basement windowI’m standing in the basement.  It is cold and the only light is that which is streaming in through the cellar window above my mother’s exercise bike.  I love to sit on that bike and pretend to talk on the phone.  My mother transplanted her old blue princess phone that used to sit next to her bed and was the transmission of late night calls from neighbors or sometimes the police that my father was drunk again and had gotten into some type of trouble. It was cast away in the basement so she didn’t have the daily reminder of those calls each time she lay her head down on her bed. Now, it is now part of my own private clubhouse in the basement.

The basement is not finished nor is it heated.  The walls are cinder block and concrete and are lined with cans of food in my mother’s makeshift storage pantry.  Every time she goes to the grocery store, she adds more and more to her growing collection.  She rarely uses most of the food she buys so I suppose she is preparing herself for the apocalypse.  We can go down into our basement bunker and likely last for years off the string beans, peas, carrots, fruit and tomato soup.

There are a number of doors in the basement, one leads to the cement steps up to our cement yard.  Sometimes my mother forces me to go out there because she thinks I shouldn’t be inside.  When I was 8 and my father took me and my brother to the toy store to buy us Christmas presents on a cold December day, I came home with a Barbie Townhouse. I was over the moon to have this coveted property, complete with an elevator up to the three stories. I only had a few Barbies at the time and I managed to guilt my absentee father into also buying a Ken doll so Barbie would have someone to keep her company in that large house. When we returned from the store, my mother exiled me to the concrete yard to put together my dream house on the redwood picnic table, carefully snapping together the parts with mittened fingers and bundled up in my shabby winter coat.We always enter the house through that door because the driveway is in the back by the yard and it is easier to walk down the cellar backyard steps and through the basement

We always enter the house through that back basement door because the driveway is in the back by the yard and it is easier to walk down the cellar backyard steps and through the basement up the steps to the main floor of the house than to walk all the way around the front of the house and use that door.  My mother never uses the front door.  She does not like us to bring dirt into the house.  Instead, we can come in through the basement and leave our shoes at the bottom of the stairs, never getting anywhere close to the purity of the wall-to-wall carpet or the plastic runner in the hallway.  We also have a driveway in the front of our house which leads to the garage.  My mother never uses the garage to park the car.  It’s not as if the garage is cluttered with stuff aside from a bike or two, some gardening tools and assorted other junk that I never really bothered to figure out why was there.  Sometimes we sit in the garage during

We always enter the house through the basement door because there is a driveway in the back of the house that my mother prefers over the inclined driveway in the front that leads to the garage.  My mother never uses the front door.  She does not like us to bring dirt into the house so she insists we come in through the basement and leave our shoes at the bottom of the stairs, never allowing them within striking distance of the purity of the wall-to-wall carpet or the plastic runner in the hallway upstairs.  The other door in my basement leads to the garage but my mother never parks her car in there. Even though it’s not cluttered and merely contains a bike or two, some gardening tools and a few shelves to store paper towels and toilet paper (also probably sundries in preparation for the apocalypse), my mother opts to keep her car outside.  Sometimes we sit in the garage during thunderstorms and watch with the large door open, safe from the lightning and pouring rain.  I am sometimes afraid of thunder and shudder as my small body curls up in a metal lawn chair protecting myself.  When I get older, I will watch storms with my own children, trying to make them feel safe.

My basement has defined regions that I have labeled based on their functions. The back wall, where the cans are stored is the Sundry Shop. When you enter the basement from the back door, you immediately step into the Laundromat. There is a washer with an old basin and a rickety plastic chair (presumably to sit and read a magazine or a book while your wash is going but nobody ever really sits there.  It serves mostly as a place to drop your stuff when you enter the house.  My mother insists that I leave my knapsack there after school and I will sometimes, rather than follow the rules and hang my coat up, just drop it on the chair in defiance.  Sometimes I sit in the chair to read a book while I wait for my mother to come downstairs so we can head out to wherever we are going. Usually, however, it is piled with junk and that is ok because it is in the basement and my mother doesn’t have to look at it all the time.

There is a cubbyhole space under the stairs where my mother stores her drying rack.  We never had a dryer and, whether it be a form or rationalization or her genuine choice, my mother claims to prefer the drying rack.  I suspect she pines for a fancy dryer but hardly anyone has one so it might seem a bit indulgent.  She has her Cadillac, after all.  That was a big treat from my father.  A dryer might be pushing it a bit.  My mother also hangs clothes along the pipes in the space in between the Sundry Shop and the Laundromat. It serves as a section divider and, in my mind, it separates my space (inside the Sundry Shop) from the Laundromat.  When I’m bored, I like to brush my hands along the hanging clothes and watch them flutter.  I also like to walk through the low-hanging clothes, letting my head push them aside as if I am entering through some dramatic draped entryway.

As you leave the Laundromat en route to the steps leading to the main floor of the house, there is an old dresser that once upon a time resided in my brother’s bedroom. This was before they bought him the new furniture – identical to the set my parent’s best friends bought for the identical bedroom in their matching house down the block.  I often walk through their house trying to find any differences between theirs and ours.  Aside from the color of appliances, the furnishings and some of the fixtures in the bathroom, they are twins. We have two of the dozen or so single-family row houses on the block that are built exactly the same.  My mother always says ours is best because we have the corner lot with more property.  We have two driveways and you can access our yard from the street instead of having to go through the house.  If I want to enter any of the neighbor’s yards, I have to be granted access by ringing the doorbell but, once inside, I know exactly how to find my way down the stairs and through the back door. Our next door neighbors put a gate in the chain link fence that separates our yards when we were all little so we could use their swing set. When things got ugly with my parents, I noticed that the gate was gone and was replaced with a new patch of chain link.

I spend a lot of time in my parents’ best friends’ house.  Their granddaughter is my best friend.  Well, she is probably my only friend.  I have known her since she was born and kind of adopted her as my little sister.  I love taking care of her – even if she is only three years younger than me.  I am the youngest in my family and always wanted a younger sibling to care for and have around as a surefire friend but my mother was already 39 when she had me and, being her third, there were no more babies coming our way.

The dresser that was transplanted to the basement is In the Storage Facility section of the basement.  I often rifle through the drawers when I am bored and discover partnerless mittens along with random other outerwear like my brother’s knit Jets ski cap or dilapidated scarves that were bought at Korvette’s on sale.  It is the home for unwanted items that my mother is afraid to throw away – random batteries, old tablecloths, scraps of paper. It is a perfect place to hide my own stuff or candy wrappers that I am afraid to throw in the garbage because no one ever looks for anything there.  Sometimes, I drag a lawn chair in front of the dresser and pretend it is my drawing desk because I do not have a desk in my room like my brother does.  His new suite of furniture is all dark brown wood with modular components.  My parents splurged and bought almost as many pieces as their friends.  There are book shelves on top of the dressers making up a whole wall full of furniture.  There is a nearly full set of encyclopedias on the shelves. I suspect the last installments were set to come after my father left and my mother was too afraid to spend the money to complete the set. I have to sneak into my brother’s room when he is not there to use the encyclopedias. It seems ironic to me that the books would be stored in his room when he hardly ever attends school and will drop out in 11th grade while I am a straight A student who reads all the time. All the way at the end of the wall of furniture is the desk which sits below a small window. Occasionally I will climb up on the desk to peer out and see what is going on out on the street.  I can see all the 2-family houses across the street – all of which are also identical to each other.  Almost to the end of the block is my parents’ best friends’ granddaughter’s house and I can look out this window or the one in my mother’s bedroom and see if she is outside playing.  Sometimes I see the other neighbor kids playing stickball in the street but I am hesitant to go out and play with them because they tease me a lot.  They call me fat and all kinds of mean names which makes me want to go back inside and hide.

Right next to the dresser in the basement, at the very bottom of the stairs from the main floor is a closet, the centerpiece of the Storage Facility.  The closet is more like a crawl space as the ceiling is very low – probably no more than 4 feet or so.  My mother uses this to store miscellaneous items like lawn chairs, old board games and other items that are not critically important to her.  My brother and I like to set up the chairs in there sometimes and pretend we are in a supercharged elevator or space ship.  He convinced me when I was about 5 that the closet could take us up past the roof of the house but I was not allowed to open the doors because it would kill the engines and we would fall to our death.  I believed him about this and everything else he told me.  He is 5 years older than me and assumed he must be so much smarter than me. One day when we were walking to elementary school, he pointed out some odd footprints in the concrete.  He convinced me that they were dinosaur prints that had been there since the Jurassic period.  I shared this important information with all the other kids on the walk to school who laughed at my foolishness of believing that paw prints from a dog were actually the work of a dinosaur. They teased me relentlessly until we finished up at that school in sixth grade.

I roam the 200 or so square feet of the cold, unfinished basement constantly, looking for ways to fill my time when I am exiled down there by my mother.  She rarely lets me play upstairs because she is afraid I will make a mess and suggests that the basement is a more appropriate spot.  I guess she thinks it is ok for me to sit on the cold floor or to cuddle up in a lawn chair to read a book.  I guess, according to her, it is perfectly fine for me to have to wear a coat inside my house in order to stay warm in the cold winter months in that basement.  I try to create my own little sanctuary and find ways to make myself feel safe but sometimes it is difficult.  I get scared down in the basement.  I get lonely.

Behind the exercise bike and next to my mother’s stacks of canned goods in the Sundry Shop is the side-by-side refrigerator/freezer.  Every time my mother gets a new refrigerator in the kitchen, the old one makes it way down to the basement.  Everything seems to be exiled down here when it is not needed anymore.  My mother stocks that refrigerator with more of her disaster supplies.  I never notice how the perishable items make it into the rotation upstairs but there are tubs of margarine, cartons of eggs, containers of milk that sit alongside prepared food that my mother sometimes stores in anticipation of upcoming meals or parties.  In the freezer, my mother hides all the good stuff.  In there, she squirrels away her baked goods.  She loves to bake and has a penchant for sour cream cake made in a bundt pan.  She never makes anything homemade and we don’t own anything more sophisticated than a hand mixer so, if it does not come out of a box and require minimal effort, it is not going to be made in our house.  My mother is convinced that the sour cream cake is healthier than some other options like chocolate frosted cake or brownies.  She always looks for low-calorie options in order to try to keep her weight under control and to manage mine as well.  I usually am not permitted to eat any of the cakes she makes but I have figured out how to pull back the tin foil on the ones she stores in the freezer and pick off little pieces to satisfy my sweet tooth.  I then stick my finger into the frozen cool whip and lick its sticky goodness.  I hate myself for sneaking this food but I cannot help myself.  I am sad and it makes me feel better.  I know my mother is going to find out and be so mad at me but I can’t control it. I guess I will just wait and see how she will punish me for my misdeeds. But, in the moment, the food makes me feel safe.


christmas presentIn 1980 I was 13 and, for the first time, shopped for Christmas presents on my own, with my own money saved from babysitting.  I can still see the images of the busy street late one December afternoon, shortly after John Lennon was shot.  I felt the heaviness and significance of his murder despite not yet having discovered the Beatles in any meaningful way.  I knew a song or two but did not understand how legendary Lennon was and had never heard of The White Album or Abbey Road.  It was the first time I heard the powerful lyrics of  “Imagine” which was playing in every store I entered and I can still hear the words in my head as I walked from Woolworth’s to the stationery store to a few more little shops on that blustery cold afternoon in search of gifts.

What does not stand out to me as much, thankfully, is the heaviness I often felt during the holidays, particularly that year with the bittersweet freedom of shopping on my own darkened by the reality that I really had no one to buy for.  Christmas in 1980 was just going to be me and my mom and, frankly, we didn’t even really celebrate.  My mother was Jewish (lapsed, obviously, after having married and divorced a Catholic).  We didn’t have much money and, even in the best of times there were never any big holiday celebrations.  This year would be no different.  We might have been seeing my sister and her husband but that would have depended upon whether or not she and my mother were speaking.  Likely, it was just Mom and me, sitting alone in our house with me fantasizing about what Christmas could be.

Christmas, during my childhood, was often lonely.  My mother resented Christmas because it was not “her” holiday but she also did not observe her own Jewish holidays so there was no Hannukah celebrations either.  Both of my parents were often estranged from their siblings and parents because of conflicts which arose from their unwelcomed marriage and, as a result, we sufffered.  When we did actually celebrate the holidays, they felt small and joyless, often ending in conflicts between my parents or my siblings.  They were heavy, burdened events.  As a result, I felt like an outsider to all those around me who were showered in joyful traditions and family.  One of my more memorable Christmases was the year my parents first split up and my dad came to take me and my brother shopping for presents.  I was probably around 8 or 9 at the time and was filled with anticipation and excitement at the prospect of going to the toy store and picking out anything I wanted.  He came to fetch us in his little blue Mercedes convertible, the car he bought when he left my mother and moved in with his girlfriend.  It was the car he parked in our driveway one night in a drunken stupor and sat on the horn screaming obscenities at my mother.  I remember the police coming and I remember the frilly nightgown I wore as I stared out the window filled with shame.  I hated that car.  On the day he came to get us, I knew exactly what I wanted and could hardly believe that my father would agree to such a purchase.  But, I suppose a silver lining to divorce was parental guilt on his part and  I secured myself the Barbie Town House.  It was the most coveted toy of the year and  I could not believe my good fortune that I was getting the mack daddy of all Barbie residences.  Sure, the beach house was cool but this was the Town House – with an elevator!  When we brought home our loot, my mother, who was resentful and angry that our father had chosen to shower us with gifts, took everything from us and prevented us from opening our new toys until Christmas day.  It was on that cold, overcast day that I was sent outside to the backyard, suited up in my hand-me-down winter coat that my mother secured from my sister or one of the older girls on the block, where I set up my house on the redwood picnic table and, in gloved hands, assembled the furniture and let my Barbies have the Christmas celebration that was fit for such a dream house.

As I grew older, I loved the idea of buying gifts, wrapping them in beautiful papers with bows and matching name tags. I would buy presents for anyone I could, even if it meant buying a Hello Kitty eraser for one of my friends at school – as long as I could wrap it up in a neat little package and pile it with any other gifts I had assembled.  We never had a tree so I kept my gifts on the floor of my closet, usually hidden from my mother who thought such indulgences were unnecessary and wasteful.  I would stare at the packages, all beautifully stacked in all their colorful splendor.  I dreamt of becoming a gift wrapper at one of the department stores and, the first time I saw “Miracle on 34th Street”, I fantasized about what it would be like to work at a store like Macy’s during the holidays.

Every year, since that stroll down the boulevard in 1980, I dreamt of big festive Christmas celebrations.  I longed to have a big, extended family with a tall, proud tree, glimmering with lights and ornaments that took my breath away.  I wished for the nonstop arrival of guests, bearing gifts and plates of food and the laughter and storytelling of Christmases past.  And every year, especially after my children were born, I tried to make that happen.  My husband and I celebrated our first Christmas in NJ in our little apartment, with a little tree but we spent Christmas Eve at his uncle’s house with his big Italian family.  They got a live tree every year and would collect it and trim it on Christmas Eve.  It was an event filled with tradition and merriment and I loved it.  In later years, after we had children, we celebrated here in our home, relishing in the delight of the kids as they prepared on Christmas Eve for the arrival of Santa and awoke with amazement at the abundance of toys Santa managed to squeeze down our narrow little chimney.  There has always been a beautiful tree with lights and ornaments that we collected over the years, imprinted with photos and dates and memories of our life as a family.

It all seems so perfect and magical, just as I always imagined it being.  But, alas, my baggage is heavy.  My memories are dark.  My loneliness associated with the holidays is still so vivid that I can taste it, feel it, smell it.  So, as we have created traditions for our children over the years, I recognize that I have spent a lot of effort overcompensating and creating manufactured events to make up for the shortcomings of my life before my husband and children.  It never occurred to me, even once, that I was inadvertently repurposing the demons that haunted me even though they were not part of my children’s reality.  They never had a reason to feel that their holiday celebrations were anything but magical regardless of how many people came to our house, how many presents were found under the tree or whether or not we got dressed up or used fine china for our dinner.  Those were issues that mattered only to me and the pain attached to these ideas were rooted squarely in my past and resulted from my lacking.

This year, as we began our planning for the holidays, I talked to my husband and children about all of the possible activities and events.  I talked about going out to cut down our tree with a group of friends and shared the various invitations to holiday parties.  We discussed who we might want to invite over for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or options for spending the holiday with others away from our home.  And, to my shock, both of my children, now aged 9 and 12, said they wanted the holidays to be at home with just the four of us.  They did not want any big events.  They did not want to go to lots of parties.  They wanted us to go together, alone, to find our tree, trim it ourselves and carry out our family traditions together.  All I could hear was that we would be alone and all they communicated was that we would be together.  For them, our little family of 4 represented peace and comfort and security and love.  For me, it had always felt too small, too simple, too alone.

I stopped speaking.  I listened to their words and literally felt myself healing.  I allowed myself to be buoyed by my children.  I indulged in their sense of love and security and borrowed it for myself.  For right there in that discussion at our kitchen table my children assured me that they were not me and that their reality was nothing even close to mine.  They assured both me and my husband that we had given them the one gift neither of us had been afforded – unconditional love.  They were happy.  Happy with our little family of four and our quiet traditions of baking, playing games and watching movies together on the couch without the distractions of others who might burst our little bubble. There need not be more tradition, more festivity and more stuff.  They required nothing more than Mom and Dad and each other and they released me from my penance of working feverishly to create events to make the holidays special and memorable for my kids. It already was.

Yes, in 2012, the tables began to turn and my kids started to teach me.  My kids provided a much-needed  reality check that the world does not always exist in the way that I think it does.  My kids reminded me, without ever saying the words or even knowing the stories to share, that they did not have to play outside on Christmas day with the new most treasured toy because I was too angry or resentful of my ex-husband to let them play with their new loot inside.  My kids shined a light on the fact that they never sat alone in the house on Christmas lonely or bored and never had to stockpile gifts in their closets because there was no tree to place them under.  My children never knew anything but a beautiful magical Christmas and, to them, Christmas was wonderful because the four of us were together, regardless of who else showed up, even if we never went anywhere and despite the packages mostly coming from mom and dad.  To my children, the most wonderful and precious memories were the ones that included the four of us being together on Christmas morning, opening our gifts, laughing in delight as they screamed and cheered at their acquisition of “THE best present EVER” over and over again.

So, for me, in 2012 I certainly got THE best present EVER.  I got the gift of knowing that my children are happy and that their memories of Christmas will be joyful and, hopefully, filled with traditions that they will pass down to their children.  Mission accomplished.  Amen.