Down in Mom’s Cellar
Last week, I went down to my mom’s basement to do her laundry.
Except for the washer and dryer, no one ever uses the basement any more. The stuff down there has been down there for years. Anything useful was rescued years ago.
On the beam that runs across the ceiling, there are a bunch of little wooden toys and Christmas ornaments. My father, when he retired, tried his hand at woodworking. When he had a success, he brought his creation up out of the cellar – he had a shelf in the den with little cars and cats. If he had an especially good doodad, he usually gave it to one of us grown kids – for our corresponding shelf.
What my father defined as especially good was as magnanimous as he was. By which I mean, he was always generous in his praise. He wasn’t hard on us and he wasn’t hard on himself. Doing your best made you worthy of admiration and applause.
Dad’s woodworking skills were primitive. He didn’t mind. I didn’t either. I still have one little ornament – Santa driving a car (for some unknown reason) – that adorns my tree every year.
In the cellar, on that beam, sits the evidence of how hard he tried. Because there are rows of Santas driving cars that are – well, not so good. I think he must have made a dozen terrible car-driving Santas before he had one good enough to make it out of the basement and into my hands.
Every week, when I go down to do Mom’s wash, I like to give a nod to those imperfect projects up on the beam. I can picture my dad concentrating on tiny faces and wheels and headlights. He would be saying to himself, “Not too bad this time. I’ll try it again.”
Dad taught me that you get an unlimited number of chances. No one in the family had only one shot to succeed. We all could try as many times as it took.
There was no time limit.
I remember complaining to my father when I was about twenty-five that I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. And Dad laughed and said, “I’m in my fifties and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” Which, now that I think about it, is probably why I – a financial executive – was able to write three novels in my sixties.
My mother’s cellar is a testament to trying.
On the opposite side of the basement, invisible when you are only interested in the laundry, is an old piano.
When I say old, I mean ancient. This is a player piano. The player part only worked occasionally but we kids worked hard to pump out a song every so often. Mostly it was the piano we all learned to play.
Mom grew up poor, but she made her impossible dream come true – that she would one day have a piano. She bought this old enormous relic for a ridiculously small amount of money that was a fortune for her at the time. It was a scene from a slapstick comedy getting it into the second-floor apartment we lived in at the time. I don’t remember it since it was close to seventy years ago; I only know the hilarious stories about it. But I do remember getting it back out with the same amount of insanity when we moved to the house we live in now. The new house had a walk-out basement. No stairs. So that’s where the piano was carried. And stands to this day.
It’s a testament to effort. The effort of my mother to be the owner of a piano. The effort of getting it in and out of a house where it didn’t fit through the door. The effort of us kids who sat at that piano every day and painstakingly learned to play it. The effort of affording those lessons – we could afford $4.00 for two lessons a week, but there were three of us girls (my brother was a baby), so we alternated who skipped a week. My mother’s effort, sitting with us, going over what we learned, learning to play from us. And the effort of getting an old piano roll to play every once in a while, just for the peculiar joy of it.
When I did the laundry this week, I gave my usual smile to my dad’s woodworking flops, and walked around the corner to take a peek at the old piano.
Another homage to effort greeted me.
Ivy from the back yard had pushed its way through the edges of the door frame. The whole door was covered on the inside with happy, healthy, determined ivy.
And one long tendril reached for the piano.
That ivy knows it’s in the right place.