The Cellar

A co-worker and I were sharing stories about our grandparents, and it got me thinking about "the cellar" of the house on South Alvord Street where my grandparents lived when I was growing up. The house was a double, and they lived in the downstairs flat. It had been remodeled in the 1950s, so it didn't have the feel of an older house, and the renovations created a few quirks that just seemed normal to me as a kid. There were two ways to get into the cellar, for example. One was through a door in the front foyer, the other was through a storm door in the back of the house. Between those two doors lay the cellar and all its wonders.

My grandparents lived through the depression, though neither had lived in poverty (my other grandmother, for example, found herself homeless and going door to door asking for food or work at the age of 15). Still, those lean years clearly made an impression on my grandfather, who embraced a variety of fiscal policies that, on paper at least, shouldn't be capable of coexisting. First and foremost was thrift. My grandfather was a bargain hunter, and he'd gladly drive out of his way to save a few cents on a can of corn (paradox #1 is that the cost of gas didn't seem to be considered). He also hated waste. My parents were never strict about what I ate - or didn't eat - but at my grandparents' home I was expected to clean my plate. That usually wasn't a problem with my grandmother's fantastic cooking, but I resented having to fill both sides of a sheet of paper with my doodles before being allowed to start a new sheet. Part of the "no waste" thing meant that nothing was thrown out. The cellar was stacked with cardboard boxes, toasters, dishes, decorations, furniture, light fixtures. Some worked, others didn't, but nothing was discarded. But the most noticable effect of the depression was that he was obsessed with stocking up, even on things that one wouldn't (or shouldn't) stock up on. His supply of soda filled floor to ceiling wooden shelves that ran along one wall of the front part of the cellar. On holidays it was my job to go down cellar and get the soda, and if I didn't follow his stock rotation instructions carefully we'd hear silence instead of a fizz when the cap was opened. There was another shelf devoted to paper products: toilet paper, napkins, paper plates and towels. I had no beef with this shelf. It's not like napkins can go bad. The middle room was where things got weird. One side of the room was stacked with all sorts of boxes from department stores. It was dark and cramped, and in all my times in that cellar I ventured so much as a step into that section. The remainder was divided into small rooms lined with shelves. One room was filled with canned goods and grocery items: corn, soup, tomato paste and sauce after my grandmother died and we no longer made our own, spices, cake mixes, cooking oil, vinegar, that sort of thing. The other room was filled with "stuff" like light bulbs or extension cords or whatever else a household needed to run smoothly.

I had a general idea that this cellar was unusual. My mom had a few staples on a shelf next to my dad's workbench, and I don't think I ever really saw the cellars in my friends' homes, so I didn't really give it a lot of thought, until one day when I was about 13. My aunt was baking and she sent me downstairs for a bottle of vanilla extract. She explained where it was and I followed her directions. Second room, left hand side, middle shelf. There were 26 bottles of vanilla extract. And not the small bottles - the larger ones that would last for years in a typical home. I heard her upstairs calling for me to hurry up, but I was hypnotized by the sight of the rows of bottles, neat and identical and waiting and wasting. It struck me then how odd the whole situation was, how remote the possibility of running out of vanilla extract, how silly to spend so much money on something that will likely never be used, and how little I understood of what people in my life had been through.

They were heady thoughts, but I was 13 and so I made it into a joke, a joke that nobody else seemed to find very funny. Even today my aunt uses the same container of popcorn salt that I remember from my childhood. There's an offer on the side for a hot air popcorn popper if you send in a few proofs of purchase and pay for shipping. But you'd better hurry. The offer expires in 1972.

1 comment:

Deb Brush said...

John... once again I randomly click over to facebook and catch one of your stories. Are your grandparents alive? I interviewed about 10 people who lived in Buffalo during the Depression. The stories are fascinating and a history lesson... as are your grandparents.... thanks, John.