MY AMBITION this summer is to organize and clean out the cellar, the vault for things I think need keeping.
Unfortunately, in my case, that means almost everything. I can't bring myself to throw things out. Over the years, I've saved family mementos, the paper routine of my life, and tons of stuff that has come my way.
It's all down in the cellar -- not a club room, not a basement, but the kind of rock-walled, humid cavern common to houses built in 1871.
My definition of cleaning out the cellar is to go through every box, throw out only what has proven to be worthless, and repack everything worth keeping. Once everything is re-sorted, I use the vacuum, scrub bucket and maybe the paint can, too.
I began last month, vowing to do a thorough job but promising myself not to work more than two hours at a time. That's about the limit of my attention span in a subterranean lair where the light is mainly artificial and the air quality isn't the best. I'm hoping to be done by September.
On the whole, I shouldn't complain. The summer of 1997 is shaping up as a good one to spend downstairs. Baltimore Julys fall into two categories -- wet ones when mildew thrives, and dry ones when it's hot but less clammy.
This year's is a dry one, which means when I open the kitchen door and make the descent, I startle the crickets who consider my cellar their personal vacationland. Were it a wet July, there would be a convention of darting water bugs.
A distinct legacy of being raised within a large family -- and in a home that possessed a formidable cellar -- was the habit of maintaining a sizable inventory underground.
When I was a child, it seemed we had cases of canned goods and dozens of bars of soap stored below deck. My mother kept extra boxes of birthday presents and blankets and stashes of whatever else department stores had marked down.
As a sub-ambition to my main summer goal, I want to make my cellar cleaner by eliminating the excess. I hear my head commanding, "Do it, let it go, drop it in the trash bag. You'll never miss it."
But my arms grow temporarily paralyzed when I have to determine the fate of a typical cellar object: Hanging on an old gas pipe is the formal wedding suit my grandfather wore when he walked down the aisle of SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church in 1916.
So are his 1920s golf stockings and linen plus-fours. I somehow inherited a big, framed photo of the priest who married my grandparents, but who had no other relationship to the family.
I agonize over whether any of this can be sacrificed and finally decide, "Of course not."
But by way of small emotional compromise, I do cut loose Pop's gray bathrobe, a rather ugly model that drops into a black garbage bag with relative ease. Not so his notebooks. I keep every one, along with both copies of his handwritten address books, and, of course, his prayer books.
Not everything is a family archive. There are the stacks of throw rugs, shower curtains, orphaned lamp shades, plus a hardware store's supply of light bulbs, both everyday and Christmas.
The shower curtains fall under the category of what a well stocked home needs extras of at all times. I won't throw them out, because they are of top quality (once, some years ago), but they don't fit any shower in the house. I keep them because they might -- one day, maybe -- make good drop cloths for painting.
Because there is a drop of paint left in the cans, they can stay, too. Also spared is every theater program I've kept, because, like baseball cards, they might be valuable.
I can't part with the old door that fell off its hinges in 1990. So I make the biggest compromise of the day and smash it up, saving all the little pieces of wood that now fill several wooden crates. I figure they'll make good kindling next winter when it's cold and a good blaze in the fireplace upstairs might help take the chill off the damp and crowded cellar below.
Pub Date: 7/20/97