The Basement Beckons by
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Roller blading in the basement

I have lived most of my life in an uneasy relationship with dwellings that have basements. I can still picture the unfinished basement of our two-flat in Detroit. There were shelves of canned goods in mason jars, usually fruit and pickles. The ceiling was crisscrossed with lines for drying clothes, secured by wooden clothespins. There was no dryer, but I will never forget the washing machine with a wringer attached to squeeze out excess water before hanging the clothes.

How I remember the washing machine

Our grungy basement was perfect for free play, a thing all kids need.

My younger brother and I shared that two-flat with our cousins who were approximately the same age. One rainy day, we decided to play hide and seek in the basement, a game made more challenging and exciting by all of the hanging sheets. When boredom set in, we convinced my youngest cousin to put his hand in the wringer. My cousin Annette and I must have been five at the time, while our younger brothers were three. Of course, Stevie started screaming once his hand was stuck, and my mother and aunt barreled down the stairs to rescue him. There were no more basement games to follow, and soon after, we moved to the suburbs.

Our suburban abode was a small ranch-style house with the typical 1950s basement. Half of it was a recreation room with a TV, old sofa, wet bar (for the very few parties my parents had?), ping pong table, fake wood paneling, and tile floor. The other half was unfinished laundry space and storage. One of my brothers decorated the laundry/storage area by writing “Ricky loves Darlene” in shoe polish across a wall. For some reason, my parents never attempted to cover his graffiti. Perhaps it was acceptable because no one used that space but my mother and it was behind a closed door. The Rec Room was cold and my brothers and I never spent time there alone. Basements were not very appealing back then.

My kids felt the same way about our unfinished basement. They preferred to play in the attic, which was finished and carpeted. Most of their toys were up there. The basement was for wild games if they dared to go down there. To get to the basement, they had to pass the creepy crawl space. Most of the lights were on pull strings. My youngest would never venture into it alone.

One way to have fun in a basement

Despite my daughter’s fears of creatures that might have lurked down there, I’m going to make a case for basements. Aside from providing abundant storage, they are spaces that invite free play with almost no rules or restrictions. Kids can write on the floor and walls with chalk. They can create art projects without worrying about making a mess. They can swing from things attached to the ceiling and roller blade all over the floors. During the pandemic, one of my daughters used hers as a makeshift ballet studio and the other set up a basketball hoop and old cushions for winter mayhem.

When we bought our big old house back in 1975, we imagined fixing up the basement to be more like the rec rooms in our childhood homes. But time and money got away from us, and the kids had plenty of places to hang out with friends on the finished attic floor. Looking back, I’m glad we never got around to it. Our grungy basement was perfect for free play, a thing all kids need. In the end, the basement beckoned out grandkids and provided a space for the creativity and mess that make childhood so special.

The marble run set behind the rocking chair was a favorite

 

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: been there, funny, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Basements could be creepy, I agree Laurie. Our Detroit basement was partially finished – it had a finished room and we held birthday parties and Halloween parties there. We huddled in a storage room under the stairs when tornadoes threatened.

    When we moved to the suburbs, the basement was entirely unfinished, with just a concrete floor and the support pillars for the house. I DID go roller skating down there in the winter, so it was a place for that sort of unrestricted play, but with not much light, it was not inviting. Your attic space sounds much more pleasant. I love the ballerina photo (I presume that’s a granddaughter). She has amazing flexibility.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I even had my sweet 16 party in our rec room in Oak Park, MI. We used the ping pong table for eating and were very dressed up for a basement party. When the pandemic hit, my daughter had to find a space for her daughter to take her zoom ballet classes and practice. And her other daughter needed room on the cold/rainy pandemic days to move. She loved roller blading and moved Alexa down there for musical accompaniment. Basements can be lifesavers for all sorts of storms!

  2. Wonderful Laurie, I’m not surprised the nursery school educator in you knows how to use basements creatively for kids , no matter how configured or sparse the space!

    Your grandkids are adorable!

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Your description hit beautifully on all the basement themes—I think many of us had similar experiences with varieties of work and play spaces and it is fun to hear our stories with slightly different takes. I agree it is nice to have a safe place for unstructured play where there isn’t much so damage. Which isn’t to say kids couldn’t get into mischief. And ouch! To the wringer story—hope fingers ended up okay.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      He was fine, which makes me think maybe there was some kind of safety stop on it if something too thick (like a hand) got trapped in it. Since we moved our washer/dryer upstairs in out house and removed an old toilet that overflowed as soon as we moved into the house, our basement was pretty child-proof. We had many “houses” created from empty boxes down there and let the kids decorate them with paint or markers. When we had to clean out our basement for our move to a condo, it took us weeks.

  4. Marian says:

    You got me at the washing machine with the wringer, Laurie, and I laughed out loud. We didn’t have one of those, but I do remember them. A while back a younger colleague mentioned something about “being caught in a ringer (sic)” and I had to explain to him what that actually was. Made me feel old, but ah, well. It’s great that basements became a refuge for activity for your grandchildren during COVID. They certainly needed an outlet for free play, much lacking for today’s kids.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I’m sure younger folks, including my children, can’t imagine how we lived without a clothes dryer. Even after we moved to the suburbs, we still hung our clothes outside to dry. They smelled great, but any rain made us scramble to bring them in and hanging them in the basement in cold weather was also a drag. I’m sure my mother was happy when we finally got the clothes dryer.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    A lovely story, Laurie, with terrific pictures. (I’m assuming the washing machine one is not actually from your family album.) And, while you describe an ambivalent relationship with basements, it is clear that you have lovely memories of yours, unfinished though they may have been. Indeed, you make a charming and compelling case for the joys of an unfinished one. That said, I don’t know how we would live without our current, fully-finished one, with my very own “Retro Den.” (Sort of like a Bat Cave, only better.)

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I think the unfinished phenomenon is something kids enjoy because it is a space they can’t ruin, no matter how hard they try. On the other hand, a “Retro Den” is a pretty nice thing at our stage of life. Enjoy yours.

  6. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, as always, Laurie, and I love your pictures too. Coming late to the comments, I echo what everyone else has said. Interesting that your kids liked playing in the attic better than the basement, but I guess there isn’t an interesting story connected to that.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    When you watch a lot of “Chiller” and “Chiller Theater” on local TV, and read horror comics and and HP Lovecraft stories by flashlight in bed, the eldritch possibilities of a dark, quiet basement can be endless….

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