Westwood, 1976-1991

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia

(This is the second part of a series. Part One is here.)

The house on Westwood was two stories tall, a pale stucco colonial, built around 1920. It had thirteen rooms, almost all tiny, and a densely flowered yard, also tiny, overlooking a manmade lake.

But to describe my childhood home the way I truly want to describe it, you can’t rely on realism. It exists in a kind of magic space, a liminal, half imaginary realm, with a floor plan that defies physics, on a map that doesn’t exist, populated by legions of invisible creatures, outfitted with secret passageways, portals to the extraterrestrial dimensions, time machines, and a family of rain-negative blobs that lived on the roof named The Deedles. When I dream about it, as I still do, all the time, it feels natural, comfortable to return, but it’s always an otherworldly experience. Like one wrong step could find me stuck under a fairy hill or teleported to Mars via the passage behind the overgrown lilac tree in the backyard. Maybe because I dreamed so much in that house as a child, dreams I remember, and even my dreams had dreams. There was something about the landscape—we had an epic view, a lake below a cresting wave of three tall mountains—and the neighborhood, verdant, full of secret hiding places, eccentric neighbors, similarly imaginative kids, and parents of the generation that didn’t care if you got on their lawn or didn’t come home until nightfall. I don’t believe in God or ghosts or astrology, but to date, I’d be willing to accept that goblins and fauns existed in the periphery around Westwood Road.

What I really want to talk about though is not the amount of flowering shrubs in the yard (secret garden-ish) or the way I wrote secret notes for posterity between the leaves on the abstract strawberry wallpaper in my bedroom (increasingly dark and salacious) or even the absolute perfection of my father’s study, which with tall shelves of books and records , seemed, for a while, like it might contain all the arcane secrets of the universe (fans of jazz, soul, psychology and modernist novels might argue that it did). What I really want to talk about is The Basement.

To start off, basement access was just off the kitchen, not down a traditional flight of stairs, but through the downstairs powder room. Sitting on the toilet, a person would stare down into the gaping black maw of the underworld accessible by rickety wooden staircase, at the bottom of which was an ancient freezer that turned a preternatural blue in the shadows. At some point, someone had outfitted the top of the stairs with an even more rickety louvered door, fabricated out of some heinous 1970s riff on artificial basket-woven woodgrain, from which a thousand knot eyes blinked out of the plastic like a Sears catalog Argus. I didn’t like the door being closed because I’d rather see what was lurking beyond than be forced to imagine it, so I kept the louvered door open, and turned on the flickering, dim basement light. Mom had hung a framed antique print of Mary, Queen of Scots prior to execution, just above the toilet paper, which added to the morbid ambiance. I silently consulted to the late queen while doing my business, hoping she might inspire courage, if not protect me from whatever monsters lurked beneath, until I could wash my hands and GTFO.

My childhood basement was the scariest place I’d ever seen and I spent more of my childhood than most tromping around abandoned buildings, old theatres, family cemeteries, haunted outbuildings, grand old mansions in various states of disrepair, derelict old hotels, and the dark, unvisited corners of a few actual castles. I think I was a pretty brave kid, but we all have our limits. And the basement was basically the worst of all worlds. Dank, fetid, partially unfinished, with a perennial damp concrete floor. There were shelves of ancients jars and bottles half-lit by its one filthy window over and equally ominous worktable, still fitted with rusted tools, all left by some former occupant. There were weird nooks and crannies. A half completed bathroom, unusable, a back door that led to a terrifying vestibule that smelled like death, and then up a mildewed staircase to the darkest edge of the backyard. There were secret holes in the plaster, through which family cats (and god knows what else) could find access in and out. And there was the coal room.

Just thinking about it gives me the shivers. It was in the furthest back corner. A brick cell, windowless, walls still black ancient coal dust, old iron tools in the corner and rusted bed spring propped against the wall like a torture device.. Almost every worst nightmare I ever had ended there. I sleepwalked as a small child, and as I grew older, became convinced that I might one day wander down and wake up there. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

Because the washer and dryer were located in the basement, I early on developed a real hatred of doing laundry (persists to this day). I found that it was difficult to be helpful when I was petrified. The basement was also a bit of neighborhood killjoy. With few exceptions, no one, not even the boys who were older than I, would risk going down there, even though it was replete with hiding places. I couldn’t escape the sense of doom, the fucking coal room watching me all the time with its vacant stare and breathing in the distance a death rattly air.

To be fair, our basement wasn’t the only creepy basement on the street, which was full of old houses with secret underneaths. And it definitely wasn’t the strangest. That honor went the next door neighbors, an elderly couple from The Netherlands, who filled their ersatz antebellum mansion with windmills and built a kind of grotto in the basement with mirrors on the ceiling. It was definitely weird, and it was one of those things that got weirder as the neighborhood kids got older and started trying to work out what those mirrors were for, exactly. We spent a fair amount of time trying fi to sneak in and see before the house was sold, when I was about eleven, to a famous child psychologist, who added a vintage pinball machine to the basement and let me housesit while he and the family went to a Jungian conference in Switzerland. For a few glorious days, I was the coolest person I knew. I invited everybody—pretty much the whole school bus– over to play, check out the grotto and the mirrored ceilings and hypothesize about kinks and fetishes in the way that only naïve eleven-year-olds with too much access to HBO and their father’s uncensored libraries can. Ultimately, I was fired from the housesitting job—my first—not just because I let any interested kid wander through the psychologist’s house, but because I forgot to water the orchids and they all died. The real tragedy was that I was never again allowed to play with the pinball machine.

But I decided, coming out of the experience, that perhaps I had misjudged my own basement.  That maybe I might wring an emotion other than pure terror out of the place. I tried to start hanging out down there. It was pretty inhospitable, but I discovered intriguing new things. Like old theatre scenery in the coal room and old Halloween costumes I figured had been thrown away. I found where the cat had been getting into the house at night (and could sneak up the stairs and crawl into my bed ( I never minded, though my mother objected). I found all of my Christmas presents for several years running and got so excited about them I could barely sleep for three Decembers. I found that, no matter how ferociously I begged, it was unlikely my parents would consider outfitting the coal room with a vintage pinball machine.

After my parents split, we lost the house. Dad wanted his cut. Mom couldn’t come with the funds to buy him out. Nana, always a hard sell on anything you actually want, cited the myriad dangers of staying on in an old home full of old wiring, old plumbing, old windows, “and that basement!” Losing that house was like losing a limb or parent. Leaving it, and all that entailed, was more traumatic than watching my father move out.

My mother and sister grieved it more than I did, I think, because I was fifteen and total hung up on all the shit that comes with being fifteen. In the new house, I’d have a larger bedroom. I was closer to my friends. I could walk places, actual cool places. I could have a room that didn’t look like it belonged to a little girl.

A few days  before we left the house, I thought I might exorcise some demons and waited until everyone else had gone to sleep. I slipped down stairs, through the kitchen, past the blank spot on the wall where Mary Queen of Scots, now packed, had hung. I turned on the basement light and walked down the stairs, past the old work table, the shelves, now empty of creepy bottles, past the furnace and into the coal room. I stood there in my nightgown and sneakers on the blackened gravel floor and dared the spirits to come after me. It was cold. It was dark. And I could hear the floors creaking above and the branches dragging their fingers against the walls in the spring gale outside. I didn’t hear voices. I didn’t hear monsters. I wasn’t chased out by ghosts. Somehow that fact made me  unaccountably sad. That it was just me in a now empty room in a house I’d lived in for almost fifteen years, a house I felt like I’d only recently gotten to know, a house, I realized with sudden and terrible certainty, I’d never see the inside of again.

The next family would change the wallpaper with my scribbles. They’d tear down the bookshelves. They’d expand the kitchen over the patio. They’d cut down the lilac tree. They’d repaint all the walls. They would turn my imaginary kingdom into something I didn’t know. A modest house, half-renovated on a not-so-large budget, would become a less modest house. The street I grew up on, full of school teachers, small-time lawyers, professors and restaurant owners would become a street full of actual rich people, who tore down or  built on to the other modest homes and turned them all into houses that cost a half a million, a million, and the neighborhood, in total, would become a place locally synonymous with wealth. They’d probably all redo the basements. They’d probably all have pinball machines down there.

I said goodnight to the coal room and climbed up two stories to my bed. Mom stirred and asked if I was okay. I said I’d gone for water.

The day we moved out, I wasn’t there. I’d gone to a Latin Club event in Chapel Hill.  When I came home, it was to a new house. It felt different. It smelled different even with all our old things, it was like the other one had barely existed at all. I started to unpack and found ample space for my extra books in the basement. It wasn’t bad down there. Partially above ground. Lots of windows. Lots of light. No coal room. No nightmares. Barring a few spider crickets, nothing but empty space and the faintest whiff of possibility. Nothing to be afraid of.

For moment, just a moment, I felt fearless.

The Author

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