Upstairs, Downstairs


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Homes are so seductive that we could go on planning, envisioning, and reshaping forever. But as the song lyrics say, “Too many lives to lead, and not enough time.”

Still, we harbor disloyal fantasies of what another house might bring: A farmhouse with a tire-track drive leading out back has acreage for summer picnics that include plenty of homemade fruit pies; a loft is so big you could bicycle in circles around the concrete floor; a tiny cottage that accommodates only life’s stripped-down essentials is the carefree equivalent of flying with carry-on only.

This past Saturday was spent trying to winnow our steamer trunk of a basement into a volume more akin to an overnight bag. The debate of should it stay or should it go (to paraphrase The Clash) goes like this: “You saved that Time magazine with Jackie Kennedy on the cover, I hope.”

“Did you get rid of Pocket Simon? I like that game.”

“The wicker rocker is non-negotiable.”

Houses force the ongoing calculation of what matters, like the critical factor of living within walking distance of an ice-cream stand, as one new homeowner recently declared.

At home, essentials of the moment have main-floor status. Below level, in our private Smithsonians (how do you eliminate the basement without erasing your past?) is a personal repository of what matters — what managed to escape abandonment at the curb, exposure at a yard sale, or surrender to donation.

What stays? Report cards, a Nantucket poster, Uncle Ed’s 8mm family movies, a metal dollhouse, a toddler handprint, and successive generations of technology from 45s through VHS and Super Nintendo.

Some of us constantly edit. We’re the ones who are bothered that toothbrush manufacturers make their products look like the personal-hygiene version of garish running shoes (and this matches what bathroom?). Is it possible to be immune to style, like the father on Frasier whose yellow-green, duct-taped recliner sat defiantly amid the Type-A décor of his pretentious son?

No matter how carefully we construct our surroundings, we’re all occasionally “undone” and reminded of the basics. Without power after a storm one recent summer, I found myself leaning into the screen of a second-story, west-facing window angling my book into the waning daylight, before darkness meant drifting off early to Tigers baseball on a battery radio that still matters, like the non-negotiable antique wicker chair that years ago lulled the baby to sleep. 

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