I grew up in Louisiana. In a state where people are buried above ground to keep their corpses from floating off, basements aren’t very common. My grandparents live in Alexandria, in the central part of the state. Their house had a basement, the entrance to which was a 3′ x 6′ trap door behind the wet bar. Entering the basement was always a big event. There were all sorts of wonderful things down there: mysterious jars of cannery products, stacks of yellowed old newspapers, piles of ancient National Geographic back issues, and so on. That’s what I thought a basement should be like: rare, mysterious, a little scary, but ultimately familiar.
When my parents moved to Perrysburg, the house they bought had a big unfinished basement. Dad quickly filled it with woodworking tools, a huge L-shaped workbench, and a small finished office stuffed with every kind of ham radio you can imagine. Many of the tools in the basement were familiar: there was the old red air compressor that I’d used for hundreds of hours while refinishing and repainting cars, and the ancient Zenith Transoceanic that we used to listen to the BBC and WWV while out at the fishing camp he built way down on the bayou. There was scrap wood, and an old dresser from my boyhood that had repurposed for component storage, and a bookshelf full of solvents and cleaners and various other hazards. In short, it was a familiar place for both of us, filled with things we understood and knew the measure of. We spent probably a hundred hours building a bed for David (a project which, truth be told, would have taken him maybe 15 hours had he done it without my inexpert help).
Of course, the basement was more than a workshop; it was somewhat of a gathering place. Julie, Tim, Arlene, and I would go down there at Christmas time to wrap presents, safe from the running feet and peeping eyes of the kids. Traditionally we’d go out shopping with the old man on Christmas Eve and come back laden with his selections, which of course he wasn’t going to wrap himself. The boys would go downstairs and sit on his lap while he twiddled radio knobs, asking questions so fast that he couldn’t finish the answer to one before the next one popped out.
Now, a year after his death, the basement is mostly empty. The woodworking tools are gone, parceled out to people with the knowledge and space to use them. The remaining radios sit silent. The workbench is mostly clean, although both the air compressor and the Zenith remain. I took the tools and supplies that I could use, knowing that as I maintain and use them that I’m preserving some small part of the things he taught me. It’s a lonely place now, and one that I avoid. I miss him terribly sometimes, but never more so when I go down those steps, past the framed pictures of Tim and I in dress blues, under the “I (heart) my truck” license plate, and into that basement: no longer mysterious, no longer even familiar.