my grandfather’s part that kept the peace and allowed us to finish the project before dinner (or else we wouldn’t have even finished before I left for college).
Then we painted it. Red I think. Pop even had paint we could use. No wonder Pop would disappear down there for hours at a time. He had freakin’ everything down there.

When we presented it to Grandma she was surprised, and quite moved if I remember. After all, it was my idea and I’d done a good bit of the work with my own two hands. I had dedicated an entire Saturday to making something for her when I could have been out playing or doing something else. Eventually I learned just how much the gift meant to her because she kept it, literally, forever – in fact, gazed upon it daily for the rest of her life.

Pop bought some brackets to attach the window box outside the kitchen window right beside where she sat at the kitchen table. Grandma filled it with red Geraniums – a kind of flower that never dies. In the winters, Grandma would bring the box inside and place it on top of the washing machine in the corner of the kitchen where it would stay warm and get plenty of sun. Then, in the springtime she would put it back outside the window.

When I came over, which was quite frequent, I would check on their progress. The window sill was about chin high on me, so I’d stand there with my chin resting on the sill looking out at the flowers through the screen and feeling the breeze on my face. Sometimes I’d think about the Tweedle Bugs in Ernie’s window box, but I knew Tweedle Bugs weren’t real. Still, one day I discovered a dead lady bug on the window sill. It was upside down and its legs were all folded up. I liked lady bugs and felt bad for it. I wanted to do something for it – bury it or something. So, I gathered it up in a bottle cap or a little box or something and brought it to my laboratory.

That’s right, laboratory. One of the greatest joys in my early life was my career as a chemist. (Actually, truth be told, I was employed as a chemist, mad scientist, archeologist, soldier, cowboy and Jedi Knight but that’s beside the point.) Nevertheless, the cement stairs leading from the back yard down to the basement were referred to as my laboratory. It was also, come to find out, one of my grandmother’s favorite ways of keeping me out of her hair. She would provide me with all manner of goods from her kitchen that would serve as my chemicals. Flour, baking soda, vinegar, breadcrumbs, parsley and other spices – you name it – little containers lined the little shelves on both sides of the 4 or five stairs that lie beneath a pair of wooden doors set against the back of the house at a low angle like a storm shelter or a bunker. I’d keep one of those doors closed for privacy and shade. It was cool down there. It was a neat place. It was fun. I could stay down there all day and Pop was OK with it as long as I didn’t go down into the basement itself. I was happy.

So I took the dead lady bug down to my laboratory and went to work. I knew what I was going to do. I’d recently learned in school all about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. I’d been fascinated about all the work that’d gone into creating those chambers but mostly I was amazed at how well everything inside had been preserved, untouched by anything for all that time. Everything was found exactly as it had been left by whoever covered it up so long ago. That’s what I was going to do for the lady bug. I wasn’t going to just dig a hole and dump it in or even put it the thing in a box and bury that. I was going to build it a tomb.

First, I needed some materials. I looked around on the slate patio until I found a little piece of loose slate, brought it back to the lab and placed the lady bug upon it to lie in state and wait for her masterpiece to be completed.

Then, it was a visit to my chemical supplier. Flour? Oregano? Who knows what Grandma gave me, but minutes later I was combining it into a paste along with a mixture of whatever else I already had down there. And dirt. There was always plenty of dirt in my formulas.

I spent quite a lot of time down there combining a pinch of this and a dash of that into what ended up being as something like cement. But that’s what I wanted, really. Cement.

I took the lady bug on her little slab of slate along with my bowl of cement and found a corner of the patio unlikely to be disturbed. There, I used a popsicle stick like a trowel as I began fashioning four walls out of my spice, flour, water, dirt and who-knows-what-else concoction. When that was done, I delicately placed the lady bug inside. I said a few prayers over her and then placed the slate lid on top. I used the remainder of my formula to completely seal the lid so that no air or water would get inside. When I was done it was a rather impressive piece of craftsmanship. It was a tiny tomb, about the size of a matchbox, with a slate lid, completely sealed up and seamless.

So I went away and forgot about the thing for, oh – I don’t know – a week, a month, a few days? Time is strange to a kid. It could have been two days or it could have been a year. (It was probably more like a week though.)

In any case, one day I rediscovered this thing in a corner of the patio. It looked different in only that it was thoroughly dried and had turned white instead of the wet, muddy color it was when I had left it. The black slate was still tightly sealed on top. The little tomb had no cracks and was really still in quite good shape. I had indeed done a good job.

And I remembered what was inside.
Now, even though my original intention was to create that tomb so the lady bug would be safe and untouched in there forever and ever, that marvelous story of how they discovered King Tut’s tomb was still sort of nagging at me in the back of my mind.

Now, I would be the archeologist. I left, and returned with a stick and a little paintbrush. I worked like I saw them do in film strips in school when digging up dinosaur bones, scraping with the stick and brushing the loose dirt away with the brush. I worked until I revealed a little seam all the way around the piece of slate and then, very carefully – allowing a little suspense and drama to build for myself – I pried a corner of the slate up and removed the lid.

There was the lady bug.

She walked one lap around the little tomb and then her little beetle wings spread and she took flight. She flew right up in front of my face, paused as if to say, “Look! I’m alive”, and then kept right on going. I gasped and got to my feet, eyes wide and mouth agape as the lady bug flew up and up and up. I chased it as it flew through the back yard, into a neighbor’s yard and disappeared from my view.

“It rose from the dead!” I screamed.

I couldn’t believe it. I had to tell someone.

“Grandma! Grandma! Grandma! It rose from the dead! It rose from the dead”, I shrieked as I ascended the back stairs, crashed through the back door and interrupted Grandma’s cooking.

Now, one of the unfortunate things about being a little kid is that adults always think you’re making shit up and, believe me, this incident was certainly no exception. I was unable to convince my grandmother of what had just transpired. No way. No how.

For the next several weeks I worked myself to the brink of madness in my laboratory. I just had to reproduce what had happened. I had to. I was motivated, not by the promise of riches, or the altruism of being able to bring things back to life but, instead, just to get someone to believe me.

Of course, I was going to need bodies for my experiment. No, I didn’t go around killing lady bugs; I liked lady bugs. But there were plenty of flies around. I borrowed the fly swatter from the kitchen and, perhaps thirty minutes later, I was back in the resurrection business. I worked feverishly. I mixed up batch after batch of formula, changing it a little each time. I built tomb after tomb. I wasn’t as careful and they weren’t as well crafted as the first one. No, these were haphazardly thrown together. I was in a hurry. And the prayers weren’t as lengthy or sincere, I can tell you that. A dozen tiny tombs or more lined the side of the patio. I didn’t wait long to pry the tops back off either – a day, maybe. Some of them weren’t even totally dry when they were opened.

All were opened with the anticipation and hope of life, but vindication was not to be had. Dead flies were all that was exhumed from each and every one of them. Eventually Pop noticed the strange piles muddying up his patio and he made me stop. In a way I was OK with it. I was ready to give up.

But I’ll never forget that day. One day in the mid 70s, I, as an amateur scientist, discovered the secret to life in the mysterious properties of dirt and things from my grandmother’s kitchen. I found a dead lady bug among her geraniums and brought it back to life. I tried and tried, but I was never able to recreate that life-giving formula.

Of course, now that I’m an adult I realize that the lady bug was never really dead to begin with. It was only playing dead as some insects are want to do when they’re frightened.

But then again, I am an adult. And adults never believe little kids anyway.

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