The house where I lived as a child had a crawl space, not a cellar, but my grandmother’s house had a cellar. It was a subterranean place where I loved to look, but I was afraid of it sometimes, wondering what might lurk there after dark. I was in the cellar frequently, and I still know it like I know my own house now. The smell was a mixture of must, coal, laundry detergent, and overlaid with the smell of fermenting cider. I loved it.
It had three small, wide, but short windows, one to the north, which in spring was mostly obscured by the Lily of the Valley that grew near my Grandparents’ front porch. In the main room of the basement, the second window was adjacent the north window, on the south wall, overlooking the backyard and the chicken house. The third was in the root cellar, and it overlooked my grandmother’s two apricot trees and the windowpane wire fence at the property line. All three gave enough light that no electricity was needed during the day.
On the east was a coal room with a door, shut to keep out cold air that might come through the coal chute. This was connected to the outside world just off the driveway, so that coal might be sent down the chute into a neat, dusty pile. By the time I was seven or eight, the coal burning furnace had been replaced with one that burned propane. I liked the mystery of the coal room that still held a small amount of coal.
At the bottom of the bare wood stairs, my grandmother had a wringer washer and a modern electric dryer. In summer, she lugged baskets of wet laundry up the basement stairs and out the back door to hang them on the clothesline that stretched north to south, between the house and the chicken house, to catch the full benefit of the west wind. In winter, she had lines in the basement, and only used the dryer as a last resort.
In the northwest corner of the big room of the basement, my grandmother had insisted that the house have a shower. The proper bathroom upstairs had a tub, no shower, and was neatly and perfectly finished in pink porcelain tile. Pink was the color of the late 40’s and early 50s, and Grandma Lena embraced it wholeheartedly. My grandfather Clarence worked as a machine repairman at Pontiac motors, and came home five nights a week covered in machine oil. The shower downstairs was for him, so he wouldn’t soil her bathroom upstairs.
I remember sometimes being allowed to shower down there. It wasn’t a shower with tile walls and floors, or any kind of enclosure, and not even a shower curtain for privacy. It had hot and cold running water pipes, attached to a 2 X 4 on the cement block wall. A chrome soap dish was its only other appurtenance. The perimeter of the shower had been defined by a raised cement lip of about four or five inches, and at the center of the enclosure was the floor drain. The Spartan look of it did not matter to me, a child used to an outhouse and baths in a portable galvanized tub. It may have been the first place I was able to shower.
I remember the sweet smell of soap, the new feeling of cascading warm water on my skin, and the feel of shampoo lather in my long dark hair. At home, we did not have the luxury of shampoo. We used powdered laundry soap to wash our hair and mostly cold water from the tap. It was harsh, and combing out my long fine hair was painful afterward.
The last and smaller room was my grandmother’s root cellar. A door separated it from the main room and was closed to keep it cool. She had bushel baskets of apples, potatoes, hickory nuts, and other things, all from her garden. One wall held rough, deep, and tall shelves, filled with neat rows of preserved fruit and vegetables. Her jellies were beautiful, clear, in robust colors, and all were delicious. On the north wall, the coolest wall, were two large wood barrels on their sides atop a raised platform, with taps on one end of each barrel. One held last year’s cider, now turned to vinegar, and the other held this year’s cider, still sweet for a time, and then once it turned to vinegar, was siphoned off and became part of the other cask.
This cellar sometimes still populates my dreams. In those dreams, the cellar is vast and filled with treasures, old antique furniture, and more. I have my pick of them. It is the place that I remember to bless for the fruits of my grandmother’s labor and the security of my childhood when I was with her. I could be naked there in her basement, and be safe. I was sent to get jars of fruit or preserves for my grandmother’s table and eat them under her watchful and loving eye. Those are the treasures I still seek in my dreams. They are truly vast and wonderful.