A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 10: The Basement

[PHOTO NOTE: My Basement looked nothing like this. Heck with it, I’ll use it anyway]

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Sorry if this came a little later than when you expected it. I have the feeling that more people might read my stuff if I release it on Saturday during the day rather than Sunday at night. However, I end up usually being able to write something by Sunday given my schedule. Should I say either Saturday and Sunday night just to be safe, but I should start working on releasing more consistently on Saturdays? That might be a good writing goal for next year, a more consistent release schedule.]

This was my home for 20 years, my parents home for 30 years, and now it’s someone else’s home. Time always changes things. The basement in question was in the back.

Let’s talk a little bit about sanctuaries, especially the ones that kids carve out for themselves.

At some point in every child’s life, they have an instinct to have a space of their own, a space that is separate from their parents and the rest of their family, a space that they don’t share.

On that level, I truly have sympathy for children who live in large families, like my mother. She was one of eight kids growing up in a little modest two-story house in the northern half of La Crosse, Wisconsin. I have some (relatively) clear memories of exploring that house 30 years after she had grown up in it, during the time both of my grandparents were alive and living in the house. My mother had been one of eight children there. There was a tiny little enclosed side porch when you entered the kitchen, which I think had light green countertops. There was one restroom off the kitchen, and through the other door taking a small step up, there was the dining room and an old radiating heater sitting right off to the side. To the right of that dining room was, I had thought, a sewing room that seemed filled with odds and ends of stored things and a sewing machine. As it turns out, that had been a bedroom when my mother lived there.

Through one door, there was the dark living room that had the one television and an old black upright piano, as well as a good couch and my grandfather’s recliner. In one direction, you could walk through some swinging doors to get to my grandparent’s bedroom, or you could go up a winding staircase to get to an upstairs that had just two bedrooms there, as well as a landing that often boasted a bed of its own, a sort of open-air bedroom.

And my mom’s family lived in that place and shared it with each other, occasionally all 10 of them. The only thing I can think of is, how did they manage to have a space of their own, all eight of those kids? How did they manage to not get overwhelmed by each other, in that big house?

“You went outside a lot,” my mother says now, maybe 30 years after both she and I stepped into that home for the last time. When she and her brothers and sisters needed some space, they stepped out into the wild world of La Crosse. There were days at the local beach (LaCrosse is situated on the Mississippi River, just like my own hometown of Muscatine is), the local pool, or even the skating rink at the local park, which apparently had a warming shed. This is an important feature in Wisconsin, a state where I heard tales of my grandparents walking across the frozen Mississippi[1].

I ended up having a totally different existence than my mother or even my father growing up. My mother had her seven siblings, and my father was the middle son between an elder and younger sister. I was an only child, and my mother was almost the only one of her siblings to have just one child. (One of her brothers was childless throughout his life). So, it turned out that we three were the only members of our immediate family who would live in Iowa when I was a child. I would live as an only child while occasionally venturing out of the state to Wisconsin, primarily, where I’d meet and reunite with some of my two dozen or so cousins.

For many people, it might have been an isolated life, but it never really felt like that to me. Suzanne Louise Liegois was always there with me from the beginning. Of course, Dad (William Allan Liegois) was a strong presence in my life and we were always close, but with him working in the engineering field, it was Mom who was with me most of the time. It was her that started introducing me to letters, and I had the alphabet down when I was about 18 months old. When we visited the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, near our home in Seabrook, Texas, where I spent my preschool years, she would write words in the sand where I could read them while enjoying the surf. By five years old, shortly before we would pull up roots and come to Iowa, I was able to read the stories in the newspapers we got at home.

“You were just so curious,” she told me years later. “I mean, really, you were just a nice little boy.”

It was both her and Dad who would read to me both during the day and then later at bedtime. Eventually, I would want to start reading books by myself. It would then lead me to want to have more books, and eventually I needed a place to store those books. This began my lifelong relationship with and use of bookshelves and bookcases.

By the time we moved to Muscatine, I had accumulated a serious mini library of Dr. Seuss books, other random picture books, and Muppet books like the one where Grover wanted to keep you from turning the page because he didn’t want to see the monster at the end of the book.

There was also a set of World Book encyclopedias that we picked up sometime around the time that I was eight. Many kids would avoid even looking at them in the shelves, much less picking them up. As for me, I would grab the “A” volume, the “G” volume, or the “R” volume, for example, and start sorting through all of the articles that attracted my fancy. I wound up learning a lot of random things over the course of so many days.

Even though I loved the encyclopedias when I was a kid, there were some disadvantages to them. After a few years, the whole set became outdated quickly. I think we had some encyclopedias that my parents had from the late 50’s, and then got some updated ones from the early 80’s. I actually am a fan of Wikipedia myself. If it was around during the time when I was a kid, I would be checking out all the articles of the day and clicking on the random articles of the day to see what I could learn.

It was that basement that was my sanctuary when I was a kid. I remember when I first saw it, when we toured the home before we bought it. I saw the yellow, green, and brown plaid carpet across the entire floor, I saw the medium brown wood paneling along the sides of the basement. I saw the weird rooms, like the white and blue linoleum place where I wound up storing my toys, the cement block place where we put our washer, dryer, and a cement block shower and toilet. There was the weird storage room where we stuffed everything, and then there was the room off my toy room where Dad stored his tools and just about everything else and I would check it out every once in a while just to see what the tools looked like.

I loved that place. It was my sanctuary.

My main hangout was on the couch, which at the beginning of my time at that house was an olive-green corduroy couch where I relaxed and read. If I wanted to play my Atari 2600 or later, my Nintendo NES, I would skooch over in front of the fake wood and metal television that dominated the main portion of the basement that presented itself in front of the staircase that led down from the main floor. The basement was where I watched forbidden pro wrestling and morally questionable movies and where I kept my ears keyed on the slightest movement upstairs from my parents. My mother, at least, was prepared to check up on me periodically, and make sure that I was watching sensible entertainment, even though such sentiments were a lost cause. I was focused on consuming as much adult entertainment as possible and there was nothing that they could do to stop me from doing so. It was something I kept in mind when it was time to raise my own two children, who were both reasonable and unreasonable in their own ways.

To be fair, however, I never totally kept this basement to myself. My parents were welcome to come down and watch television and play Nintendo with me – I specifically remember watching Mystery Science Theater with them for the first time later in my youth and us laughing along together. I would occasionally invite friends, sometimes more than one friend, down there for video games, Legos, board games, and other amusements in the last generation to have a pre-Internet era. Of course, that was where I brought my girlfriends and eventually my future wife to so we could hang out.

But it was my sanctuary. It was where I felt comfortable to be myself, where I felt comfortable to start be creative. When I first began to jot down notes, ideas, and eventually short stories in a series of notebooks, it was in the basement where I first started to do that. And when I finally got my first desktop computer, I set it up not in my bedroom, but right in the middle of that basement. That basement was my first writing room, my first creative space. I began to treasure having it and later spaces in the years to come.

[1] I never managed to accomplish this feat myself, although I did manage to walk around and throw a football around on the frozen Iowa River during my time at the University of Iowa.

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