Back in the Northeast, my husband and I were checking out a Somerville open house when he told me he wanted a “man cave’’ in the cellar. Making my way down the rickety wooden steps, I delighted in the cool, expansive concrete-block rooms just as they were. Even better, there was a walkout to the backyard. Texas basements are few and far between, and I found indoor game rooms soulless and sweltering garages oppressive. I longed for the raw potential of an unfinished space.
Subterranean play fills my memories, and, thankfully, my parents didn’t want to hang out down there. Washtubs, workbenches, and laundry reminded them of chores. They preferred to spend their evenings in the living room with their newspaper and Manhattans. Occasionally, my mother shouted an obligatory “What are you kids up to?’’ from the top of the stairs without waiting for an answer. That was the extent of helicopter parenting in 1974.
Meanwhile, below them, my older brother Wayne channeled Jackson Pollock by flicking brushes full of tempera at poster board. After drying his artwork on a floor full of paint, we mounted them banner-style on the dusty, exposed pipes with the spider webs. Our messes stayed put. My mother’s eyes only reached underground when her coupon-driven shopping restocked the extensive shelves with Kleenex, Charmin, and Bounty — three deep and as much across. My preschool cousin Katie remarked with innocent fascination, “Aunt Ruth’s basement looks like the A&P.’’
Discarded frocks, bonnets, and elbow-length gloves blanketed the floor as my best friend, Jill, and I selected Goodwill dresses for Ashley Wilkes’s barbecue. Obsessed with “Gone With the Wind’’ and its romantic triangle, I pulled rank on my bestie: “It’s my house and my dress up trunk! I get to be Scarlett, and you have to be pale-faced, mealy-mouthed Melanie.’’
My father’s workbench filled a wall and was off-limits to all four children, but it somehow ended up as host to my brother Brad’s expanding biology project. Carefully opening the smelly cages, we made subjects run races through paper towel rolls for cheese and swore one another to secrecy when we lost a few mice in the thrill of victory.
At our craft table, my older sister, Ellen, and I worked for hours with borrowed workbench tools to create a Barbie Dreamhouse from shoe boxes because my mother thought Mattel too expensive. Ken and Barbie lay naked in the tiny makeshift bed, with Ellen stating on great authority that “They were doing it.’’ We giggled nervously and listened to the creaky floors above, estimating my mother’s proximity to the basement door. A “Girls! Dinner is ready!’’ quickly sent Ken packing.
Eventually, the space gained a split personality with the creation of a mod rec room for my parents’ parties. Purple shag carpeted half the basement. Wood paneling covered the concrete walls, and lime beanbag chairs set off an orange-Formica bar. We kids benefited, too, with a venue for after-prom parties and date nights. My mother’s “What are you kids up to?’’ took on a whole new meaning.
Each weekend, at every new listing my husband and I tour, I immediately head downstairs to delight or disappointment. So until we buy, I will be living my dream in our Cambridge rental home complete with dilapidated walkout basement.
Karen Voss Gruzen is a transplanted Texan and freelance writer living in Cambridge. Send comments and a 550-word essay on your first home to Address@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.