I just got off the phone with my mother. She called to say that my eighty-seven year old uncle passed away. It was a very short call, not even two minutes long. Her voice was cracking, and she wasn’t sure where Dad was at the moment. “I think he’s in the basement,” she said. Dad’s older brother, and only sibling, is the one who died.
There is nothing particularly morbid, nor symbolic, about Dad being in the basement an hour after his brother died. It’s a farmhouse built in 1910, and there are any number of things that can go wrong, starting at the base. “Dad’s in the basement” was something I heard often growing up. We would hollar down the steps for him before we checked the machine shed or the cattle lot.
I have never liked the smell of the basement, surrounded as it is by so much dank earth. Dad has worked hard to make it as nice as possible. In the 1970s he put down turquoise carpet patterned with large flowers. It gets soaked after every hard rain, inches of water standing again and again. Dad, unfazed, is always airing out the basement. The carpet is unfazed, too; unlike other fads of the 70s, it’s had great staying power.
He is something of an artist, my father. He likes Beauty and is at turns tender and frivolous with it. I was surprised recently when, stooping over his flower bed, he told me that his favorite flower is the snapdragon. To me, they seem insubstantial, hardly worth the trouble. I mean, how can they stand a chance in a wild Illinois storm? “I like the yellow ones,” he said, plucking a tiny weed.
That’s the tender side. On the frivolous side, he decided one year he ought to paint the uncarpeted half of the basement floor, and he chose turquoise for continuity with the carpet. He sloshed it over the cracked cement floor and then continued up the walls, across the work bench and over some shelves, until even the ceiling pipes could camouflage a peacock.
I’m wondering if Dad has meandered outside by now, though the wind may be too bitter this time of year. He’s more likely sitting in his recliner. Last week was his last conversation with his brother. Uncle Dale was in bed, in hospice, overrun by leukemia. Dad told me about the call: “He said, ‘I love you’ and ‘It’s been great farming together for forty years.”
Dad could barely get this out. I knew why and was glad that I knew. Brothers of their generation, with old German reserve thrown in, didn’t just go around saying that kind of thing. Affection wasn’t foremost when the two stood in the barnyard making decisions. There are fields to cash-rent; the other may want to rent them himself, and how do you negotiate that, land values being what they are this year? And the damned market. One says sell now; the other one balks. In forty years, Stan and Dale didn’t much stand around reveling in the romance of being the fourth generation to work the family farm.
Because the basement is always damp, Dad keeps the lights on and runs a fan continually. Mom makes him keep the door closed because she is terribly afraid of mice, even though another point of pride about Dad’s basement is making it critter-tight. But an Illinois farm will always have unexpected bothers, and no man gets it perfect, and the oddest little things can throw you off.
Dad told me something very poignant: After that conversation, in what amounted to their goodbye, he started wondering where his brother used to sleep as a child. The original 1910 house had only one bedroom; their parents didn’t add a second until their second child was born. Dale was already five when Dad came along. “I don’t know where he used to sleep. I never asked him. Isn’t it strange that something like that came into my mind?”
Yes, it is strange. And tender and frivolous. I’m trying to write about it, typing phrases like “of much consequence” and “no bad blood.” But I keep deleting them. Maybe I should call my own brother instead, ask him some frivolous question. We could laugh together about the turquoise paint. What a choice that was, and what a picture for us now: covering over what would otherwise be only cold under our feet and gloomy over our heads.