Underground the temperature dips. We grow clammy and cool. Hot summer days it is a pleasure to retreat to the basement in search of the large rubber ball Grandma reserved for her grandchildren. It lives in a corner of the large landing that leads to other rooms equally intriguing, the playroom, for instance, with a fireplace and a lamp which doubles as a coffee grinder. The base has a drawer where the ground coffee falls from the grinder in the top half of the lamp—you turn the wheel on the side by hand and hear the satisfying sound of the beans crunching in the teeth of the gears. Banners and pennants from sports teams—Red Sox, Georgetown Hoyas, Cincinnati Reds decorate the walls.
Another room in the basement holds the root cellar where during the war years when everyone had a victory garden, Grandma did her patriotic canning. I love the photography equipment she keeps here—an enlarger, and hand tints to color in the pupils of her subjects’ eyes, the blush on the cheek, the color of their hair. Her paintbrushes sit unused on a coca cola tray. When is the last time she used them I wonder? Now she keeps hordes of snapshots in albums, kodachrome pictures of the family, in vivid color.
Everything in the basement speaks of a black and white era, especially the photo process. Our closest relatives in family films of move as jerkily as the silent movie actors like Chaplin not because of the speed of the camera. It is the unease of being observed closely, of being expected to move in a way that would amuse the audience. People move in fits and starts. We never know what to do when confronted with the movie camera. We look up with shy eyes, wave or gesture awkwardly. Grandma always shoos the camera away and turns quickly from it.
The exception to the black and whiteness of the basement is the ball. It is clear plastic, an early version of thick plastic polymer that slowly loses its air every year– we re-inflate it with a hand pump used for bicycles–clear plastic flecked with many colored specks. The colored specks are parallelograms, and they make the thing festive and very desirable to us children, as desirable as the cartoon characters on Grandma’s band-aids she keeps in a small water closet off the kitchen. In that medicine cabinet are other alluring trappings of being sick and injured—St. Joseph’s orange flavored aspirin—as delicious as candy.
A perfect day at Grandma’s would begin reading the comics in the wooden chair with red and black cushions in the game room. Play checkers with your sister. Get into a fight when she tries to cheat.
No one could hear us down there. The grown ups were upstairs having cocktails or telling boring stories about their childhoods or arguing about the Yankees or politics, or Vatican II and Pope John the xxiii. Why would anyone want to hear the Mass in English?
After we got bored and Mom told us to go outside and play we found the ball and went outside to play kickball. By this time our cousins had arrived, all six of them, the children of Dad’s brothers—Philly, Joy, Amy, David, Ned and Susan, which combined with our five were enough to make two teams with the help of some willing grown ups. It was good to have Uncle Philip on your team. Dad‘s youngest brighter was funny, made us laugh. He didn’t mind playing kickball with us kids. Dad would stand in as pitcher, hurling the clear plastic ball over and over again, with the same dead aim as he bowled, right at the pins, or in this case, us children.