Finding my basement of solitude

Posted Dec. 14, 2008, at 7:47 p.m.

Growing up, I always lived “below sea level” (at least that is what my parents said, which made me feel like a fish) and therefore never had a basement. Try to dig for a basement in my hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., and you’ll end up with a pool.

My only experience with basements was my grandparents’ in Birmingham, Ala. That’s where my older brothers often lured me with hopes of including me in their play (“Come down in the basement with us, Sarah, and we’ll play Chutes and Ladders with you”), only to run back upstairs and lock the door, leaving me in the dark room alone. My grandparents had a life-size wooden Santa Claus in the back corner, rising above trunks of old clothes and photo albums, and sometimes I was sure I saw his upraised hand wave at me.

In any case, the junk in my grandparents’ basement, most of which belonged to my grandfather, led me to believe that the whole idea of a room under the earth was a man’s idea. I mean really, would a woman ever think of this? The men already monopolize garages with their tools and ugly posters that we won’t let them hang in the house; why not expand to the basement, too?

When Dustin and I lived in Florida, our garage was his domain. Not coincidentally, the garage was always a mess. Theoretically, it was a “two-car garage,” but fitting two cars in there side-by-side only worked if we pushed in the side mirrors and climbed out the back hatch. One time I found a dead mouse in our garage and was so scared I convinced Dustin to put out sticky boards to catch the mouse’s friends and family. The next day, one of those sticky boards caught a coral snake which, no doubt, also smelled the dead mouse and planned to eat it. This event, plus Dustin’s tendency to rescue items from our garage sales and stack them in a large heap in the corner of the garage, heralded my decision to never use the garage. Not ever. It became the official place for storing Dustin’s old sea bags, undershirts and socks turned gray from six-month deployments on an aircraft carrier, and all the tacky things that Dustin would not let me sell at a garage sale.

Then we moved to Maine, where almost everyone has a basement. “Great,” I thought, “the basement will be my area and Dustin can have the garage.” Before we closed on our new house and moved in, I daydreamed about making the unfinished basement a guest room or a playroom for the boys.

“What? I’m not coming to visit if I have to sleep in an unfinished basement that isn’t heated,” my mom said.

“We have to play in the basement,” the boys asked. “Isn’t that kind of like playing in the garage or something?”

None of us had a clue what owning a basement would really be like. Turns out, basements are pretty cool. Literally. We moved into our house in mid-August, and although the weather was considerably cooler than in our previous home state of Florida, I did work up a sweat unloading boxes and moving furniture. Sometimes, the only way I could cool down (because our house doesn’t have air-conditioning, something that would make my Florida friends choke on their own breath) was to go down into the basement and sit on the cool concrete floor.

I still planned to make the basement a playroom, but then, I had not accounted for the fact that my boys were terrified of it. Meanwhile, I maintained my preference for avoiding the garage at all costs, which turns out to be a foolish idea because a car left out in the cold in New England tends to freeze and not cooperate in the morning.

But the basement, well, it has become my hideaway. My escape. Because the boys are still afraid of it, the basement is the only place in our house where I can go uninterrupted. Even my own bathroom can’t offer the same solitude. Sometimes I pretend to do laundry down there, when really I’m just sitting. Yep, just sitting. With-out anyone whining, tattling or wiping their runny nose on the furniture beside me.

And for this reason alone, I have come to understand that my initial thoughts about basements were wrong. A room beneath the house couldn’t have been a man’s idea. It must have been a mother’s.

Sarah Smiley will sign copies of her book “I’m Just Saying …” (Ballinger, 2008) 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20, at Borders Books by Bangor Mall. The book is a collection of Sarah’s syndicated columns written in 2002-2008. Reviews at www.sarahsmiley.com.

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