The thing about our basement is that places like that shouldn't exist in the twentieth century. My husband says it is filled with fond memories. If that's true, then why is he afraid to go down there without first calling 911 and checking on his insurance?
On my better days, it resembles the worst part of the landfill section, the part that's been closed because strange objects are floating to the top. There are things down there, even older than I am, and that shows you how bad things are.
I remember last year, when one of the neighborhood kids went down to get old newspapers for a paper sale and came up screaming. “It's nothing honey,” I comforted. “It's just my old red wig from twenty-five years ago. It's tangled up in the aluminum Christmas tree. And, the whirling noise you heard is the sound the tree makes when you push the abandoned bowling ball across the room, and it tags the tree with it. He had thought it was a Martian, emerging from one of the stacked boxes lining one wall.
"Did you know that Little Larry from next door almost had a heart attack when he saw your invention?" I asked my husband, the day after Larry stopped screaming.
“You mean you let someone invade the privacy of my workroom, and thereby risked the security of a machine which will someday make us wealthy?” he shouted.
“But it's been there for ten years. And it hasn't done anything. What's it supposed to do anyway?" I had used one of the sharp edges once to cut a piece of yarn, when I had been temporarily trapped trying to locate the bathroom plunger.
“That's the wonderful part of it!” he said, his eyes gleaming. “It's so secret that no one has a use for it yet, but when they do, our fortune will be made!"
“Would you care to give me a hint?” I'd asked.
“It has to do with cigarettes,” he said excitedly.
“Does it roll them, smash them, or grow them?”
“None of the above. It puts them out."
“That's really terrific” I said, planning to be poor forever. Just what everyone wants. A two by four foot gismo that flashes, clunks and gurgles, and puts out cigarettes.
“Where is it to be used?”
“The living room, of course! Didn't you notice the woodgrain contact paper on the face of New Life?”
“That's the copyrighted name I'll use.”
“Would you care to explain how New Life functions?”
It was an ingenious plan. New Life was to be activated by the warmth from a lighted cigarette held by someone naive enough to sit near a wood grained crate that made weird noises. New Life would refrain from its primary activity just long enough to permit a cigarette to be smoked down. Then it would spring into action, and douse the cigarette, which by that time would be in the nearby ash tray.
“But we don't smoke,” I had reminded him then. That was when we still had friends. They came two by two, or in bunches, thinking that we had ordinary living room furniture. They left wet, bedraggled, holding dry and burning cigarettes as they wiped the water out of their eyes.
“Tell me the truth,” the man down the street panted, “this has to be Candid Camera, doesn't it? Where's Allen Funt?”
But that was not the only money making idea we had! We were constantly driven to try and figure out how to get more money. Needs existed that had not been considered when we got married, such as two hundred pizzas a week and for the kids, and their friends, and strange people wandering through the house after hearing we were having a pizza party.
And, the little bitty fish bowl that once held one guppy (already in the family way at purchase time) who produced dozens of little new guppies who needed to know other types of fish so they would not be prejudiced. These colorful fish practiced mating in an unrestrained way before the neighborhood children, and had dozens of little sex crazed progeny. All fish grew, spawned, ate each other, copulated before our very eyes and needed new tanks and new divers and even more fish to keep them company and pretty soon one of the older kids opened a fish store in the basement. We went from residential to commercial rate.
“Money, Money, Money,” my husband charged “Got to get money.”
New Life had a cabinet nearby, filled with even more dreams and drawings. There was the reverse Chinese Checkers, or Reverse Marbles, In this game , you not only moved the marbles to capture your opponent’s marbles, but had to remember where all the marbles were - on the underside of the cardboard game board as well as the top. The marbles were mixed steel ball bearings, and the top was magnetic to hold them top and bottom. But the magnetism didn't last long and soon the “Force” departed the game.
“I've just lost all my marbles,” my husband said in despair, after planning how to spend the millions Reverse Marbles would bring in.
"Don't ask me to comment on that one."
But by that time, I had joined the game. There was a man who had teeny little board, put nails in it at a strategic locations, and created a ribbon winder. It made him millions, or so we heard. In between all the laundry and pizza and fish funerals, I had little time to use the appropriate materials.
Mom: "Come here, Honey. Just let mama borrow your fingers for an instant. If you’ll just hold them up. Mama's trying to invent a way to wind little yarn animals that will just make us a fortune."
Kid: "No way, Jose! You had Sis tangled up for three hours yesterday, and her fingers are still glued together."
That didn't last long. They rushed around, eating pizza. Seasons blurred into one another.
“Where did all the time go?" my husband asked, following me into the basement to prepare for the rummage sale. “And where in the name of heaven, did we get all this stuff?”
From our vantage point at the top of the stairs, we counted five bowling balls, two sofas, three Christmas trees, two clotheslines holding abandoned garments we'd been too busy to toss out. And that was just the top layer.
“I don't think this is going to be much fun,” I told him.
“There's really not any hurry. Tell you what - I'll give you a choice between cleaning out the basement or sex in the bathtub.”
“Get the broom,” he said urgently.
Time passes. Things change. Had he chosen basement cleaning in the beginning, all the rest might not have happened.
If you think a person just slightly over the hill has it bad, consider Nora, the eighty-four year old woman down the street who's coasted to someplace near the bottom. Not that she knows it (you know how old people are). She has the distinction of being the mother of a senior citizen.
Now, that family relationship means that she's the (1) grandmother of someone in mid-life crisis and (2) great grandmother to one of the generation currently going to hell. Just a normal, everyday four generation family grouping.
Nora’s favorite apparel is a green mottled button down shirt and a pair of combat boots. As she says, it suits her lifestyle. She usually wears this battle attire to family reunions and one of the reasons is her grandson Henry. Nora, (we call her that because she's still sharp enough to sue if she recognizes herself in this story), is a fundamentalist, while Henry is an evolutionist.
This causes a few problems because Nora knows that God created man in His Own Image, from the dust of the earth, while Henry knows that a spark ignited in a murky swamp eons ago, and a few cells clung together for company. Or was it for sex?
Other family members try to stay clear of the controversy because intervention causes nothing but headaches. Nora told Henry that if one of his ancestors was a ring-tailed baboon, the genetic endowment did not come from her side of the family. That leaves Henry's father, Nora's son-in-law, in a quandary. Does he slap an eighty-four year old woman for being called a baboon, or does he side with her and contradict his son, who has seven PhD’s in occult biology?
Henry's seven degrees in occult biology have equipped him to analyze his grandmother, and this analysis has taught him compassion. In Henry’s mind, Nora doesn't know any better. Part of the reason she believes in a Personal First Cause is because back in the day, when Nora was learning about life, no one knew very much.
Take for instance, Nora's belief that men and women are different, a totally unmodern concept. Nora always said, "Man makes the living and woman make life". Henry knows better than that because he's in the lab, trying to create artificial life via the computer. Some of his bytes and bits show some organization, and he hopes for future communication from them.
"Just when am I going to have a great-grandson?" Nora asks, hands on hips, in her best Rambo stance. Nora fears that Henry is addled because of too much learning. "Just what do they teach them in sex education?" she asked her daughter bitterly. “Seven years married, and no children?”
Nora's differences with Henry don't end with the fact that he hasn't made her a great grandmother yet. They run much deeper than that. They go all the way down to her knowledge that Henry is going to Hell if he doesn't change his beliefs.
Henry has his drawings showing how the human race staggered erect millions of years ago. But Nora has her Bible, giving man's ancestry from Adam and Eve on to the present.
They talk a lot about bones when they get together. Nora wants to know where they are, the missing ones and Henry tries to explain that the "missing link" isn't necessarily "missing". He brings up scientists' latest theory, that instead of ape gradually changing to man, a little bit at a time, there was a periodic leap and one day an ape mama had a “hopeful monster” human child. That one causes Nora a bit of a problem, because she suspects that Henry also differs radically from any of his predecessors.
The thing that worries Nora most about Henry's belief system is that she's read that some of the modern scientists believe in something out there beyond the edge of science. When quantum science is considered, mystery still exists. And she's also read some of the New Age ideas that all is one, and God is in all and therefore God is everyplace. She likes this one less. Any day now, she suspects, Henry may decide that he's God. In Nora’s younger years, people were loaded up and given electroshock treatments for such belief.
Yes, Nora worries a lot about Henry, and from his actions, Henry probably worries about her. When she had surgery last year and needed blood, Henry was there offering his arm. He sat up two whole nights worrying that their interesting discussions might be at an end. They probably won’t. Nora’s tough.
When Henry had worries about his grant last year, Nora threatened to attack the United States Government Granting Agency. She would have done it too, if she'd thought it necessary.
Nora has learned to work with what’s available and not be greedy, something that's benefited her since she's on Social Security. Actually, being on Social Security is one of the reasons Nora would like to attack the US Government. She figures someone with some common sense needs to go over and ‘straighten things out.’ Nora never worked outside the home, but lazed around the house raising a dozen children, baking bread, growing a victory garden, installing tile, painting the house, being a library mother.
Since she's never worked, and since her husband died a long time ago, her Social Security check is quite small relative to her life’s work. This in turn means that she's beneficiary of SSI, a government acronym for Supplemental Security Income.
Nora though, says it stands for Sure Slow Insanity.
The government tells Nora that for every mouthful of food someone gives her, they may take some of her SSI away. She's gotten around that one nicely. The government doesn't change her for "garbage", so Nora keeps a clean "garbage" can on her back porch, and when one of her children want to help, they simply contribute "garbage" to the can. When asked, Nora can truthfully state that she eats food from the garbage can on her back porch. That usually stops the bureaucrats!
Nora can also be given "used clothing" In practice, this means that whatever Nora wears has to have the newness rubbed off by someone else. Since Nora weighs only about ninety eight pounds, and since most of her children could pick her up in their hand, some of the grandchildren are mustered to "break in" Nora's wardrobe. After all the newness is gone, the family members "donate" the used items to Nora.
Nora is allowed limited funds on a razor’s edge. If the amount she receives exceeds the limit by one penny, Nora loses her SSI (Sure Slow Insanity Money) for the month. But while she is not allowed money for living, she may spend several times the limit for death. If she so desired, she could own an entire cemetery, reserved for family members, with gold monuments above each planned gravesite.
All of this depresses Nora, but not as much as the world's attempts to regiment her now that she’s a senior. She's eighty-four and has never played a musical instrument, but someone at the senior citizen center noticed that Nora had a lot of time to spare – and decided that Nora needed to participate in a music class.
The closest that Nora ever came to making music was when she visited her cousin as a teen, in Alabama, and during the two weeks she spent there, she learned hog calling. The senior citizen adviser felt that that particular talent was not transferable and enrolled Nora in Organ. Dutifully, Nora worked over the keys on the Baldwin, creating shrieks and howls louder than any hog had ever used in responding to her call.
Some of the more musically inclined patrons of the center complained, and Nora's adviser decided to find out the truth. Just what Nora did want to do with her remaining years?
What she would really like to do, Nora told the adviser, was count clouds. On all those years, with all those kids and grandkids and now working on the fourth generation, she had never had time to simply lay back and count clouds.
"But what difference does it make after you've counted them?" the bewildered advisor asked.
“What difference does it make if I go back to organ playing?”
The adviser let Nora count clouds.
On good days, Nora got in quite a few clouds and learned their names, Cirrus, Nimbus, and so forth, but on cloudy days there was just one mass of grey. So Nora decided to respond to the geese calls that came from overhead as the geese prepared for their journey to the south. It seemed a friendly thing to do. After an hour of that, and a visit from a Health Worker from the center, Nora decided that it was better to respond silently to the geese than to take tranquilizers.
Nora told me that one of the things that bothered her about the Federal Government and their Sure Slow Insanity money, was that they were determined to peek into her sex life. She quickly made it clear that she didn't actually have any, but if she wanted to, it would be her business. She worried that if they discovered that she lived with the elderly man upstairs (who was ninety-six) certain parts of the arrangement would have affected her Slow Sure Insanity money. Turns out that the government didn't care whether she slept with him or not. She could sleep with him three hundred and sixty five nights a year and tell the whole neighborhood about it if she wanted to, and the Government wouldn't care.
But let anyone find out that they were married and she would lose her SSI.
I had to ask one day, "Nora, I've just become sixty. You've got about a quarter of a century on me. I need to know what's ahead. How do you feel?"
"Stiff" Nora said without hesitation. "You're still going to be yourself. That never changes; the only difference is that you get stiff and dried out. If you keep your juices flowing, you'll be fine. But what's a youngster like you in her sixties doing worrying about getting old?
A story from the pre-Sept 11th world...
This is your captain speaking. We are now safely cruising at 35,000 feet. I would like to apologize to all of you for the upset caused by the passenger who screamed when the wheels lifted off the runway. She also wishes me to express her apology. She tells me that had she known her aversion of air travel was not yet conquered, she would never have boarded this flight.
Now that all of you are back safely in your seats I would like to call your attention to the left. You will see the city below. Also, I wish to thank you for moving back quickly and cooperating with the stewardess’s request. Despite what you heard from one of your fellow passengers, there is no need for everyone to move to one side of the plane to balance it when the wing dips down. When I make a flight correction it is normal for the plane to be somewhat lower on one side than on the other.
And I thank you for your willingness to step around the passenger seated in the middle of the aisle. In spite of my explanation about course correction, she feels the plane will maintain better balance if she stays exactly in the middle of the plane.
For those of you who will not be reached by the liquor cart because of the passenger sprawled in the middle of the aisle, let me thank you for your understanding. It is impossible to maneuver the cart around her and every time the stewardess attempts to move her from the aisle, she climbs up the liquor cart.
Perhaps it will be of some consolation to know the liquor was exhausted before it could ever have reached your part of the plane, and the cart is being sent back for a refill. The stewardess informs me that adequate liquor was put on board, but the passenger seated in the aisle, who is trying her best to conquer her fear of flying, and who is now singing, "Somewhere over the Rainbow", did use more liquor than expected for that section.
For any of you who must go to the rear of the plane to use the bathroom, may I ask that you move carefully around the passenger in the aisle. We are gaining her confidence, and she has agreed to let us try to maintain altitude without flapping her arms to help us. But an occasional flap still breaks out. We don't wish any of you struck by her misguided efforts.
For those of you in the front of the plane who may have been reached by the dinner cart, let me restate that the excellence of the dinner has nothing to do with, "The condemned ate a hearty meal" as the passenger in the aisle is claiming. We make a consistent effort to serve satisfying meals, not just during lightning storms.
This is your captain speaking again. We are still cruising safely at 35,000 feet and are not in danger of falling out of the sky, as was rumored by the passenger praying in the middle of the aisle. I regret that the air is somewhat turbulent today. It is nothing to worry about I assure you. I especially wish to thank the gentleman in row seven. It was most kind of him not to complain about the passenger who quit praying in the middle of the aisle, and then jumped into his lap shouting, "Save me" when the plane hit an air pocket.
This is your captain again. I wish to inform you that I am once more in control of the plane and plan to remain that way. I also wish to thank all those who have offered to help me fly, but I assure you I do not need your assistance. I'm certain you all understand that the passenger who crawled up the aisle shouting, "Let's all help the captain fly:" is somewhat nervous. It has been explained to her that while her efforts may be well-intentioned, they are not necessary. It has also been explained that if she should again attempt to take the stick, she may be asked to leave the plane.
We are, Thank God, approaching our destination. Please fasten your seat belts and obey the non-smoking sign. We will be landing soon. The noise you heard was not the bottom of the plane falling out, but simply the landing gear going down as it is supposed to do.
One final word from your captain. I wish to take this opportunity to thank all of you for flying with Togetherness Airlines. Also, please use the same door for exit as the one you used when you entered. The emergency exit over the wing leads only to the wing and not to the ramp. The passenger who broke open the emergency exit will be rescued as soon as she stops running up and down the wing shouting, "Mayday!, Mayday!"
I also wish to state that she has decided not to continue to her destination by plan, and will not be flying with us again when we take off. She has decided to continue her journey by train.
Opaline Marks is the pen name of Opal Markiewicz, a writer of novels, short stories and nonfiction essays.