Family Matters

Lost, and Found

Rediscovering a Subterranean Kingdom of Memories

Magazine Issue
May/June 2011
Family Matters May-Jun 2011

My mother and I sat in her kitchen. “Daddy told me not to sell the house,” she said.

I waited a beat to drain the exasperation from my voice; to remind myself that she’d lived in this house for 45 years, that moving is a major traumatic event for anyone—more so for those as change-resistant as my mother. “He meant don’t sell it right away; not right after he died,” I said. “He didn’t mean not to sell it when you’re 85.”

“I guess,” she said, which only meant that she’d heard me, not that she agreed. I assumed this conversation had dead-ended, as so many before had when the subject of selling the house and moving to a nearby senior housing development came up. But she surprised me a few days later by telling me she’d engaged a real-estate agent who was coming over on Saturday.

Red-haired Ruth, friendly and perky but all business, younger than my mother but older than I, strode into the house with an almost military bearing—even her cream-colored scarf accenting her navy blue pantsuit looked crisp. She exuded confidence that the three-bedroom suburban ranch in an excellent school district would sell in a heartbeat. “It’s practically market ready,” she said, inspecting each room, my mother and I, lowly sergeants, following in her wake.

“Put the tea canister in the cupboard,” she said in the kitchen, “and get rid of that basket. Keep the detergent under the sink….” My mother wrung her hands; I jotted down her every instruction, trying to hide my dismay. If she found fault with my mother’s uncluttered house, whose kitchen and bathroom floors you could literally eat off of, what would she think of mine? What would I have to throw away, hide, or rearrange to make it optimally saleable?

“Now, what about the basement,” Ruth asked. “Finished or unfinished?” I knew this moment would come, but I dreaded it, as did my mother, who audibly groaned and said, “I’ll wait up here.” The basement was the last place either of us wanted to see.

“I’m going downstairs,” my father would say. After 40 years, I can still hear him. He tried for a neutral tone, without feeling, almost as if it had just occurred to him, but we all knew that this was the moment he’d been waiting for, the reward he’d counted on all day, ever since he dragged himself out of bed at 6 in the morning to get to work—he was an engineer—and then come home to sit through a family dinner. He’d imagined it all the while he had to hear his daughters tell him that he had no idea how hard it was to be a student, that suffering through history and having to prepare for tests was much, much harder than anything he did at work. He waited for it as he talked to his parents on the phone, and supervised our homework, and sat in the living room with my mother as they read the newspaper or watched TV, until he finally felt that he’d earned his reward, and could give in, drawn downstairs as if by a mistress.

“It’s a mess down there,” I said, opening the wooden door off the kitchen.

“I’m sure I’ve seen worse,” Ruth said, leading the way. At the last step, she stopped in her tracks. “Wow, this is even bigger than I thought.”

“I was 12 when we moved here,” I told her, as she shone her flashlight into the crawl space and examined the boiler. We’d been living in an apartment in Queens. My parents, children of immigrants, house-hunted for years—long enough for me to realize that they were more in love with the concept of home-ownership than with any particular house. Yet something about this house struck a chord with both of them, almost from the moment we first walked in the door. I remember my mother as she stood in the spacious kitchen, not believing how much distance separated the fridge and the stove; my father got lost in the basement.

“The main waste pipe has a crack. It needs to be fixed,” Ruth said. “Where are the gas and water mains?” I shrugged, and turned toward my father’s workroom. The last time I’d been here was during one of the interminably bereft afternoons soon after my father had died, nearly a quarter-century ago, when I’d come to visit my mother, when there was nothing to do but sit in a room together. My son Ben, then about 5, unhappy and restless in the blanketing gloom, tugged me toward the basement door—“I want to hammer,” he said, probably remembering the many happy hours he’d spent down there, my father giving him nails to hammer and wood to cut. Or maybe he thought he’d discover his grandfather hiding in a corner, waiting to surprise him. What could death possibly mean to a 5-year-old? I barely knew what it meant to me. That afternoon, as now, the workroom felt more like a graveyard than the cemetery in which we’d recently buried my father, and Ben, divining my sadness, didn’t stay down there long, nor did he ever ask to return.

“Your mother told me your father died too soon,” Ruth said, dusting off her hands, her pants. She was more intrepid than I’d have imagined, especially for someone as impeccably dressed.

“He was 61,” I said. It had seemed old then, when I was 34, but now it seemed impossibly young. I did some quick computing—58 was the age at which my father was first diagnosed. My age now, exactly.

The sound of Ruth’s high heels clicking toward me on the cracked cement floor interrupted my family arithmetic. “This is really something,” she said, standing beside me, staring at the cobwebbed workspace. For the first time, I felt that she wasn’t appraising, simply looking. There on the table stood the skeletal model for the ship’s clock my father had been in the midst of building—there were his gloves, the work shoes he changed into, the shop apron he wore, the blueprints with his precise penciled sketches and calculations, everything covered with a layer of dust so thick it looked woven, like flannel. And then one night, as he did every night, he simply left, taking off his apron, pulling out the plug from the fluorescent light—the light I’d just plugged in—fully expecting to return the next day.

“That was his first workbench,” I told her, one he cobbled together from scraps—a couple of sawhorses and an old door. I pointed out his original blue toolbox, which was meant to hold cash, and explained how the space had grown, sprawling over the years to include new worktables and cabinets, a couple of bookshelves, a stool, a pegboard, until it’d become a house within a house, a private, three-walled lean-to. This is where he felt the most free to be himself. No one cleaned up after him; no one even came to talk to him. When my sister and I were small, he’d invited us down, to teach us that you hold a hammer near its heel for maximum striking power; that when you start to saw, you go in one direction only; that you have to listen for that moment when a screw takes its first bite of the wood. But we eventually lost interest, and I don’t think he minded much.

Ruth’s concentration was waning, too, until she noticed the power tools—the expensive radial arm saw and metal drill press—crouching in the corners of the workshop like prehistoric beasts poised on their haunches debating whether to rouse themselves for the hunt. “You could easily sell those,” she said, snapping back to professional attention. “This lathe alone would go for a pretty penny.”

I remembered that lathe. My father had used it to turn a couple of lamps and a set of napkin rings I still used, crafted from a cherry tree he’d chopped down. He fancied himself a pioneer, a survivalist. He’d spent years convincing his family that he could see us through any emergency, catastrophe, or natural disaster, but in the end, he couldn’t save himself.

And if we sold the house, where his spirit had come to settle, he’d disappear for a second and final time. The things he loved would be scattered—neither my husband nor sons were as handy as my father had been; though I prized his possessions, I had no place for them, no real desire for them, wouldn’t know how to use them. Yet they were ballast; they anchored me not only to the house, but to the idea of home itself. To dismantle all this would be to lose him again, an act akin to scattering his ashes to the wind.

“I wonder if he saved the manuals,” Ruth said, and as she began poking around, I did, too, feeling heartsick.

The inventory was astonishing. So many objects from our family life had migrated down here that it was hard to disentangle each one from the mass, to discern the underlying orderliness. Lining the shelves were Martinson coffee cans, each with its own label; Hellman’s mayonnaise jars for screws of different sizes; even old baby-food jars salvaged from who knows when, each containing its own species of washer or bolt. An old shower curtain was draped over the power tools. Nothing was tapped for its original purpose—an old weight from my grandfather’s plumbing supply store held rubber bands, the shelf under the desk storing folded blueprints was once the fruit drawer in an old refrigerator. From an old dresser he’d salvaged a square handle—no scrap, apparently, small enough to be sacrificed. He’d saved odd bits of wood, pieces of paper, metal filings, strips of linoleum—envisioning a second life for everything. He’d rescued whatever came his way, recycled, resuscitated it, and placed it all within arm’s reach, the workroom a custom-made garment he’d stitched to his specifications.

As I stood in his jerry-built subterranean kingdom, fingering each item, gauging its heft, studying it from every angle, wondering where it came from, how he held it, feeling the ridges worn away by his fingers, seeing the teeth marks in the pencils he always clenched in his mouth, holding the miniature measuring tape he kept in his pocket and that was always warm, he came slowly, astonishingly alive. It wasn’t that I remembered him—I conjured him; he was revived. I heard his step behind me, watched as he placed his hand over mine, felt his breath on my neck. He was there with me. I very nearly said his name aloud. On the verge of losing my father forever, I’d found him one last time.

“I’m going upstairs,” Ruth said. “Your mother must be wondering what happened to us. I have what I need.”

“I’ll be up in a minute,” I said, not quite ready to leave, though I had what I needed, too.


Illustration © Adam Niklewicz

Roberta Israeloff

Roberta Israeloff is a freelance writer who lives and teaches writing in East Northport, New York.