Cleaning Out the Basement

I was crying.

It was 1:00 in the morning, a Thursday, and I was sitting on the floor, my back against my bed, crying.

My room was strewn with boxes, garbage bags and mildew. For three days, I had been lugging up from the basement molded, dusty cardboard boxes labeled “DAWN SAVE.” I had sorted through Barbie accessories, parts of Melanie’s Mall. I had sat, patiently, on my bed, pouring myself into plastic pieces until I could formulate that yes, this was a Barbie kitchen and no, I don’t have the rest of that Barbie grocery cart.

I recognized plastic brushes, miniature baby bottles, tiny hairdryers and mismatched shoes. Horse collection, Littlest Pet Shops, Melanie Mall, Barbie, respectively.

So much pink. So much plastic. I couldn’t believe what a capital materialist I was when I was six, seven, ten. Boxes and boxes and boxes of toys and playthings and dolls and animals and beads and paper items that had to be sorted, sniffed, thrown out because of the mold infestation.

The Polly Pockets were taken out and examined. I opened each case, sprayed it with Lysol. I watched the beaded moisture dry as I played with each delicate piece. I remember this. I carefully clicked open a mint-green case, the first I had ever owned. Larger than other kits, I opened up the bottom compartment and saw all of my tiny dolls there, collected and untouched for years. They were still clean, still in perfect condition. I never broke anything.

Blue battery acid had leaked into one box, and the bottoms of two others were completely worn through. My room, which usually carries the scents of acutely named Bath & Body Works products, was suffocating. The oppressive atmosphere reeked of basement, of mildew and stuffy, unwashed clothes. I could smell it on my hands, the rug. The wooden floor, normally spotlessly slick, boasted the blackened imprints of rotten boxes.

My nose was stuffy, I sneezed frequently. My eyes would water, my legs would cramp. I didn’t have room to sit; my computer chair had been moved into the living room, and my bed was covered with clean, fresh containers in which I would place the sorted, freshly-Lysoled items. The space beneath my desk had been plugged with stuffed animals, and my closet blocked off with a collection of cats worthy of being featured on Kitschy Living.

It was a disaster, my room. My obsessions with cleanness and neatness and organization were gone and erased and covered; they were buried in cardboard and breakable plastic. I couldn’t sleep for the three nights my room was buried; it was suffocating and claustrophobic. I couldn’t understand how my grandmother, a hoarder of furniture, clothes and expired food, could nest in a similar environment. My furniture (which also happens to be lined up with my floorboards) was inaccessible. Indeed, I had but one small circle on the floor of my 15’x15’ square bedroom in which to sit and sort.

And so I did. Cross-legged, cramped and claustrophobic, I sorted. Trash. Trash. Smells like mold, trash. Keep. Maybe. Keep. No. Ha! I remember this. Donate. Donate. Donate. Donate. TRASH.

The Goodwill pile on the far side of my bed continued to grow. It encompassed stuffed animals, unread and uninteresting books, aged dolls and unopened puzzles. Totes of smelly school papers were dumped out and trashed, but not before I examined national skills assessments.

I noticed that my handwriting had not changed since seventh grade. I realized that I had studied igneous rocks in eighth, and that I had, quite literally, forgotten everything. I had studied vocabulary words that I had long since incorporated into my daily language. I had excelled in spelling, sometimes struggled in science. Teachers frequently commented that my frequent absences had kept me from learning, and yet there, on my report card, were six straight As. Was I always a perfectionist?

The answer is yes. I’ve always had order, always had a system. Each thing in its place, its proper place, at all times. I have always known where to find a specific item, and I have always taken care of my belongings.

When I unearthed Barbies from numerous boxes and totes, I found that I had more than thirty! I kept just a few for my future child/children, and donated most. Some I trashed. It was devastating to me, to physically place something my mother had worked hard to purchase, in a trash bag. But there was no way I could keep her; her hair was moldy, her feet spliced open, her face smudged. I wiped the dirt from my old doll’s face, mentally apologizing for the years of inadequate storage.

The first thing that nearly made me cry was a music box. Other items, such as photographs and baby clothing, had forced me to stop a minute or two and reflect. But the music box was different. It was cracked, absolutely, split down the side and back. It was from my early days at “The White House,” when I was two, and I would creep out of my crib and across my room to wind it up. The colors fascinated me, and I would always listen to the gears turning, whispering, gritting against each other as they caused the fiber optics to turn yellow, orange, red, green, purple.

Thinking of the old house, and how I would sit on the floor, blanket in hand, and watch the music box, I set it down in my doorway. I plugged it in, turned the switch. Yellow. Peach. Orange. The colors rotated and twisted, a palette of digital color. I slowly clicked the knob until it could go no further. It tinkled, tapped, tuned itself and hummed a cheery tune I recognized. My back against the wall, I slid down and onto the floor. I pulled my knees to my chest and rested my head on them, humming to the tune. I remember this.

Ollie came to investigate. She sniffed me, my feet, my hands, the music box. She pawed at it once, meowed, then left. She didn’t like the noise. I, however, found it comforting. It was painful, reminiscing. We grow up too fast.

I found a Popular Mechanics magazine from 1998. Its feature article concerned The Titanic, a ship that I had been interested in long before the movie. Along with the magazine came several books, all of which concerned the doomed luxury liner. Then there were the chapter books, ones I had read four years before I heard the name “Leonardo.”

Titanic was a fad, an obsession of mine. I had the cinematography books, the biographies of the stars. However, I found other remnants of childhood trends, including a green Duncan yo-yo (fifth grade), a collection of horses (fourth grade), a box of magic tricks (third grade) and all of my Goosebumps memorabilia, including a furry green … hand. Electric green, it resembled a muff from four feet away, with the exception that it featured inch-long black claws. What the hell was I thinking? I asked myself, stroking the fur. I can’t keep this. I rediscovered Beadie Babies (I once had more than 100) and photographs from Las Vegas. There were the Lisa Frank folders from second, third and fourth grades, and my Lion King merchandise from before that.

In the folders were worksheets that I had designed myself. Math problems, science questions, fractions, sentence structure. I had taken my elementary textbooks home with me and copied the extra credit questions out of the back. I had had the intention of educating myself throughout the summer, and advancing my multiplication and division skills beyond that of my classmates.

Scarily enough, I did.

I found the formal workbooks my mother had purchased when I was seven. They were for sixth grade math levels, and included percents and basic algebraic expressions. I had begun to teach myself “if 6 + x = 12, then what is x / 3?” years before I needed to learn it.

I discovered Beanie Babie fan packs and Goosebumps fan packs. I found kitschy McDonalds toys. I found a key chain that reminded me of a friend back in Indiana, because, for awhile, his desk had been littered with liquid-dispensing illusions. After dumping out a large container of stuffed animals, I noticed that one Teeny Beanie carried the initials of my cousin. I reached my phone (buried beneath Barbie clothing) and texted her.

“I’m cleaning out all of my childhood things and found this with your initials on it. WHY DO I HAVE THESE THINGS?”

In the box with the Lisa Frank folders, I found a blue air chair.

There was the pillowcase mom sewed for me when my room was painted Parisian style, with vertical lines alternating white, rosy pink, white, rosy pink.

There were some items that I cruised through, blazing through memories and broken childhood. There were innumerous paper items that I had made for my Barbies, as well as my Beanie Babie city. I had boxes of “cheese” for a grocery store, folded and colored paper that served as candy bars. I had bunched and glued Kleenex to toothpicks, declaring it cotton candy. I had made books, food, electronics and Christmas presents. I made sure to represent any mundane item in my character’s lives, window shades, sleeping bags and pillowcases alike. Even they had miniature air chairs. I remember these.

But none of these things—the Beanie Babies, the Little Tyke dollhouse, the school papers, the music box—compared to what I deliberately waited to do last—the books.

There were nine boxes total, but I slowly whittled and narrowed them down to six over the course of the afternoon and evening. The boxes, which are now stacked, packed and ready to go, contain Goosebumps books, American Girl books, Sabrina books, books from the Animorphs series, Dear America books, the entire collection of Little House on the Prairie books, and stacks of Berenstain Bears books.

I don’t know how or when or why, but I remember, suddenly, that I was crying.

The books of my childhood were scattered about me. My knees were once again up to my chest, but my left hand graced the covers of the books on the floor, touching Fat Cat and Miss Lollipop’s Lion, a book whose inside cover boasts my mother’s childish scrawl, “Wendy, 1963.” I cracked each both of the books open, reading to myself and laughing at the absurdity. It was when I was skimming across the poverty of Miss Lollipop when I began to feel my eyes well up.

I realized that of all the toys, of all the saved clothes and photographs and memories, that the things that meant the most to me were the books. My mother had sacrificed so much to purchase me new things each time we went to town when, really, it was unnecessary. I was happy with my books, with the adventures of bears and witches and cats and pioneers.

I remember this. I remembered sitting on the green shag carpet of “The Yellow House,” turning page of each picture book. I would read aloud but, even then, my impatience would encourage me to skip larger passages. I remembered snacking on Oreos, sitting up in bed with one leg crossed over the other, a book propped open on my stomach. I remembered the first time I read Harry Potter. I remembered flipping through Animorphs books, watching the character turn to animal, animal to character, and again. At the time, they would have all been kept on the two-shelf white bookcase next to my bed.

The books were unlike anything else, for I remembered each one; the character names, the pictures. I cried with recognition and with heartbreak, knowing that if I read them now, I would be a pathetic, unemployed twenty-three-year-old remembering days gone by. And yet, that is exactly what I did.

I read The Cat in The Hat. I read Miss Lollipop’s Lion. I read The Fat Cat and Meet Clifford and A Fly Went By and Are you My Mother? I read each and all, at 1:00 in the morning, with wet eyes and a swelled heart. Book after book, I skimmed and read and admired and looked at. And with each one, with each page, with each beloved mildewed page, I ran my hand back and forth, back and forth, whispering, I remember this.


  1. oh my gosh the memories just started flooding back looking at all of this hahaha the barbies, the POLLY POCKETS! haha love :)

  2. This was beautiful! So many of those things brought back memories for me too...especially the picture of that autograph bear! I loved mine!! What an emotional experience going through all of that must have been!

  3. this is so crazy because i think you were exactly like me. i had all of these things (and was obsessed with Polly Pocket!), and i also frequently missed school when i was little but always got straight A's. You've got me wanting to visit my mom's house and pull out all of my old things!!
    xo dana


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