I lied. How best to make a clean start for part three of my trilogy on the boxes in our basement? Honestly, I totally miscalculated the number. I thought we had two dozen, but neglected to open another door down there to reveal another roomful of boxes. So, at last count, we really have seven dozen boxes. Of those, two dozen contain only paraphernalia used at holiday time, from a Christmas tree that gets built like a series of Legos to ornaments galore to red and green towels. Not to mention a plaster ghoul-faced pumpkin and a wooden turkey dressed as a pilgrim. But what about those other boxes, the remaining 60? Why do we have so many after we dispensed with all our vinyl record albums, most of our videotapes and many books before we moved to Vineyard Haven? Obviously, some of these are the result of consolidating two households in the process. When you sell a big place outside Boston and a small place in Menemsha and shift your life into something of a size in between, you’re going to have boxes in your basement.
Actually, as I sift through the flotsam and jetsam of our lives, we’re talking four houses. After both sets of parents passed away, we became the recipients of unsolicited inheritances — more stuff for the basement.
Hey, but what’s a basement for — if not treasure chests of fool’s gold, items that hover between sentimental and just plain mental, possessions from previous careers and generations that must be unthinkable to discard? What would the neighbors think?
So we have 12 boxes of audio and videotapes we couldn’t bear to recycle. Some are complete programs we accomplished in our TV and radio pasts. Some are just old classic movies. Some are on formats no longer in use. Is there a museum for the laser disk? Many are VHS tapes — those dinosaurs in this DVD era. But wait, we’re in luck, because one of the boxes has our old VCR. Who knows? Some day or some night, one of us just might.
We have 11 boxes of scripts, many of which were never published or produced. Are we keeping them for the next yard sale or that winter night when the kindling has run out?
There are several boxes of old magazines, old newspapers, old hats, tax files going back to the Reagan era, parts and manuals from past computers — equipment that was born for the basement, if not a Silicon Valley landfill.
Then there are the boxes of long forgotten photos, framed and loose. One in particular captures my imagination. It’s so old, it’s almost sepia. It’s a formal wedding shot of a bridal party — seven women in silky diaphanous gowns, the bride herself in flowing gossamer and a little boy in a little boy suit with a cravat. He is the ring bearer. He looks about four. And he is me. I recognize no one else. I found this photo in my parents’ apartment after they had both died. I showed it to my aging aunt and uncle, who stared at the photo and shrugged. So here I am with this picture of a bunch of ladies in waiting, waiting for identification, and myself as a child stashed in the corner of someone’s major event. Why am I keeping this? I’m certainly not waiting for a solution. There will never be one. It’s like a sheet of family flypaper. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.
Trophies from a safari called Life. For example, don’t we all have a box of the family crystal that we carry with us each time we move? It’s all very delicate and old and possibly worth something. But we will never use it. Might break. So we just carry it around like a talisman, like some ring of your grandmother’s hair in a locket. But of course this is a big box. Maybe we should just carry around something smaller, like a photo of the family crystal you can keep on your smart phone. We could then surrender our three boxes of family glassware.
Our basement is also considered one humongous drawer or cabinet into which placeless items are placed. Sometimes the basement is a halfway house for stuff cluttering the upstairs. Any time a visitor is expected, my wife goes into a freeing frenzy. The house is suddenly liberated of that lived-in look. She starts doing to the inside what she usually does to the outside — weeding. All papers and piles must vanish from counter tops, table tops and easy chairs. Such an activity always leads to the visitor saying upon arrival: “What a neat and orderly home you have! Yours puts mine to shame.” Of course, after the visitor leaves, days go by and the shame is on us. Time to play scavenger hunt. What happened to those piles? Where’s that bill we have to pay? Where is that paper where we wrote down that wine we liked?
We just don’t sweep things under the rug; we bury them under the floor. Which means our basement will never be devoid of stuff.
Maybe Dante was inspired to write his magnificent Divine Comedy after he made one too many trips to his basement. After all, he wrote that the sign inscribed above his entrance to Hell read: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.”
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.