When we bought the Little House in the Bush a few years ago, it was partly to ease the transition for my mom into an apartment in town. It meant that she didn’t have to empty the house right away. She could take her time making decisions about a lifetime’s accumulation of things. And so she left behind some furniture, some odds and ends of dishes and linens, some pictures and some decorative items. Some have since gone to stay in the apartment and from time to time she threatens to take other pieces away. But she didn’t take an assortment of boxes under the basement stairs.
The alcove under the stairs is an excellent place for tucking away things that a person doesn’t have an immediate use for but doesn’t want to abandon. I’ve poked about a bit a few times since we bought the house – for Christmas decorations, for my grandmother’s card table and chairs – and added some of my own stuff. But there were some boxes I hadn’t gotten around to opening.
When my mother was packing for her move, she had an assortment of dishes, some of which she set aside for my daughter. They went into a box. Which went under the stairs. A few days ago, I was talking to my daughter on the phone. She suggested I start bringing them back to Toronto a few pieces at a time. She was pleased to be given something of her grandmother’s and was looking forward to having them in her new home. She also wondered what they looked like; she’d never seen them. I promised to take some pictures to send her.
There are two entrances to the space under the stairs. One is through the closet in the downstairs bedroom. You make your way through the coats hanging there (coats that belong to my mom) and wave your arms around till they make contact with an ancient green metal desk lamp that hangs from the ceiling by its cord. The ceiling under the stairs is about four feet high so there’s always the risk of banging your head before you find the light. The other entrance to the space is through a closet door next to the rec room. If you’re small enough or limber enough, you can make your way in one door, under the stairs, around the boxes and out through the bedroom closet and coats on the other side. The grandkids used to make a game of it, racing from one side to the other. Big fun.
I chose to go through the coats in search of the dishes. I was fairly certain I knew which box they were in but when I opened it, it contained a milk glass punch bowl and a dozen matching cups. Beautiful. I drifted off into memory for a moment, of special occasions when my mom brought it out for company. But it wasn’t the dishes. And none of the other boxes looked right. Now I was stumped. A puzzle, I thought, but they must be around.
I found another box in the basement bedroom and sure enough, it contained dishes. Nice little blue glass luncheon plates with little blue cups. I called my mother.
“Are these little blue dishes the ones for Robyn?”
“No, those are your sister’s! Put them back! Robyn’s are old fashioned. They have a country scene on them. Service for four: four dinner plates, four side plates, four cups and saucers. Your dad won them.”
My dad, you see, was quite athletic in his younger years. A golfer, a bowler, a curler. He’d even been scouted to play professional baseball but my grandmother insisted he go to university instead. But he continued to play a wide variety of sports and won. A lot. Our house was full of small appliances, dishes and enough camping equipment to last for years.
Back I went under the stairs. And began to pull out boxes into the rec room to examine more carefully. Out came the punch bowl. And behind it, another box I had thought held Christmas bows and wrapping paper. Once into the light though, it was clearly labelled for my daughter. And when I opened it, there were the dishes. Johnson & Brothers Iron Stone, Mill Stream pattern circa 1970. In perfect condition. Along with a couple of milk glass candy dishes. My mother had a fairly large collection of milk glass, mostly because it made for good birthday and Christmas gifts when we were kids.
I took some photos, then carefully repacked them into the box to return to the alcove. But there was another box behind the dishes. Out it came. And it was labelled for me.
Huh. I sat back for a moment, then carried it out. Inside was a smaller box. And inside that box were four silver beer mugs, all won by my father in the 1950s, all engraved with his name, the year and the tournament. Beside them, a golf trophy. First place. Tall, shiny, bright blue inserts. Sort of like my dad who was tall, handsome with piercing blue eyes. Not for back under the stairs, I thought.
I looked around the rec room, thinking back to when my parents built the Little House. How pleased they were with the rec room with its orange shag carpet, its pine wainscoting, its Franklin stove, all of which are still there. And the pool table which is gone now. I remembered my dad laughing, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, as he slaughtered us all in pool without even trying. Another game he was great at. He could figure out the angles for banking a shot in an instant. The trophies belonged here, tangible reminders of the man people often said I resembled.
I returned to the box. Under the trophies were more surprises. A scrapbook my ten year old self had put together. From a road trip we’d made to Ottawa in the early 60s when my uncle got married. It was full of childish drawings, paper menus from roadside diners, a do not disturb sign from a motel we stayed in when the weather was too bad for camping, parking receipts, postcards from the Wawa Canada goose and other sights along the way. All with neatly written captions attempting to be witty and sophisticated, in a hand I didn’t recognize even though it was mine.
The second scrapbook covered a longer time span – grade 6 or thereabouts into high school. It had school photos, report cards, newspaper clippings of the moon landing (!), dance recital programs, Beatles trading cards from their moptop days, love letters from high school boyfriends and so much more. I was leaping from memory to memory.
I called my mom.
“I found the dishes. They were in a different box.”
“Really? That’s strange. But I’m glad you found them. I’ve been sitting here fretting about what might have happened to them.”
“There was another box for me. It had some of Dad’s trophies. I’ve put them on display on the rec room.”
“That’s nice. There used to be so many of them, it was hard to know where to put them.”
“I also found two of my old scrapbooks. Pretty funny.”
She laughed. “Yes, they always amused me. You were a funny little girl. Still are, I guess. Thanks for calling. Good night, Sweetie.”
Thanks, Mom. For leaving behind the treasures under the stairs. I went looking for dishes and found parts of myself. There are a few more boxes to explore and I can’t wait.