Sarah Smiley: Basement as a time capsule of memories

We have never lived anywhere long enough to need to do a deep clean. And when I say “deep clean,” I’m talking about throw-out-broken-furniture-and-bags-of-old-clothes type of deep clean.

We have never lived anywhere long enough to need to do a deep clean. And when I say “deep clean,” I’m talking about throw-out-broken-furniture-and-bags-of-old-clothes type of deep clean.

Wait, I take that back. Previously, our deep-cleans came by way of Uncle Sam’s orders to a new zip code. When you haven’t moved in almost eight years, however, stuff starts to accumulate. So during September’s heat wave, and before anyone could volunteer us for an episode of “Hoarders,” Dustin and I spent a weekend in the cool, damp basement unpacking our lives.

Of note, we never had a basement until moving into this house in 2008, and we had not cleaned a basement until that weekend. Turns out, a neglected basement is a lot like the layers of snow that are revealed each spring. Like rings of a tree trunk, those layers of snow, which have ensnared and held captive random dog toys, missing gloves, and if you’re really unlucky, snow boots, become a frozen timeline of the winter months. And the depths of that timeline are revealed one layer at a time, in reverse, as the sun does its magic on the top.

Likewise, each time Dustin or I went downstairs and left a box of junk on the workbench, promising that we’d “get to it later,” we added another layer to the basement time capsule. And just like with the snow, the most recent stuff was on top: last year’s Christmas paper and the swim trunks the boys had outgrown. Below that were the Star Wars toys the boys used to play with. Below that was the Halloween costume Lindell wore in kindergarten. And below that … Well, here’s where things got a little emotional.

The very last layer of the basement was a snapshot into our lives when we moved here. Back then, Ford, now in high school, was in second grade. Owen was starting kindergarten. And Lindell took his very first steps while the movers were bringing boxes into our new home. It was as if all my children — all those memories — were frozen in time in the bottom layer of stuff in the basement.

There was an old bulletin board that hung in our house in Florida. The pictures stuck to it had started to yellow. There was Ford, a new kindergartner, sitting on a pumpkin, and Owen leaning over a hospital bed to greet his new brother. An old birthday invitation hung from a single pushpin, and one of Dustin’s old patches from his flight suit was stuck to the corner. All of it was covered with a thin layer of dust.

Dustin worked diligently behind me bleaching the floors and cleaning cobwebs from the ductwork. He was unaware of the emotional time travel I had just embarked on. So he was a little confused when I called him over to see a handful of plastic googly eyes in my hands.

“What is that?” he said.

“Look at them,” I said, moving my hand closer.

“Looks like plastic eyes for crafts,” he said.

“Not just any plastic eyes,” I cried. “THE plastic eyes that Owen begged me to buy.”

“Okay, so you’re throwing them away, right?”

“Owen begged me to buy them [sniff, sniff] … and we never used them [sobs].”

Dustin started to back away from me. I dug my hand into a box and pulled out pipe cleaners, which I thrust into Dustin’s face.

“And these,” I said. “We never used these, either.”

“Okay, so toss them,” he said.

“It’s too late,” I cried. “They don’t even like crafts anymore. I missed my chance.”

I cried into a paper towel.

An hour later, I found a Nerf gun Ford had wanted for his eighth birthday. I had wrapped it in paper but forgot to give it to him.

And then the drawings. Oh, the drawings! I found handmade cards and pictures the boys had drawn for me and I had just left in a pile in the basement. At the time, those pictures were just some of many. Now they were as rare as a Beanie Baby with tags still on it. I flattened out the wrinkles and blew off the dust. Then I curled into a ball and cried about all the moments I forgot to cherish when my boys were little.

Dustin witnessed all of this from a distance. Periodically he came over to say, “I don’t really know if this is normal, or —”

A week later, a man came to give us an estimate to add insulation in our attic. First, he said, we’d have to clean out the space, which is, of course, over-filled with old clothes from when the boys were infants — things that I haven’t laid eyes on in more than a decade.

Dustin turned to put his shoulders between me and the man, as if to shield me from the conversation.

And then I heard him whisper, with urgency in his voice, “Um, we are going to definitely need some emotional lead time on that one.”

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at