The basement crawl space is tinged with dread. And a little bit of pride too. Because both my late husband John and my father—and even the firefighter I had to call when it flooded—hated the idea of having to go in. The dimly lit space is only eighteen inches high, a tight spot for a grown man, and full of spider webs. The floor is dirt; overhead is crumbled fiberglass insulation. You climb a ladder and go through a small rough hole in the house’s fieldstone foundation, then crawl about seven feet to reach the valve that supplies water to the outside faucet. This needs to be turned on in spring and off in late fall so the pipes don’t freeze and burst. To get out, you have to crawl backwards and reach a foot through the rough hole, searching blindly for the top step of the ladder. That last six inches is hell on the knees, all sharp rock and crumbling mortar.
After John died in 2016, I’d suit up in his oversize coverall and put on a hat to shield my head, and crawl in holding a lit flashlight between my teeth. I’m not a plumber; I know nothing about pipes. But I had watched a YouTube video and crept in, located the pipe that ran crosswise to where I gauged the outside faucet to be, and turned the stopcock. Then I backed out and went outside, and turned on the faucet.
Nothing came out. I had done it—me, the fifty-six-year-old widow living alone in a 150-year-old house where, once every other week, something broke.
I have to say, researching plumbing was a bit of a thrill. As a writer, I acquired what all writers love, and that was a bunch of new words. Valve stem, bleeder, stopcock, and bonnet nut, to name a few. The words were rich and delicious. After the first time I turned off the water, a whole new world opened up to me. I toyed with becoming a plumber for older women like me, who were often mansplained and ended up paying an inflated bill. I would call my company High Heel Plumbing, and the sign on my truck would be a woman’s patent leather black pump. Pump, get it? I even researched how to get a plumbing license, forgetting that plumbers often deal with stopped toilets, waste-clogged pipes, and stinky flooded basements. I perused the plumbing aisle at the big-box hardware store, intrigued by the bins of brass fixtures, packets of washers and plumbing tape, and piping of all sizes and lengths. Plumbing parts represented engineering ingenuity. They were clever and straightforward, like my father, whose no-fuss replies to my plumbing questions always landed like mini-epiphanies. Or cowboy-poetry.
When I asked why I had to bleed a radiator, for example, there was a long pause. Then he said, “What happens if you suck on a straw with your finger over the end?”
Easy: you couldn’t.
“Exactly. You need an opening to let the air go through. It’s the same with a pipe. You open the bleeder to let the air through, so you can drain it.”
When I asked—the first time I had to take my new car for an oil change—if I had to replace the oil filter, he cleared his throat.
“Lemme ask you this. After you take a shower, do you put on your dirty underwear?”
Okay. Oil filters were like clean underwear, and I—a woman with a graduate education—was learning that my high-school educated father, who operated an excavator eight hours a day, digging gigantic holes for monumental buildings, was the master of a body of esoteric knowledge that I did not possess. A new and heartfelt appreciation of his uncelebrated know-how took hold, and over the years, led to my telephoning him whenever a house problem cropped up.
And not just that. My father had the uncanny ability to look at parts of old tools—antique tools, even—and instantly tell what they were meant to do or how to make them work. “That’s part of a scythe, to cut grass,” he said of a curved and rusted blade.” “That’s the head of an old glass cutter.” “That’s the top of an old sledgehammer. You put in a handle as far as it’ll go, then tap in a wedge nice and tight, to keep it from slipping.” One time he brought home a heavy metal cylinder with little balls inside it, held in place by a smaller metal cylinder. It was clean and as beautifully made as sculpture, and I—a kid at the time—asked to hold it.
“That’s an old ball bearing,” he said. For years it sat on my desk as a paperweight, one that I frequently picked up and twiddled when I was deep in thought.
As a kid, I loved to go down to his basement workshop, especially when he wasn’t home. It was a man’s version of a jewelry box, the kind with all the little drawers and hidden compartments. The workbench was solidly made of old wood, spattered by paint and pierced by nails. It had a row of drawers across the bottom: one held files, another held screw drivers and hammers, and another held saw blades, and so on. The surface of the bench had a vise for clamping things while you worked on them; sometimes I clamped a chunk of discarded wood just to saw it and watch the trail of wood specks swirl and accumulate in a little mountain of sawdust on the floor. Above the workbench were shelves that served double-duty. The tops were stacked with cans of paint varnish, and tubes of sealant and caulk. On the undersides he had screwed in the tops of glass jars of all sizes; he filled the jars with different sized nails, screws, and bolts, and hung them by the lids so he could see them. A jar with a lid is so simple, we take it for granted. A glass vessel and a metal top with threads. One fastens onto the other. It is a terrible thing to have to throw out a jar, like discarding a famous artist’s old sketches, beautiful but not the best, and it gnaws at me.
Near the workbench was a pegboard with all my father’s paintbrushes, used but clean, and a mean looking metal tool shaped like a comb with a bite out of it, that he used to clean the brushes. The place smelled like sawdust and machine oil and paint thinner, an elixir to my twelve-year-old self. It brought me closer to my father, whose damp work boots and sneakers drying near the furnace at night hardened into the shape of his feet.
Being in the workroom was being with my father. Being in the workroom was being my father, the same way putting on an apron was playing mother. Except that I liked tools and paint and sawdust a whole lot more than I liked cooking or sewing.
The workbench was a theater for mastery.
After my husband died, the first household repairs consisted of a floor lamp, the ball-and-cock mechanism inside a toilet tank, and the kitchen floor itself, so old and worn that it always looked dirty. One by one, I took on the tasks. I rewired the lamp first; that took a couple of hours, but when I finished, it worked. Next, I tackled the toilet tank after—again—watching a YouTube video. I played with the broken ball-and-cock mechanism to see how it worked, then I bought a new one. I drained the tank, unbolted it from the base, installed the new mechanism, and refilled the tank. This also worked, and I was reborn. Fixing things was not only challenging, it was fulfilling. Buoyed, I took on laying a new linoleum floor. I primed the old floor, started laying tiles against the straight wall, and worked my way to the other side, where the tiles had to be cut to fit around radiator bases or jogs in the wall. Afterwards, the outdated kitchen looked brand-new. The projects that followed included painting a two-story hallway, installing exterior storm windows, and cutting down eight birches bent in a bad ice storm, using only a handsaw.
I was a superstar. Self-sufficient. Can-do. A woman able to hold her own.
By then, years had passed since my parents moved from the house with the glorious basement workbench to a condominium community of mostly retired people. My father had no room for tools. I inherited two Stanley hand planers, a hand-held drill, a band saw, a coping saw, and a wood saw, a sledgehammer, a level, and a variety of screwdrivers. These would all eventually end up on the basement workbench of my husband, who dreamed of being a woodworker when he retired. After he died, while cleaning out the basement, I found a large wooden box lined with aluminum, with a light switch on one end. I knew immediately that it was designed to heat and bend wood, because I had seen the tri-color archer’s bow he had made for his daughter. “How did you know how to make this?” I had asked him the first time I saw the bow, its striped wood the colors of honey and chocolate, with a hand-carved grip.
“I watched YouTube,” he said, “and I just figured it out.”
A guy who “just figured out” how to create an object of such craftsmanship and beauty was a guy whose language my father spoke. They had become fast friends, one of their last days together spent replacing a rotten sill outside my bedroom window. I have a picture in my mind of the two, their heads bent together as they worked out how to cut out the rot and slide in the new sill, their low murmured exchanges punctuated by long studious silences.
Man-talk over man-work. It was lovely.
My husband left behind many unfinished projects: a half-installed heater, a bathroom ceiling fan in an unpatched hole, radiator valve-stems that needed sealing tape, and crown molding that had been removed but not replaced. All of them were beyond my skill level, but not beyond my father’s. My mother encouraged me to ask him for help. He couldn’t finish the more complicated projects, but he could hold the rickety ladder while I changed light bulbs or fire alarms or clipped the tops of shrubs that blocked the windows.
“Let him come over and putter around the house,” she said. “He has nothing to do.”
But when I called to ask for help, he said, with unexpected indignation, “I can’t hold a ladder. I’m not that steady on my feet anymore, you know.”
I remember the day he said that. He had recently been diagnosed with a congestive heart and vascular dementia, and though his recollection of events and names was as yet accurate, he was prone to bouts of anxiety and inexplicable anger that seemed to flare over next to nothing. He often sat massaging his forehead as he studied a receipt or a bill or a bank statement, as if he could physically push his brain to work. He had become a selective hoarder, saving paper and plastic bags and empty pill bottles, storing them in drawers and the backs of closets and along the attic stairway. The condo had a basement bathroom that I called his “man-cave,” where bins of rolled socks and underwear sat side-by-side with bags of bird seed and canvas drop-cloths for painting. No one was allowed in the man-cave, and we half humorously respected the rule. Half humorously, because if you used the bathroom, you risked arousing his ire.
Now I sat on the bottom stair of my house and looked up at the hall light fixture that needed changing, a simple two-person task. The meaning of his words sank in. He was getting old, too old to do the kinds of things that he loved doing. His words quite clearly signaled a turning point, the gravity of which I felt in my bones.
In spring of 2020, the pandemic hit. The epidemiologist in me was secretly pleased at my ability to explain to family members why they had to wear masks and wash hands. The field of public health was suddenly truly public. Before long, however, the accumulating solitary days in the little antique house depressed me, more even than had the year following my husband’s death. I filled a wall calendar with x-ed off days like a castaway stranded on an island, missing my parents, my son, my friends, and the life that it had taken several years of mourning to return to a semblance of normalcy.
By the time winter hit, I had spent nine months alone, having groceries delivered, working remotely, and obsessing about my elderly parents. The news cycle spun constantly on the rising incidence of COVID and the lingering social unrest from a summer of street protests over the murder of George Floyd—of many George Floyds. The world seemed to have tipped precipitously out of balance, with disease and injustice sliding along its unstable surface and colliding in a maelstrom of chaos, death, and more death. Most of what I will remember from that year is sitting on the couch, riveted to my laptop, watching fires burn and clouds of tear gas engulfing protestors, and wiping rivers of tears from my face. I wanted to do more but could do nothing; my asthma made me high risk for the disease, and what’s more, I had developed some neurological symptoms in my face that were quietly alarming. I couldn’t get to a doctor because no one could get to doctors; hospital and physician practices were still figuring out how to do what would come to be called telemedicine.
It snowed early, but the fluffy white stuff didn’t bring the usual holiday joy. The spruce tree on our town green had been decorated with holiday lights since mid-April, when towns across New England lit up their trees to bring some cheer to the pandemic landscape. I worried about a premature deep freeze; I had not yet gone into the crawlspace to shut off the outside supply line. When I finally went into the basement and suited up, then made my way to the overhead pipes, I found that I could not remember how to do it. The task over which I had felt such pride had become, suddenly, a new source of worry.
I called my father. Did I shut the outside first or second? Did I turn the knob clockwise or counter-clockwise?
His reply was typical in its simplicity—or so I thought.
“You turn the knob clockwise. But don’t forget to bleed the pipe.”
Bleed the pipe?
“I don’t think I did that last time,” I said.
“Well if you didn’t, you should have,” he said. “If you don’t bleed the pipe, there’ll be water inside, and if it freezes—pfft. You’ll have a burst pipe.”
I didn’t even know what a bleeder looked like.
“On a pipe in a house as old as yours,” he said, “it looks like a nipple. You open it up and let the residual water drain out.”
After we spoke, I looked up how to bleed a pipe on YouTube, suited up, put my flashlight in my teeth, and inched my way into the crawlspace, dragging a plastic bucket.
There it was above me, just as he had described, a small black “nipple” just below the valve, encrusted with corrosion. I would have to work hard to dislodge its screw. I turned the water valve clockwise and it seemed shut, then I put my finger and thumb on the bleeder.
It took only a second for the nipple to snap off, blasting a hard stream of water directly into my face. The flashlight fell on the dirt floor and the crawlspace went dark. I felt that moment of instantaneous shock, when your mind goes blank, and reached up blindly to tighten the valve; apparently, I had not completely closed it. But the water pressure was so fierce and blade-like that I could barely see. I positioned the bucket to catch the water, but it was like filling a soup ladle from a fire hydrant. The hard water tipped the bucket over and stirred up dust clouds, making me cough. I had to get out of there and fetch help.
I backed out of the crawlspace as quickly as I could and dug into my pocket for a cell phone to call my father, but my cell phone was wet. I couldn’t swipe. I kicked open the basement door and ran over the slushy snow to my neighbor’s house, but no one was home. I ran back into the basement, slipped off my muddy boots, and ran upstairs to dry the phone screen. But I still couldn’t swipe because somehow I had cut my finger, and it was bleeding profusely. I wrapped the finger tightly in a dish towel, dried the phone screen, and called 911. The fire station was at the end of my street; it would take mere minutes for help to arrive. But how in hell would bulkily suited firefighters get through that hole to reach the pipe? It didn’t occur to me that the answer might be: they wouldn’t. I stood in the driveway and waited, having neglected to put my boots back on. My clothes were soaked and striped with blood, and my wool socks were cold, wet, and muddy.
When the fire truck arrived, the first man off jogged over.
“Ma’am, ma’am, where are you cut?”
I waved him urgently toward the basement door.
“I’m fine!” I said. “It’s the basement—it’s flooding.”
A minute later, three fully clad and masked firefighters were standing in my 150-year-old basement, trying to trace the pipes to a master shut-off valve. I kept interrupting, trying to explain about the shut-off in the crawl space, but they weren’t interested.
Finally, one of them said calmly, “Ma’am, let’s go upstairs so I can check you out, okay?”
I climbed the stairs, sat down heavily, and peeled off my filthy wet socks. My bare feet were shriveled and red with cold. The firefighter knelt in front of me and touched my shoulders, knees, and arms, trying to find the suspected gash. I held up my hand to reveal an index finger cut across the tip.
“Let’s clean that and get it bandaged,” he said, fishing supplies from a first-aid box.
A friendly neighbor had seen the fire truck, crossed the street, and let herself in.
“What’s going on, Mel?” she asked, and I began to cry. I mean ugly cry, sobbing and gulping and wiping my bloody hand across my mud-smeared face.
“I forgot to wear a mask,” I wailed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, ma’am,” said the firefighter. “And it’s just water, is all. This kind of thing happens all the time. It’s an easy fix for the plumber.”
I nodded, but I couldn’t stop crying. Pandemic loneliness, persistent facial pain, an old house, aging and frail parents, wet feet, a bloody finger, and a flooded basement—all were streams of anguish that merged into a single torrent of grief. In an earlier time, I would have called my father, and he would have delivered some common-sense reassurance that would have righted what was wrong. But that was no longer an option.
“You’re awfully upset for a busted pipe,” said my neighbor, who was also a retired cop and very matter-of-fact. “Do you have someone you can call?”
“My dad’s too old, plus he can’t come,” I said.
“No,” she replied, “I mean like a therapist?”
Nearly a year to the day that the pandemic began, my parents and I were among the most fortunate, having escaped COVID-19 and been vaccinated, and survived the dark winter of isolation and daily reported deaths, an insurrection at the Capitol, and mask wars. I had seen a neurologist about my facial pain and taken medical leave from my job. The day after firefighters shut off the water main, a plumber came to replace old pipes, reassuring me that the bleeder was so old and corroded, it would have broken no matter who touched it. The flooding wasn’t for my lack of competence. The house was antique, and so was its plumbing.
“You don’t have to turn the water off and on yourself,” he said. “We’ll come out and do it for you. It’s part of your service contract.”
I didn’t say, “I want to do it myself.”
It was a feeling my father understood. On his first post-vaccine solo visit to my house in spring 2021, I set up an unpainted wooden shelf on the workbench along with two cans of primer and some paintbrushes. The long pandemic winter had depressed him, as had his increasing memory loss; I figured he might enjoy what I called “playing in the basement.” I warmed him up with a cup of tea and a muffin, then he said, “Let’s go in the basement and see what you’ve got going on.”
He made his way gingerly down the creaky uneven steps, his fleece and ball cap still on. At the bottom he surveyed the basement: a newly installed water heater, a relatively new boiler, a chop saw, a belt sander, and shelves of gardening, painting, and carpentry supplies.
He was a kid in a toy store.
He circled the boiler slowly, studying the automatic feed mechanism, the site glass, and the various knobs and valves. He made a low whistle.
“Would you look at that,” he said. “This thing’s a beauty.”
I told him how I shut it off every spring and skimmed the tank the way he showed me, and that pleased him. Then he made his way to the work bench, ignoring the shelf-painting project I had set out. He picked up a level and held it this way and that, then a crimper, then a clamp. He spun the turning mechanism on the vise and examined the neatly arranged screw drivers, hammers, and files hanging from the pegboard as if he were a visitor in an art museum.
“You’ve got some nice tools here,” he observed.
Yes, I did: I reminded him that some of them had been his.
“Basement’s nice and dry,” he noted with satisfaction. “Long as you don’t flood it, you’re all set. Mold makes an awful stink.”
After the basement tour, which lasted an hour, I sent him home with a box of high-efficiency light bulbs, and a book and a pair of reading glasses for my mother.
I was reading in bed early the next morning when he called. He often called before my mother woke up to ask about my cat or my bird feeder, or to tell me about the deer in his yard. Having seen him the night before, I almost didn’t pick up, but I changed my mind.
He had cut his hand and wondered, should he put ice on it? Because it was hot and swollen.
I sat right up. He was not a complainer. How had he cut it, I asked, and how bad was the swelling?
“I was opening a can of Ensure with a butter knife and the knife slipped,” he said. “It got me between my thumb and index finger, and you know how thin my skin is. I bled like a bastard. Your mother put a bandage on it and I went to bed, and when I woke up my hand was swollen. Blood everywhere, all down my arm.”
Of course there was. My father was on a blood thinner, and the flesh between thumb and forefinger hides an artery. I jumped out of bed and ten minutes later I was on my way.
He was waiting for me in the doorway in his coat and hat. My mother was waiting too, still in her pajamas and stricken with fright. I leaped up the stairs two at a time, and he held out his hand, blue and swollen to the size of a small football. Dried blood crusted his fingernails and the edges of a bandage, and stained his pant legs. He said he needed something from the basement, but I said, “Forget it! Get in the car—now. We’re going to the hospital.”
At the ER, I gave him a mask and told him to have a seat.
“My father is on blood thinners and he’s bleeding,” I said to the masked woman behind the glass partition.
“You can’t go in with him,” she said, tapping at the COVID notice on the window.
I had given this some forethought, writing with a Sharpie on the green index card I now held up: “He has DEMENTIA.”
“Okay,” she said. “They’ll call you.”
They guided him to a gurney, and I helped him lie down. His top half was an old man, missing teeth and completely bald, while the bottom half was a co-ed in the Gap sneaker-loafers I had bought him. He loved them so much, he cleaned the rubber soles each day.
Inside the old man was an innocent boy, and I winced.
The nurse unwrapped his hand to reveal a ghastly puncture wound. The skin was so darkly discolored around exposed muscle that it almost looked necrotic. I watched as two nurses used a pressure washer to try to dislodge some of the congealed blood under his skin, my father all the while shouting in pain. After several minutes without success, they paged a hand doctor. He arrived an hour later and frowned. The insufficient circulation to the fingertips was troubling, he said. It might be a symptom of my father’s congestive heart, but it might also be because of the cut. We needed to see an every more specialized specialist.
The best hand doctors were in Boston, an hour away. The nurse said she would call an ambulance.
My father scowled and jabbed a finger at me.
“No ambulance, no way. She’s taking me.”
“Okay,” I said. “If that’s what you want, I’ll take you.”
We were headed to a city hospital with a COVID ward. I thought of family members who had whispered their goodbyes to dying loved ones via cell phones held by doctors in astronaut suits. Driving the long highway to Boston, I pointed out heavy equipment to my father—tower cranes, crawlers, excavators, and dump trucks—and heard him say, “I’m feeling homesick now, like I want to get back on my machine and feel it rumble to life.” But I was thinking, Is this the day I lose my dad? It’s on me to stay calm. It’s on me to comfort him. It’s on me to keep my family informed.
My mother called on speaker phone and said he would be all right. She said goodbye and he said goodbye, and I hung up, then he blurted out, “I love you,” but she was already gone. His eyes brimmed with tears.
“You’re gonna be okay, Dad,” I said, reaching over to pat his leg.
But would he?
“I have a present for you,” I had told him the week before. He had asked me where he could buy metal clips to organize his many papers, including CVS extra-bucks, coupons, and outdated receipts, which for some unknown reason he likes to keep.
“Don’t give him any more junk,” said my mother. “We’ve got elastic bands all over this house. I can’t stand it.”
My father used elastic bands to bundle paper bags, plastic bags, and newspapers; to keep electrical cords bunched up; to keep aspirin bottles in their boxes; and to hold sheafs of dollar bills. I had a soft spot for his collection, loving elastic bands almost as much as he did.
“Not only do I have binder clips,” I said, “but get a load of this.” I produced a ball of multicolored elastic bands the size of a baseball.
He took it up enthusiastically and studied it.
“How do you suppose they made this?”
My husband had given it to me as a stocking stuffer for the one Christmas we had together before he died. I didn’t tell my father that, just that it had belonged to John.
“I’ll get some good use out of this,” my father said in what I call his man-voice. His tone often deepens when he converses with other men, or talks about tools or machines or fixing things.
“And you’ll get some good use out of this, too,” I said, producing a grommet plier in my basement along with a full bag of grommets.
“What’s that?” my mother asked.
My father picked it up and squeezed it. “That’s a tool to make holes.”
“Oh, good,” she said, “maybe you can fix the shower curtain.”
He squeezed it slowly several times and demonstrated how the plier head compressed the edges of the grommet—which I already understood, though I was happy to hear his explanation.
“I’ll get some good use out of that, too,” he said.
Afterwards he disappeared with the pliers, the binder clips, and the elastic-band baseball to the recesses of the mancave.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all make others happy with such trifling gifts?
And aren’t I lucky to have that in my power?
I sat with him in a Boston ER until 11 p.m., having flashed the “He has DEMENTIA” card to the intake nurse who said I couldn’t stay. It had been a long day, twelve hours, when another nurse finally came to fetch him. “He can sleep on a gurney instead of here in the waiting room. I can’t guarantee they’ll see him right away, but they’ll get to him eventually,” she said. I gave him a gentle squeeze and said I loved him, then drove off into the black night for a few hours of light sleep in the room across from my fretful mother.
A few months after John died, I slipped on newly fallen snow and broke my wrist. I didn’t go to the hospital even though I had heard the bone snap; I couldn’t bear to be that vulnerable again, having spent so many weeks watching him succumb to cancer. Instead I duct-taped my hand to a ruler until I could get to the store for a hand brace. For three weeks I managed to fend off seeing a doctor. Then I cut my knuckle almost to the bone while opening a can of garbanzo beans. I duct-taped a napkin to my finger and drove to the ER—in a new snowstorm—to have it stitched. The elderly doctor said he’d have to stitch two layers, “but I’m afraid you have a much bigger problem.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I’m pretty sure your wrist is broken.”
I sat straight up.
“How do you know!” I demanded, but he didn’t answer. Instead he lowered his eyeglasses and peered at me.
“I have to say, Ms. Smith, that you look really crazy right now.”
Of course I looked crazy. I had gone into such deep denial over a broken bone that I challenged a medical doctor observing the incontrovertible evidence of redness and swelling.
I was my father’s daughter. I collected weird stuff and put duct tape on injuries. I would have driven my husband crazy, had he lived long enough.
My telephone chimed at 5:29 a.m.
“Yeah, Mel,” he said, the same way he always does. “I’m all set to go.”
What had they done, I wanted to know?
“Oh, shit, you should’ve seen what they did,” he said. “They had a tool on the end of a syringe, and they jabbed it in there and cleaned it out good. It hurt like hell. But these guys are geniuses.”
Eight. He felt fine.
“You can pick me up whenever you like. Don’t break your neck trying to get here right away. Take your time. I’m reading the paper.”
Spring is here, and I’ve planted wildflowers to feed bees and songbirds. But flowers require frequent watering, and I need to turn on the supply to my hose.
It’s time to return to the crawl space.
I know that I know how to do it. And I know as well that the plumber crawled in there, replaced the faulty valve, and showed me how to open the pipe. If I’m really a nudzik, as my husband’s Polish forebears might have said, I can avoid the hassle all together and punt. But I am drawn to that crawlspace the way my father is drawn to dark basement places, spaces with wiring and pipes and water and fire, the nerves and arterial pulse of a house itself. I am drawn as well to the tools stored in those places because they are the means to keep a house alive. They tell of thrift and artistry, and agency in a world where pandemics, floods, guns, and even dull knives, can extinguish or at least wound a human being.
They tell of survival.
My father may have one too many elastic bands, and I likely have too many glass jars. But I suspect these simple and sometimes beautiful objects evince a too often unsung trait in many working men, and women too, and that is an appreciation for leanness and utility. It is the same quality perhaps found in the first cave dwellers who took a stick that lay smoldering in embers to draw a picture on a wall or knocked stone against flint to make an arrow. Utilitarian objects are an atavism, a connection to an earlier time without Wifi, radio waves, or electricity. And utilitarian objects are necessary in a world where an outage or a hurricane can quickly thrust us back into darkness.
That same darkness of the crawlspace tells us who we are. I ritually suit up to plumb a grimy lightless hole in order that there may be water, and come out a little bit more assured of my competence—and a little less fearful of death.
One day I won’t get an early morning call and hear the words, “Yeah, Mel.” That realization is nearly unbearable. My fierce love reminds me: each of us is a universe in ourselves. When we die, what is gone cannot be replaced. I knew this when John died, but somehow, in the ensuing years, the pain of that awareness receded. Perhaps that’s part of a grand design. Perhaps if we understood the gravity of the loss represented by each person’s death, life would become unlivable.
The crawl space has become synonymous not with plumbing or wiring, but with a space that gives access to the darkness of our lives. We avoid that darkness at our peril, but confronting it presents its own risks. Grief is a darkness, as is loneliness. Love too is sometimes dark, bringing with it the sense that our dearest desires are always a moment from slipping away. And so a crawl space is like a human heart, the metaphorical one swelling with grief and love, and the physical one pushing out the blood that keeps us breathing, and knowing, and feeling. And bleeding, sometimes, too.
Melanie S. Smith is a writer and teacher whose work has appeared in Ruminate, Birdcoat Quarterly, and The Windhover, among others. She has just completed a novel about the family legacy of intergenerational trauma.