Telling our family stories: The House with the Secret Cellar

pickers-cabin-on-farm-at-lakeshore-drive-built-early-1900s

I’m nearing the end of my series of creative writing workshops told through the lens of family stories. In one way, it’s been challenging to come up with a different subject for each class because there’s so many pathways to explore. So many topics to cover in only twelve classes!

This most recent week, we decided to explore family homes. Most of us, of course, have a sentimental attachment to the place(s) we grew up. I find it especially amusing how annoyed we get when a child draws on a wall, or causes a dent, bump, or scratch somewhere in the house—only to look upon those same “wounds” with a sentimental eye years later. Those scars eventually serve as a visual record of our family life.

Then there’s the marks that we purposely put in our homes, like the lines etched into the doorframe to measure the heights of children, or the paintings and murals that we might paint purposely on the walls.

Our home is no different. We have a dent in the wooden floor upstairs; I’m pretty sure that happened when Marcie put on her tap shoes at our annual Yoda Yulefest party and decided to perform for our friends. There’s a gash in the wall from when we were heaving our entertainment stand up the stairs and it slipped from our hands. Then there’s the hidden cubby hole, hidden at the back of the bedroom closet; the walls are covered top to bottom with children’s drawings. Most of these came from our goddaughter, Charlotte. When she discovered that the children from the previous tenant had drawn in there, she asked for permission to do the same. And so I granted it to her and off she went. This year, when she came to visit as a fifteen-year-old, she crawled inside the cubby hole and reminisced. She’s pretty insistent that we never paint over those walls.

closet-charlottes-drawings-01closet-charlottes-drawings-02

So, for this week’s assignment, I decided to ask my students to write a poem about a family home from the first-person perspective of the home. I asked them to think about the age of their home; would it talk as an old person or a new person? How would the home feel about the life burbling inside of it?

As with all the work I’ve assigned for this course, I did the assignment as well. I decided to choose a home from my childhood—sort of. Below, is a page from my mom’s photo album showing the first orchard my parents owned, and the house we lived in. It’s the first home I remember living in.

photo_album_house.JPG

 

It was quite old and humble and, eventually, my parents knocked it down and built a new one in its place. As you can see by the photo in the bottom right, there was another house on the same piece of property, just a stone’s throw away.

It was even older and in more disrepair. It had no plumbing and I remember it always had a certain pungent odor. Many people lived there: sometimes people who came to work on our farm for the summer, and one time my aunt and uncle for a season. Otherwise, the house stood empty and my brother and I would play inside of it.

When we knocked down our old white house, we knocked this one down, too. That’s when we found the secret cellar. Hidden underneath the linoleum was an old trap door. We pried it open to find a set of stairs disappearing down into the murk.

So, with a bit of trepidation, down we went.

No one had clearly been there in a very long time. It wasn’t very big, but it was stuffed with long-forgotten items. Newspapers. Bottles. A pair of woman’s shoes. Or, you might say, junk—though, not me. I love old treasures, for they are tellers of stories.

Now, when I look back on the photo of the old house, and remember the hidden cellar, I imagine that there were all kinds of secret and enchanted things squirreled away down there. Most likely there were canisters of magical ingredients waiting to be consumed by a witch’s cauldron. Or perhaps the skeleton of a fairy. The coffin of a vampire. Hmm . . . I probably just wasn’t looking properly at the time. That’s what I tell myself now, anyway.

However, for the purposes of my assignment, I decided to keep magical whimsy to a minimum and focus on fact.

Here is my poem about the house with the secret cellar . . .

I am so very old.
Some would say ancient.
The skin is hanging
from my bones,
peeling, sliding away.
I creak and bend towards the ground.

My eyes are weary
and bleary;
I can barely gaze through them
to see the chickens pecking
at my doorstep
where the weeds are overgrown.

My insides are deteriorating;
you can whiff the pungent odour,
for my ribs are dripping
rancid ooze and poison spores;
The walls of my stomach are
curling, peeling, rotting.

I bear many scars,
earned from all my years.
Here’s a dent—
a dog once crashed into my frame;
there’s a scratch—
a child poked me with a fork;
this is a burn—
A candle held against my joint;
and this tattoo,
I tell you, is permanent—
Auntie painted me with flowers.

But all those things
happened long ago.
Now I brood in somber silence,
alone and abandoned.           

But while, on the surface,
I am frail and falling to pieces,
there is one thing that remains strong;
the secret place that dwells deep within,
one long forgotten
by everyone . . .
everyone except for me.

No one knows about the hatch,
the hidden handle that leads below
to a realm of damp and darkness,
where I harbor a trove of treasure,
curios and charms,
relics and remnants,
memories from distant times.

The place is dusty now,
sagging, draped with cobwebs,
creatures scurrying and scuttling
between the artifacts of time.
Soon I shall collapse,
and they will haul me away.
Only then,
you might discover
my secrets.

And then I know what will happen;
I will be dwelled upon no more,
except, perhaps,
when someone
chances upon my brooding countenance
in a photograph,
old, discoloured, and faint.

 

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