things sit in limbo, untouched, in a basement. or a root cellar, or a crypt - any pocket of underground where you half-bury a thing but leave the key in the lock should you want to return and bring it back into the light...
welcome :) this essay was created december of 2021 by me, birdie, and was last updated 10/14/21. unfortunately this essay is not formatted for mobile devices. for a mobile version of this work please visit basementsmobile.carrd.co thank you for reading <3
Man, I swear, there’s an immutable law in this universe - if you have a house with a finished basement, your daughter’s gonna grow up to be an alcoholic or something else you'd rather not bring up at family dinners.
That's harsh. But somehow it's rung true in my tiny cultural microcosm.
My parents built their dream home in 2004. The summer our cellar hole was dug, the four of us lived in a tiny camper trailer on the property. My brother and I loved the camper. It had bunk beds and a loft and we loved sleeping up high. We stayed there until winter rolled around and it became clear that the house was not going to be built by then. Something about the contractor going bankrupt - I don’t know, I was four.
That winter, we stayed in the basement of a friend’s home in Madbury. I remember the floor was carpeted, but it was still concrete, and once when we were rough-housing I cracked my head so hard against it I saw stars and got a pretty good goose egg on the back of my skull.
My dad talked a lot about wanting a finished basement in the new house. One with a "home cinema room." It never happened - with the contractor going broke, it was up to my dad to finish building the house himself. It took him years to find the time to even get trim on all the doors. There was a gap between the drywall and the doorframe of my bedroom until I graduated high school, through which my brother could shoot nerf darts. By the time it was sealed, the basement was packed to the gills with stuff and nowhere to put it.
None of this stopped us from rough-housing down there. Just as many knees were bruised on the bare concrete of my parents basement as on the carpeted floor of the home cinema room. We had the type of good, healthy fun my parents wanted us to be having.
Around middle school, though, I started going over to my friend Sam’s house to play Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance for GameCube in her basement. My Dwarven Fighter and her Elven Sorceress must have killed hundreds and hundreds of low-poly rats in the twisting underground below Elfsong Tavern. My parents were against video games and refused to let any technology in the house aside from a 20” TV (not connected to cable) and my dad’s work laptop (not connected to the internet). I think Sam’s parents thought I was disadvantaged because they made every effort to take me along on camping trips and vacations and they let me have Sam’s old iPod touch when she got an upgrade.
For a while, I was obsessed with what was normal. Don’t get it twisted, it’s not that I wanted my life to be normal. I just wanted to know what it looked like, to have some perspective on the matter. Finished basement. iPod touch. Camping trip. I have a friend, a year older than me, who has never been to a funeral in her life. When she told me this, it sent me into a spiral of calculus. Since the age of seven, I estimated I have been to at least one funeral per year. They all start to blur together. In total, estimated, this makes 13 funerals by the age of 20. I wanted desperately to know where this puts me on the lifetime-funerals-attended scatter plot, but that’s not a question you go around asking people. Hey, how many funerals have you been to? Where do you put all your dead loved ones’ shit?
The basement of my high school dormitory was supposedly haunted, which, sure. It housed several locked storage rooms and a kitchen and a soundproof practice room containing an old, out-of-tune piano. These rooms branched off a narrow hallway the length of the building lit by four sallow, fluorescent tube lights.
If it wasn't haunted by the dead, it was haunted by the melodrama of high school girls cooking EasyMac at 3am in the kitchen and spinning stories about the locked doors on the left side of the hallway. They led to a tunnel between our dorm and the dining hall. They led to a network of tunnels that connected the entire southern quad. The entire school.
I know, I know. Everybody else is upstairs, filing into pews or lingering to talk with the friends and relatives you only ever see at events like this. It’s nice and quiet down here, though. Give me a second to tune up.
I think the first time I ever played the fiddle in front of an audience was at my uncle Carl’s funeral. I don’t have too many memories of him when he was alive except that he, like his mother, liked to give my brother and I gifts. Once he took a taxi to our house unannounced and gave us each a little plastic case of semi-precious stones, the kind you get from a jeweler’s. At his funeral, I played Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. My mother’s request; she and her siblings and their two youngest aunts used to sing it while they played on the big rope swing at my great grandparents’ farm.
I hated playing in front of people. It made me so nervous that I couldn’t sing. That time and every time after - I’d stand rigid and serious with my brow furrowed and all my attention fixed on the fretboard as if that would keep me from hitting a bad note. Honest to god, maybe I’m just not cut out for a melody instrument. I’ll never trust strings like I trust my own body.
I spent my nineteenth birthday at my great uncle Bill’s funeral. I know. I was so good about it, even though the two times in my life I’d met him he’d inevitably gotten shitfaced and said something creepy to me. I played the fiddle and sang and a few distant cousins I’d never met before cried and because it was my birthday I let myself feel a little bit proud of that.
We had so much fun down here when we were little. One year, my aunt bought these cheap plastic lightsabers that made tinny sound effects when you swung them and we found the Star Wars soundtrack on vinyl in an old milk crate, and put it on the record player, and turned out all the lights, and swung around the lightsabers until one of us got whacked good enough that we figured we should quit. Another year, my grandparents ordered a new fridge and my grandpa helped us turn the giant cardboard box it came in into a cardboard house with cut-out windows. And then we found more and more boxes and had a little village where we would trade blueberries and shiny mica - you know the stuff. And then my cousin sat in a mouse trap and we made fun of him for the whole day.
When my grandpa passed, my dad’s family was determined to make his death the best death it could be. Walt Brough knew he was dying, finally surrendering the battle with Parkinson’s disease he’d be fighting for the duration of my memory of him. He wanted to go at home, surrounded by family, so when the time came for him to go into hospice, we set up a hospital cot in the living room and gathered around and played music and told stories and gave him morphine and fluids while he died. We lit off fireworks after his memorial. Is that unceremonious? It made perfect sense to everyone who knew him, I can tell you that.
At a certain point during the weekend of the service, though, I found myself withdrawing from the crowd of relatives to the only quiet place in my grandparents’ house at the time. I sat in the basement and put one of the LP’s on the old record player. Eventually my dad joined me. He snorted at the record I had selected (Yes).
“I think this one was Uncle Bruce’s,” he said.
He thumbed through the milk crate for a few moments, then exclaimed, “Oh, man, this one.”
We swapped the Yes record for a classical guitar compilation by an artist I didn’t recognize. The warmth of the strings was compressed a little by the fuzz of the old record player but we could still hear the intricacies of each run and arpeggio. My dad leaned up against a forgotten old couch and closed his eyes.
“Is this one of Grandma’s?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“This is one of Dad’s. He always had an appreciation for this kind of thing.”
My grandma moved the furniture around in her living room a year or so ago. Now the loveseat is in front of the TV where my grandpa’s armchair used to be. The armchair is down here.
Don’t spend too much time down here. We’re just going to throw in a load of laundry and head back upstairs. This basement, my parents’ basement, is full of dead people’s stuff. Boxes on boxes of grief tucked away untouched. There’s a crack in it and there’s water seeping in, that’s the mold you’re smelling.
My dad had a guy here to look at it a few months ago. He came while I was napping and I woke to the string of apologies and disclaimers my dad made before he let him down to see.
“Sorry, it’s a mess down there,” and, “My wife had several deaths in the family. We’re still sorting through their things.”
“There’s a lot of that going around,” was the response. Man, it’s been coming around here for fourteen years. It’s like every time my mum says hey, we should clean out the basement- every time she’s ready, perhaps, to open one of those tucked-away boxes- there’s a fresh loss to pile on top of them.
This past winter, I deep-cleaned every inch of this house. I pulled every decrepit jacket and orphaned glove out of the closet and sorted through what to keep, what to throw away, what to donate. In the kitchen, I went through the spice cabinet and the pantry and consolidated three half-full boxes of corn starch. Seriously, I think every time my mom found a recipe that needed corn starch she just went out and bought a new box without even checking to see if we had some. I put flours and sugars and everything into labeled jars. I matched every tupperware with a lid. I purged the heap of magazines beneath the coffee table in the living room. I disposed of the long-expired (like, fifteen years expired) bottles of aspirin and benadryl left in the back of the medicine cabinet.
But I did not touch the basement.
Here’s the problem: the basement is where all the good stuff is. All the photo albums of laughing, beautiful people. My uncle Carl’s cassette collection, music he loved to play and sing along to. Pottery and jewelry my grandma made. My grandpa’s armchair, where he sat and recited The Cremation of Sam McGee word-for-word from memory, that’s down in the basement now, too. And I can’t help thinking, what the hell is it all doing down here? Why can’t that armchair sit up next to my grandma’s where it belongs? Why can’t we live with the dead instead of burying them with only the horror of their dying still fresh in our minds?
But what do I know. Here’s an X on the map, though. In case anyone gets curious.
Can I tell you something a little messed up? (You can say no. We can go back.) Once my dad spent a week moving that mountain of stuff. Not sorting or culling items, simply moving them from the middle of the basement and restacking against the farthest wall. As the heap slowly reduced, this putrid smell began to permeate the basement. A few months before, my brother and I had got a pet hermit crab. His name was Hermie and we fed him scraps of lettuce and watched him crawl around a 20 gallon fish tank. Then one day we had him out and didn’t watch him closely enough and he crawled away and was lost. Lost here, apparently. He had crawled into the crevasses of the mountain of stuff and was dried up dead.
I can’t say when I started telling myself it was stupid to cry over dead pets, but at a certain point I started making rules about what sort of grief I was allowed to feel. I didn't let myself cry when I brought my family's pet rabbit to the vet to be put down. I pretended I didn’t feel guilty or ashamed that his little life was in my hands and I took the quick way out. There was nothing else I could do, right? So there was nothing to feel bad about.
This past summer my cat died. My mom was on the tail end of months and months of manic depressive cycling. She was fragile and volatile and quick to tie in this loss with her own long history of grief.
After a few mornings of injecting Ringer’s solution subcutaneously between the cat’s shoulderblades, I told my mom that I had gotten in touch with a veterinarian who could do an at-home euthanasia.
“That way he doesn’t have to spend his last moments in the vet’s office, I know how much he hates that.”
She nodded. “That can definitely be an option when the time comes.”
I bit my tongue, bit back the time is here. How much longer do you think he’ll put up with an 18-gauge needle under his skin twice a day? How much longer can he go refusing to eat? He hasn’t shit for a week even with the laxatives.
“I know we’re gonna have to make that call eventually,” she continued, “I’m not afraid of that. That’s what Nadia and I had to do with Carl, you know, the doctors were telling us. Your horse has a broken leg-” She trailed off, eyes somewhere above the mantelpiece.
For several reasons - the cost of euthanasia, the dreaded trip to the vet’s office, the fear of my mom's response to someone outside the family being involved - my dad ultimately decided to dose the cat with Valium at home. I was resistant. What if it doesn't work, if he vomits, if he suffers? I wish I could tell you my fears were proven wrong.
As a child I knew that the loss happening around me was not mine to grieve. It was someone else’s mother, father, brother, lover, child, and that proximity gave someone else’s loss precedent. I didn’t mind. I really was detached from much of it. I was happy to play the fiddle and sing Wayfaring Stranger while another member of the funeral procession cried.
The cat, though. The cat was mine. I named him Tiger Pad when I was five. He slept in my bed every night and followed me around on walks. He only showed up under our front porch in the first place after I told my mom for weeks and weeks that there was a little kitten out in the woods and I needed to find it.
I was, am, will be pissed to hell that there was no space amidst my mother’s rotting mess of grief for my own loss, however small.
My great-grandma Helen’s death was the tipping of an avalanche of loss in my mom’s family. I was six when she passed and she was the first dying person I had ever seen.
You’ve seen the movies, you know - when a person dies alongside someone who loves them, the survivor cradles their dead body and holds their dead hand and presses a kiss to their dead forehead. My mom asked me if I wanted to hold my dying great-grandma’s hand.
I looked down at it, a veiny, purplish thing against the bleached flannel sheets, and a wave of terror overtook me. I refused to touch her. When my dad got up to hold her hand and kiss her forehead, just like in a movie, I fought the urge to drag him backwards, to somehow keep him from getting close to such a thing.
There are plenty of things from my great-grandparents’ place in our basement, but the turtle is a personal favorite. It’s a charming little thing, see? With the writing on the back - “Pull my head but not my leg.” If you pull on the head, a tape measure unwinds from inside its little brass body.
I found it down here when I was younger and asked my mom if I could keep it. At first she said yes, but later backtracked.
“I didn’t realize what you had,” she told me, “I’d rather keep it.”
Maybe it’s just that I really wanted the turtle, but often it seems to me that this pile of stuff down here is my mom’s personal dragon hoard of grief. Nothing to be done with it but sit above it and simmer. Simmering is something my mom excels at. Some days she will be animated and full of ideas and ready to change the world from her living room. And then she will be silent and sullen and then will come rage.
In the consecutive years after my great-grandma Helen’s death, my mom lost her own mother, Sylvia, struck and killed by a young driver along route 124, and her brother, Carl, to cirrhosis of the liver. Her mother's death haunts her the most. Recently, she's been trying to get her hands on the unredacted police report on the accident. To no avail. At first she lashed out at my dad for not supporting her adequately as she tried to uncover the full story of her mother's death. There were several days where I would leave the house for an early morning shift and come back to the wreckage of a bitter screaming match. Or not a screaming match, because in 25 years I don't think my father has once screamed back.
A few weeks ago, I came home and -
God, how do I describe this to you?
I came home and my mom was sitting on the couch, angry. No, I need to make this clearer. When my mom is angry, she is angry with her whole body. She paces. Her hands clench and claw. Her shoulders rise and curl inward like a linebacker. Her face twists. Her eyes bug. She bares her teeth. Her voice comes up from deep in her stomach, growling, roaring. I know I’m prone to melodrama, but you have to believe me; I’m being as literal as possible. When I was little, I used to think of it like she was possessed. It was the only way I could make sense of how unrecognizable she became. I don’t think of it like that anymore.
A few weeks ago, I came home and my mom was sitting on the couch, angry.
There’s a standard protocol for this: don’t engage directly, don’t approach too fast, just head to the kitchen and pour a second cup of coffee, take a few sips, and after the appropriate amount of milling about, find a seat in the living room that is non-threateningly adjacent to the active zone. This time, though, when I took my seat, it was not the usual screaming match. My mom wasn’t angry at my dad.
Have you ever been angry at the world? It’s pathetic. When my mom is angry, it fills her up and she grows three sizes and towers over my dad and my brother and me. But the world is bigger than her. When I was little, I didn’t see it like that, but now - I’ve seen my mom sit on the living room couch with her hands clenched and clawed and her eyes bugged and her teeth bared at a great, immovable nothing and at the end of it she was exhausted.
Did all that talk of haunting give you the shivers? Yeah, I figured. I don’t believe in ghosts either. Still, it’s always the basement where something messed up happens, right? Someone gets sealed behind a brick wall or possessed. My dad once told me that in his hometown, there was a family who found the skeleton of a young girl buried in the earthen basement floor of their old colonial house. He told me this when I was maybe six, so it stuck.
I do get freaked out down here, I'll be honest. Ghosts or no ghosts - remember in my friend Sam’s basement when I was telling you about the rats? They were awful. You'd break down a door and there would be half a dozen of them, giant, swarming you until you hacked them all apart. But then there was the door that we broke down where all the rats were already dead. That's how these things work - you get strong enough fighting one thing and then something stronger takes its place.
I'm scared that's going to happen to me. I'll turn a corner and boom, something grislier than I've ever confronted will be there waiting for me. Except I haven't leveled up enough to face it (because how the hell would that work?) and I'll get wrecked. Utterly pwned.
They poured cement in the gravel basement of the house I was born in when I was maybe two. I used to wonder if they found anything down there. A skeleton? Buried treasure? A secret doorway, perhaps - and I could crawl through the earth and end up in our neighbor’s house. I could crawl for miles and miles and end up god knows where.
I'm making a map. I don't know where these tunnels lead, but if I write down where I've been I won't lose myself in them. I’m making a map so I don’t get lost down here at twenty-one, scared I’ll never build a life on anything but grief. I’m making a map to save my own life. I'm marking the spots where I find buried treasure with an X and the spots where I find skeletons with a skull and so far I've got a lot of skull-and-cross-bones on this map of mine. Funny how that works out. And as for kicking down the next door, well -
Here, let me mix up the metaphor a little more for you. Why not? It's a topsy-turvy wrong-headed world we live in, after all.
I had a teacher once who liked to say that everyone has to eat a shit sandwich. And since grief is as inevitable as love, since loss is the great shit sandwich of life, I guess I still think it’s worth eating.