In My Grandparents' Basement

My pharmacist (the handsome Hanna) is renovating and as part of the process, they've built floor-to-ceiling shelves for the files. These boxes for the boxes are made of pressed wood and as I walked in the door, the smell of sawdust instantly transported me back to my childhood or, more specifically, the basement of the building where my mormor and morfar (maternal grandparents) lived.

It was an old building, so old that only cold water was piped into the kitchens and there was one toilet per floor, out on the landing by the kitchen door and shared between two apartments. My grandparents lived on the first floor and we'd go down the back steps by the kitchen and into the basement and another world. Down there, it was dark, lit by serviceable fixtures that may or may not have been bare bulbs - I can no longer remember. The walls were bare of any coverings and the long narrow hallway had a warren of rooms on both sides. The smell down there was unique, scents from each of the rooms contributing to the general aroma of being below ground in an unheated place. Some rooms were storage, especially cold storage for preserves and the potatoes that my grandfather dug up in his garden plot not too far from the building. The earthy, musty smell of the potatoes reminded me of summers spent with my morfar in his garden, where he would dig and it would be my job to find the potatoes for dinner in the rich, dark upturned earth.

In another room the washing was done - large metal kettles and vats sending out clouds of soap-scented steam, washing boards and lines for hanging the washing in the winter. In the summer, the back courtyard would be filled with laundry dancing in the wind and I’d run between it, playing with the feral cats that my mormor and a few other tenants fed every day at lunch time. Mormor always warmed the milk for them and I remember walking next to her, carrying the food, out the back steps to the shed, excited cats weaving around our ankles.

When it was washing day, I’d go with my mormor to do the washing, enjoying squeezing dishcloths and tea towels, just the right size for my small hands, over the rippled surface of the washboard, the soapy water flowing through my fingers. In another room, there was a large press for table cloths and sheets and I found it endlessly fascinating (I’ve been trying to find the proper name for this contraption, but can’t – did find this nifty history of washing in the process, though. Late note: did find a picture of a simpler version here). You fed the large pieces of wrinkled fabric into one end and by turning the crank, pushing hard to make it go around, make it smooth when it came out the other end. I would help mormor fold the sheets and the table cloths, standing far apart from each other, folding in unison until it was a long, narrow length and ending by walking towards each other, rhythmically folding a child's arm length over and over until we met in the middle.

But the best room in the basement was my morfar’s workroom. He was a cabinetmaker and made several of the dressers in my mother's place, dressers that will be passed to my sister and I to take care of until they become passed on again. It was from this workroom that my favourite smell came, the smell of wood. The room was filled with it, all kinds, from soft pine, to the harder woods, like mahogany and teak, intermingled with the tools for his work and all over the floor were curls of wood shavings, the perfect toy for a little girl. I remember sitting underneath his workbench while the rhythmic swish of his plane rained falling curls of wood all around me. I would unfurl them, stretching out the soft lengths, tuck them behind my ear, creating ringlets in my straight hair, sitting in a lake of fragrant swirls, sometimes ankle-deep. It was heaven.

And thanks to my pharmacist, for a little while this week, I was there again.


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