Snoop Story

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.

No problem.

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.”

86 thoughts on “Snoop Story

  1. “Considering the fact that this workshop contained cans of lead paint, Freon, and DDT, perhaps a little more worrying would’ve been advisable.”—Haha! Great line.

    My eyes were widened in horror imaging a child exploring down in a basement with traps and other dangerous paraphernalia. Glad you came out alive. And I hear you on trying to limit the mess we leave for our kids. My husband and I trying to get rid of things we no longer need so we don’t burden our kids with it later. But it’s amazing how quickly stuff accumulates.

  2. I only ever knew my paternal grandparents. They were convinced that I was a brat as a child and I was very aware that I was their least favorite grandchild. They warmed up to me eventually and realized I had grown into a pretty nice adult. 🙂 And I love the term “pathological aversion to filth and clutter”….I’m the same way.

  3. Great story, Mike! I had similar sets of grandparents. It was like good vs. evil, or rather doting vs. the “have we even met?” kind of sets. But, as writer, all of this is fodder. So, maybe a little clutter and dust isn’t too bad, after all?

  4. Finishing this I thought –isn’t this the man who had a drawer full of used/recovered golf balls?? Interesting stuff, even if not filthy.

    • You are correct, Wendy. I am the guy who filled a desk drawer with 376 used golf balls.

      Let us not forget, however, that I am also the guy who abandoned a desk drawer filled with 376 used golf balls. That’s the important part.

  5. My grandparents loved us, but they had the same basement! I went down there only a few times. It was their attic I loved. It was in the slanty space on the top floor of their house. It was filled with broken antiques, old fabric, buckets of buttons, dress and hat forms. Paradise.

    • My grandparents also had other good places to explore: the attic, the garage, the room above the garage… But the basement was my primary hunting ground. The piles of crap down there were just too interesting to ignore.

  6. Your poor son is so deprived. I think you should fill at least one room with clutter where he can explore. It doesn’t have to be your own stuff. Go fill it with pesticides, chemicals that blow up when combined, chains, saws, traps. Fill up the room. Blow in a bit of dust for good measure. Then set him loose. You owe this to your son. You don’t want his childhood to be filled with boring memories. Do it now, or I’ll call child protective services.

  7. Great writing. I must admit you raised my awareness to the fact I should be “de-cluttering” rather than blogging – at eight-one years old there is a high possibility the job will be passed on to some kind soul. My stuff is clean, so I surely earn some positive epitaph. I have an idea you are just the type person who could write a very fit one for me!

  8. Geez. Kids love to explore and always hope to find some treasure.
    Sorry, it was really all junk that YOU had to clean out later.
    I didn’t know my grandparents, except one grandmother whom I met when I was an adult. I have no idea what she thought of me, and not sure what I thought of her.
    This is a fabulous story, though, Mike. Like to read about families.

  9. I love your sense of humor. I’m kinda glad you don’t live nearby, though, because I’d hate to hear what you had to say about my basement. Well, no, actually, you’d love my basement because it is EMPTY, no junk, except for a dozen or so broken-framed photos from the past. One or two planting pots. Box of Christmas decorations. Borrrring. Thanks to you, I now know why my little 5-year-old grandson runs down there so happily, but comes back up, minutes later, with a pout.

  10. Sorry to say, I am a grandparent…with junk…in the basement. But that junk has an antique Pachenko pinball machine. I am waiting on my little 18 mo. old granddaughter to come and visit from MN. so we can play Pachenko and when she is older…go through her mommies older toys and read her mommies diary, and dress up in her mommies prom dresses.

  11. Wow! I am not a fan of autobiographical writing (I know!) in general but your writing is really wonderful. Guess I might have to rethink about my likes…
    P.S. My grandparents were supercool! Maternal, not so much.

  12. I also have great memories of my grandparents. We lived out in the country and my grandfather owned a farm equipment business. We lived on the property and my grandparents lived next door. I used to go up to their house on the weekends and watched tv with mt grandpa. After watching Underdog and Rocky and Bullwinkle, my grandpa and I would watch wrestling together. After 10:00, my grandma would let me have a candy bar and a can of pop, but that was all I could have for the day. Instead of a candy bar, I could choose from the old tins of chocolate pudding with the pull off cap that could cut your hand off or the old Brachs chocolate covered peanuts in the gorgeous tins they used to come in. What great memories!

    • Your memories remind me of my maternal grandparents.

      Oh, and I hope you picked the can of pudding over the Brachs. The lid might have been a bugger, but what was inside more than made up for the effort.

  13. Enjoyed your “little Mike” and “big Mike” view of the basement. Perhaps the handkerchiefs were a metaphor for a “snot-nosed” kid.:) I kept wondering about your father and how he grew up in such a stern family. Because you are so hands-on as a parent. Those were the days when parents didn’t hover and we had more time to explore and be exposed to things that were “dangerous.” I remember a grandparent’s basement like that. Although I have some years on you and I found a wringer washer, a scrub board, and real icebox and many other cools things that I didn’t dare touch. A kids treasure cove – an adult’s nightmare. Can’t even imagine cleaning it out.

  14. Oh, this post clicked off a long series of memories for me both past and present. I can’t share them of course, yet… I will say based on this year’s posts of your injuries that I am delighted nothing was amputated during your brief basement visits!

    • For some reason I’ve never been injured by dangerous things. All of my injuries have been inflicted by “harmless” things like bedsheets.

      I think it’s God’s way of keeping me humiliated and, therefore, humble.

  15. You are a wonderful writer. You gave me a great visual of your grandparents basement. I love your humor. Exploring was the way I grew up too. What a way to grow up. Our minds always looking for something new and different. Fantastic story. A great read.

  16. Oh yes he will!!!
    He will surely be thankful!!!

    Although we can all understand his frustration – when you don’t find what you expected to then it feels like a loss…
    Childhood makes everything much more vivid – each fairytale or story is at least half-true, each finding is almost a treasure, every unknown corner of houseroom is practicaly a new adventure! And the more forbidden it is – the more it’s desirable.
    And seriously, when adult I feel lack of that childish side of myself, and I hope everybody does! We were much more inquisitive as children.

    Thank you for your story, it’s quite funny 🙂
    BTW – no wonder you are a writer – you’re really good at it.

    And does your kid read any of your stories?

  17. I’m sure he will but he will never experience the reason why he should thank you. My grandparents had the same basement although it was filled with my grandmothers crap. Scary place. Reminded me of the horrific spider hangout in “Arachnophobia”. Don’t know why that era held on to the most useless paraphernalia known to mankind.
    You truly have a gift for writing. Your articles always bring home old memories and a generous amount of chuckles.

  18. ” a museum of oddities ” – that’s exactly what old garages and sheds of elderly relatives are like. I had an uncle that retired and then owned a second hand store. He was quite a horse trader. Talk about cool stuff. Then he retired again and sold it all. We weeped that no longer could be search for treasure.
    But yeah, you are so kind limiting the stuff. Still, maybe give the kid a shoe box, go to a flea market and let him fill it up…and he can keep it under his bed.

    • Oh, he has a box o’ crap. In fact he has several sizable boxes o’ crap. I have a couple of junk drawers, too. But, yes, if he wants the full junky immersion experience, he’ll need to head somewhere else.

  19. The world would be a far less interesting place without people like Grandpa in it. I love odd beings like him. They imbue the universe with color and mystery…not to mention a smidgeon of danger.

    • Thanks, Laurel! Grandma’s hate toward my mom was a bewildering thing but it probably — indirectly — kept me safe. I never had enough time in that basement to lose a finger or asphyxiate myself with Flit.

  20. So, your grandparents sound exactly like mine…well, my grandma anyway. My grandpa was apparently the coolest, but he died before I was born.

    I had to spend my entire summers with her and my aunt in a Dallas house. My grandmother sold Avon and my aunt was a packrat—I mean, hoarder. (I may have told you this already, I can’t remember.) There were no toys and I was not treated like a child at all, really. I used to spend every day in the pool, pretending to be a mermaid, who would one day escape. The rest of my time was spent snooping and making stories about the random things I would find.

    My grandmother died a couple of years ago, and now my aunt lives there alone, sleeping on a tiny portion of her bed because the rest is filled with junk. One day I’ll be cleaning out that house. There’s no telling what I’ll find.

  21. Well, you may not believe this, but I am late to your post because i’m rummaging through some junk. Yep, I am moving, so boxes and boxes of why-do-I-have-this keeps getting boxed and moved. It is more fun to rummage through someone else’s junk than your own. I made a pledge to get rid of lots of stuff with a yard sale.

    My grandparents, the only set I ever had, had a basement that was simply scary. I never wanted to go down there and don’t think I ever did. It was the 1970’s, or maybe the 1960’s, but with the door opened, the basement looked too dark and too steep. Now, their upstairs closets were another matter. Thanks for the memories.

    • My grandparents’ basement was quasi-finished, so I didn’t have that experience. But even if those two lived over a dark pit, my pathological childhood urge to rummage would have probably led me down there regardless.

  22. Hahaha Mike, the relationship between Grandma Allegra and Mum had me laughing. It reminds me of a relationship that I’m part of currently.
    You are such a good writer. I always look forward to the long stories from you.
    I thought I was weird to try and declutter every so often. I know it comes form a story that my mum told me about sorting out my Grandfather’s things after he died…

    This story made me think of a basement full of your golf balls with your grandson having to dispose of them. Good call on chucking them earlier.

  23. There was another set of grandparents who lived next door to MY grandparents when I was little. I know this because I was best friends with their grandsons whom I grew up with. We LOVED going down to the basement and “snooping” and we even made a haunted house out of it complete with spider webs and stuff scary sounds. It was loads of fun!
    Great story Mike… 🙂

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