The mysteries of the cellar

November 03, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

ABOUT THE TIME Bess and Harry Truman were packing up to leave the White House, my Uncle Jacques decided that the Guilford Avenue family residence needed what Baltimoreans were then calling club cellars. He did all the work. His knotty-pine carpentry stands up well to this day.

I spent many hours in that chamber and the others around it, a long series of rooms, cubbyholes, furnace and laundry spaces that stretched from the back garden to a spot under the front porch. The actual club cellar was just one part of this progression. It had a rubber-tile floor, an acoustical-tile ceiling, hidden lighting, a big toy box and lots of off-limits cabinets. My father had a small office, too, served by a heavy black telephone.

The place was called a club cellar for a few years. Then my ever-practical grandmother just started to refer to it as the playroom, which was a more accurate definition.

Lily Rose ruled that house with a set of definite ideas. One precept held that no dogs or television sets were allowed out of the cellar, certainly not on the first floor, and positively not on the second or third. Our dogs never objected. They liked it downstairs, where it was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And the place where the wooden steps made a sharp turn was an ideal spot for napping. Should they get thirsty, the toilet in the cellar was a great water bowl, much preferred over the dog bowls we bought.

The cellar television was a 1955 Sylvania. It sat atop the Stieff upright piano, a big thing that Lily Rose also succeeded in getting removed from her precious first floor. This grand instrument was rarely played. We did, however, honor the spot where it had once sat -- a small hall off the dining room and front parlor. This space became the music room, a comic name we had for a location where the only note sounded came from a startlingly loud electric doorbell pitched so that even the hard-of-hearing members of the household would know when a caller arrived.

To this day, the Guilford Avenue cellar holds mysteries. I despair of ever having to organize or inventory its contents. About the time my uncle finished off part of the cellar for his nieces and nephews, he also constructed other enclosures and chambers. He built himself a photo darkroom, along with other storage lockers. There were rug boxes, too, secured with funny little pieces of hardware. Every one was always filled to capacity. Once these caverns were filled, it seemed that no one there ever had the time or inclination to clean them out.

After all, here was a family that moved into a new house in 1915. I am sure the bottom layer of its stored materials dates from the Woodrow Wilson era. Except that is the wrong candidate and president. My great grandfather, William Stewart, attended the Republican Convention of 1912. He came home with a large plaster bull elephant. He placed it atop the dining room china closet. It rests there to this day.

My Republican great-grandfather had seven children; three never left that house. The four who escaped were considered far too progressive for words. Of the three sisters who stayed, two married and had families of their own. Only recently did I learn that the two sets of cousins raised under the same roof each had separate Christmas gardens, set up, of course, in the cellar. Competing train sets by the washtubs must have been quite a sight.

Over those decades the cellar silted up with a deep and murky inventory. You could rarely locate precise objects, but they were there, somewhere. How many times did I bolt home from some store with an excited story of what wares I'd seen, only to be told, "You don't need one of those. We've got one already in the cellar." At first I didn't believe this. In time, I realized there was some truth to it.

I gulped and strained to find the right words when my cousin Katie O'Hare asked about the whereabouts of some of her late father's possessions at his funeral last spring. I knew they were somewhere in the cellar, in the oldest and deepest section, the part that would take the talents of an archaeologist (and then an energetic cleaning crew) to find. Did I feel like devoting several weekends to the task?

The steamer trunks and the layers and layers of the Stewart sisters' dressmaking material remain undisturbed. I guess the summer lampshades are there, too.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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