When I was young, I loved visiting Grandma and Grandpa Allegra — which was weird, really, since neither one of them ever seemed very happy to have me around.
Unlike my doting maternal grandparents, they never asked me questions or told me stories or drove me to the Five and Ten to pick out a Matchbox car. They never plied me with ice cream or candy. They never played games with me; in fact, their house had no games or toys in it at all – not even a stray crayon, which was pretty much all I needed to entertain myself in those days.
Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not quite sure that Grandma and Grandpa Allegra understood that I was a child. Their Christmas gifts support this theory. Every single year they gave me the same thing: cash and a box of handkerchiefs. It was a generous gift, but not a fun one.
At Grandma and Grandpa Allegra’s house, fun was never given; you had to go and find it.
One of my favorite childhood pastimes was to snoop around people’s stuff. So five minutes after pocketing the cash and pretending to be surprised and delighted by my holiday handkerchiefs, I headed down to the basement.
Grandpa was a pack rat of the first order and his basement workshop proved it. How many overflowing coffee cans of rusty nails does a person need? According to Grandpa: seven.
Pretty much everything in that room had a protective coating of rust on it. That was especially true of Grandpa’s wide assortment of old, useless tools — such as flathead screwdrivers with flatheads as round as thumbnails. He also had a wall of saws that couldn’t cut butter, a collection of hammerheads separated from their handles, and a pegboard of petrified paintbrushes.
It wasn’t all broken tools, of course; that workshop was a museum of oddities — much of it dangerous. I knew I wasn’t supposed to play with Flit guns or those animal traps that clamped down on the legs of unsuspecting raccoons, but, really, how could I not? Besides I was careful, I donned Grandpa’s air raid warden helmet and gas mask before Flitting away. I also never put my own foot in the trap, because that would be stupid; instead I pried the trap apart, carefully set it on the ground and threw screwdrivers at the trigger until it snapped with amputating force.
The workshop also showed off Grandpa’s appreciation for art. Hanging on one wall was a framed paint-by-number picture of a prim, haughty, topless woman sitting on a rock. The image was remarkable for its lack of aesthetic or erotic appeal. The room also contained an illustration of Alfred E. Neuman uttering his iconic catchphrase, “What, me worry?” Considering the fact that this workshop contained cans of lead paint, Freon, and DDT, perhaps a little more worrying would’ve been advisable.
Buy, hey, I grew up in an era where unsupervised excursions to dangerous places was a rite of passage. If you weren’t smart enough to not drink paint, the world was better off without you.
To be fair, Mom was an attentive and vigilant parent under normal circumstances. A visit to Grandma and Grandpa Allegra’s house, however, was anything but normal. There, she had a role to play. Protocol required Mom to sit at the kitchen table and pretend she was having a civil conversation with her in-laws. Mom was always civil, but her civility was rarely reciprocated.
Grandma Allegra hated my mom. No one quite understood why. I don’t even think Grandma understood why, but hate her she did. As a consequence, our visits were never very long. After about 30 minutes, Mom would decide she had had enough passive aggression for one day. She’d deliver a sharp elbow to my Dad’s ribcage, stand, and call, “Michael! We’re going!”
That was my cue to drop everything (usually a screwdriver onto a raccoon trap) and hustle up the stairs. I understood that when Mom said, “We’re going!” it meant, “We are going now. Right. This. Instant. Do you understand me, young man?”
I did indeed. But I was always disappointed. A half hour wasn’t nearly enough time to explore such a junky nirvana.
So one day I clomped up the basement steps and announced, “I wanna stay here overnight!”
My declaration was met with stony silence. Not one of the four adults present wanted to implement this idea. Mom diplomatically brought the topic to an abrupt close with a “We’ll see.”
A “we’ll see” from Mom was really a “like hell.” The topic was never broached again.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t stop wishing that someday I would find enough time to get the Full Basement Immersion Experience.
Sometimes your wishes are granted. And, sometimes, when they are, you wish you never wished for them in the first place.
Grandpa Allegra died in 1991. Grandma’s mind deteriorated quickly and a decision was made to send her to a nursing home. The house was to be sold to pay her bills. Before a realtor could be called, however, the contents of the house had to be dragged to the curb. Dad assigned me to the basement.
I was, more or less, an adult in the early 1990s and many of my adult personality traits had clicked into place – for example, my pathological aversion to filth and clutter. Other traits, however, had remained intact since childhood – like my severe allergy to mold.
To put it another way, cleaning out that basement was hell. By the end of the day, I was filthy, sneezing, coughing, wheezing, sweating, bleeding, and discovering new and exciting uses for the F-word. My fondness for my grandparents — which was never all that fond to begin with — easily devolved into a sweaty, squinty-eyed hatred.
Oh, how I hated, hated, hated them – and unlike Grandma’s hatred for Mom, I knew exactly where my hate came from. Why would anyone hang on to so much worthless crap? What kind of monsters would subject their own grandchild to such an exhausting, moist, mold-encrusted torture?
I’m much older now. The hate is gone. My views toward my grandparents have mellowed considerably. More importantly, that terrible basement cleaning experience has turned me into a wiser man.
The other day, as I sat on my bed reading, my son entered the room and started rooting through my end table drawers.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing. Just looking.”
So I read and he rummaged. After about ten minutes he slammed the last drawer shut and expelled a little, disappointed sigh.
“What’s the matter?”
“You don’t have interesting junk,” he said.
“You bet your butt, I don’t,” I said with pride. “And someday you’re gonna thank me.”