Archive for Sunday, October 13, 2002

Basements belie throw-away society

October 13, 2002


Anyone who thinks we live in a throw-away society hasn't looked in my basement. Not only is it the place where broken appliances go to recuperate, it houses items that if we discard, we know we'll desperately need a few days later.

Take, for example, the bazillion keys in a box on the shelf. We have no clue how we could have accumulated so many keys, let alone what they may unlock. My guess is that there are at least two keys in that box for every car we've ever owned, most of which have no doubt met their fate with the crusher. But  like tiny metallic souls  the keys to their ignition switches live on. There are keys to homes where we, our kids, our parents and even our grandparents once lived.

The only key I can readily identify is the skeleton key that unlocked Grams' front door. Of course a hairpin or paper clip would also serve that function, but unlocking her door was seldom necessary because she so trusted people in her small town that she rarely locked it.

However, during a short period when her neighborhood was troubled by a rash of burglaries, Grams not only locked her door, but stowed a baseball bat beside it so she could defend all 80 pounds of herself. That burglar never knew how fortunate he was that he didn't pick on Grams; had he done so, I'm convinced he would have chosen a safer line of work.

Our basement also contains seven large file boxes marked, respectively, "papers, more papers, important papers, really important papers, keepable papers, historical papers," and my favorite, "paper stuff." The problem is, those rather non-specific categories make it hard to locate any one particular item. In which of those boxes is the canceled check my dad wrote to pay the doctor for his services at my birth?

Where is the faded  and never cashed  check for $1 that great-granddad Joshua's lawyer wrote to Grandpa Marsh in settlement of the elder's will? Beats me! But I'm guessing that "really important papers" and "historical papers" have the edge.

What makes the uncashed check worth saving is the story behind it. Grandpa Marsh was a dutiful son who bought his father a home abutting his own property. However, family legend has it that the two men had a falling out due to Grandpa Marsh's disapproval of his 98-year-old father's romance with a woman more than 60 years younger. Shortly before his death, Granddad Josh sent his son a note (it's somewhere in my basement) telling him if he didn't get his "old iron" (Grandpa Marsh owned a junkyard) off his property (i.e., the property Grandpa Marsh gave Granddad Josh), he would have the sheriff remove it.

When Granddad Joshua died, his will bequeathed his home  a gift from his son  to his daughters, while Grandpa Marsh received one lousy buck. Apparently, Granddad Josh's 30-something girlfriend received nothing. Either that or she cashed her check!

I recently learned that Mom's basement mirrors mine. On a visit there made necessary by a sewer backup that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, I found letters she and Dad wrote during their courtship when he lived in a frat house at KU and she lived in Oklahoma. Among the letters was a Western Union telegram from Dad: "Meet train on Friday night and see someone you like."

I also found one of Dad's three Purple Hearts that he won the hard way during World War II. And, in case you're wondering, I was NOT snooping. Dressed in my grubbiest clothes and wearing rubber gloves and a shower cap, I was sorting through papers  salvaging what I could  while my helper and new friend Jeremy was pooper scooping out Mom's basement.

I told Jeremy to throw away Mom's appliances that hadn't healed themselves in 20 years, including a mangle that she used to iron sheets and tea towels when my sisters and I were kids. Since Ray's and my sheets make do with a shake as they are removed from the dryer, it made me smile to think that a mangle would be the last thing I'd expect to find in our basement.

Um ... considering what Mom had in her basement that made my nose wrinkle and my eyes water ... make a mangle the SECOND to last thing I'd expect to find in our basement!

 Marsha Henry Goff is a free-lance writer in Lawrence. Her e-mail address is

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