My sister, Meg, and her husband are arguing in their upstairs bedroom. I’m trying not to hear, so like a child hiding from the squabbles of his parents I descend to the basement to hunt for some boxes she mentioned were full of my things.
Two years ago, when our mother sold the house we’d grown up in and moved into an apartment across the river, my sister’s basement was intended as a way station where we could sort through the rubble and decide what to keep and what to discard.
On my way down, even the steps are cluttered at the edges. At the bottom I find stacks of board games, our old deacon’s bench, three Rubbermaid containers of Harlequin romances alongside an absurd assortment of Easter and Christmas and Hallowe’en decorations—so many piled plastic skeletons and reindeer and grinning snowmen I think of corpses. When I turn the corner into the main room, the glut of objects filling every surface reminds me of a junk shop in which Meg and I once found, on a bookshelf full of records and glassware and little porcelain figurines, an old kettle with steam rising out of it—then a voice from nowhere: Is it boiling yet?
When we were kids, our mother seldom slept. As far back as I can remember she spent the nights in our finished basement, knitting or crocheting in front of the television. She was awake when we went to bed in the evening and up brewing coffee or standing over the toaster whenever we came down in the morning. In high school, when I sometimes stayed out into the early morning hours, I would come in and find her finally at rest with a blanket pulled haphazardly over her, a few celebrity magazines spread on the floor, and the TV blaring some late-night talk show or never-heard-of drama.
Remarkably, it doesn’t take me long to locate the few boxes of my old belongings. They contain photographs in colourful pouches, letters tied with elastics, journals, a few books, a money belt where I’d kept my passport and credit card under my clothes when I’d backpacked through Europe, a little candy tin of concert tickets. The first letter I see is in my own handwriting, sent to my parents from my year at graduate school.
When I returned home that summer, my father moved out of our house and into his own childhood bedroom where it must have felt like he’d been sucked back in time. His room was painted the very same colour, possessed the same mustard carpets and curtains, the same cracked ceilings as it always had. Every afternoon when I visited, we did the Cryptoquote in the local paper with my grandfather, the way we’d always done. We watched what might have been the same hockey games and tennis matches we’d always been watching. We ate the same meals that my grandmother made us: baked beans and pork chops on Mondays, a chicken stew on Tuesdays, a beef and dumpling stew on Wednesdays, spaghetti on Thursdays, fried fish on Fridays… That is, everything was the same unless we looked a little closer. My grandfather was himself though he had hardly any recollection of the recent past and, in an instant, his words could break off into streams of nonsense. My father was himself except instead of coming home to his family he retreated to his childhood bedroom at the top of the stairs. I recall how that summer sometimes gave me the strangest feeling of reality deceiving me—like trusting my weight on the strength of a floor that seemed like any other until I reached a gap in one corner and discovered I could see straight down into nothing at all.
“You found them.” It’s Meg standing in the doorway. “I was going to see if I could help.”
“I got lucky,” I say.
“Believe it or not we got rid of most of it. We had to go through the attic and the basement and all the closets.”
“Did you see my Fisher-Price castle?” She tells me she unearthed it a few days ago to show me. “I was so excited. You remember getting it for me, don’t you?”
“Vaguely,” I say, though I feel proud of that boy, myself as a child, apparently asking the woman at the yard sale to set the castle aside while I biked home to borrow money from our mother and then returned to purchase the gift that had made me think of my little sister.
“It was so big,” she says. “You had it balanced on your handlebars.”
She turns her head, hearing her husband someplace in the kitchen or the upstairs hall. I can tell she’s embarrassed, her hands on her hips as if guarding the door. Of course, every couple bickers, about nothing usually. It doesn’t mean anything is falling apart.
“When we were kids Mom and Dad never fought,” she says as if needing to acknowledge obliquely what’s on her mind. “We were fortunate that way.”
I squint at her in her yoga pants and her roomy sweater, so many boxes and bags and loose objects between us. I wonder a second if she’s making a joke.
“I mean when we were really young and impressionable,” she adds, leaning in the door frame. “I know they didn’t have much in common.”
“They didn’t sleep together.”
“Yeah, but wasn’t that more because Dad went to bed so early and Mom was always turning on the light to read?”
Three years older than her, I knew our parents’ battles the way I knew the weather. I could count the days since our father last spoke in our mother’s presence; after a reprieve I was sensitive to the next impending storm. But in large part the cycles seemed natural, even comforting in their predictability; their harm at a distance, a bit of static in the air.
As a teenager I had a recurring dream so terribly vivid and distressing that it haunts me still. In the dream, the earth was so small that I could see over its edges. The whole planet would be the size of a town or a neighbourhood or a single city block; sometimes the earth was so insignificant, and possessed so little gravity, that it could barely hold me. I had to cling to its rocky surface as it spun dizzyingly on its axis and whipped at great speed in orbit around the sun.
Whenever I awoke from those dreams I’d feel overcome with relief and gratitude at the permanence of the four walls around me. Not just the walls, not just my bedroom and my family and my education, not just the stable system of government, but the pipes and the wires and all the history of human discoveries that lay hidden around and beneath me, not to mention the endless supply of oxygen to breathe, the food growing right out of the ground, the invisible genius of the water cycle. I tried to imagine humans having to inhabit another planet (perhaps after the careless destruction of our own) and then having to create our own oxygen and figure out radiation problems we didn’t have to worry about on earth. And there was the magnetic field, which was somehow important. Not only would it be fantastically complex, but it would be sure to fail, or at least have deeply, endlessly unnerving defects. It would lack the earth’s singular promise of immutability.
Waking from those dreams, I would try to impress upon my parents the marvel of this promise, this illusion, and they would furrow their brows and, since it was me, store this in the category of precocious and impassioned rather than manic and unhinged.