The Closet In the Basement

On my ninth Christmas Eve, my parents went out— probably to finish Christmas shopping. They had put Arnold, my 17-year-old oldest brother in charge of my other brother, Hans, and me. Arnold told me he wanted to show me something in the basement. It was thrilling following him and Hans down the stairs. My brothers actually wanted to do something with me for once! This could go either very well or very badly.

Our basement has this closet in one corner that was locked year-round. That was where they led me. The door of the closet is made of raggedy, gnarled barn board slats. Up until that night, I was always scared of that door. It looked like what a gate to Hell looks like in old movies, you know? Now that I think about it, one of my brothers probably planted that image in my head.

Hans inserted a key into the lock, then threw open the door. Christmas presents! Tons of them in various states of dress. We ogled the ones that weren’t wrapped, and Hans showed me how to carefully peel back the Scotch tape from the presents that were.

Before I peeked at my first present though, Arnold prepped me on how to act surprised when I opened the gifts the next morning: “Remember exactly how you feel when you see what’s inside, Nathan. That way you can recreate it when you open this in front of Mom and Dad.” I had to ask what recreate meant. Once they told me, I couldn’t get over how smart my brothers were.

After we had our fill looking at the presents, we patted the tape back down. Arnold locked the closet door. When my parents came home that night, we were primly seated in front of the television, quiet as mice.

*****

A few weeks ago, Arnold told me he is moving to Seattle. It’s really good news. He needs a change. His announcement just shook me and I couldn’t figure out why. Then, I remembered the night my brothers showed me the Christmas closet.

That’s the memory that comes back to me whenever I walk into my parents’ house and see the presents under their tree. Now that even my niece and nephew are adults, the holidays are less about presents and more about appreciating being together as a family.

That’s what jolted me about Arnold’s announcement. His moving to Seattle is the beginning of the end of that. His son and daughter will still be in Michigan. He’s not abandoning us, but his Christmas visits will inevitably dwindle. I’ll feel his absence. I’ll want to go down to that basement and throw open that creepy closet door hoping Arnold’s in there waiting to surprise us.

 

Connecting with My Grandfather

I’ve never met my grandfather, Ralph. My father didn’t really know him either. He was an alcoholic and he abandoned my dad at the age of 8. I assumed that was all there was to know.

Dad only told one story about him. The story took place on the roof of what would become my childhood home. After years of repeatedly disappointing my father, he was trying to reestablish a connection. Ralph chose to reconnect by helping my father build our house.

CCC working
CCC men dig a ditch.

It was 1970. Ralph was in his mid-60s. He and my dad were putting the roof on the house. While they were hammering and tarring, Ralph started talking about how the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) ruined his life. It was the reason he lost his job, and the reason he started drinking. The CCC was part of President Roosevelt’s economic recovery plan for America during the Great Depression. It allowed the government to hire three million men to build roads, plant trees, and dig ditches across the country between 1933 to 1942.

The story has always confused me. How could a program whose sole purpose was to hire millions of people put my grandfather out of work? I had no idea.  I decided to look into it, hoping to understand him a little better.

In the 1930 census, I found him listed along with my great-grandparents. He was working for a county in Iowa as an assistant engineer three years before the CCC began. Mystery solved, I thoughtThe CCC, being a national program, must have made the County guys, like my grandfather, obsolete. Roosevelt formed the CCC; Ralph lost his job.

In the 1940 census, I found this:

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 3.54.32 PM

So, my theory was wrong. My grandfather wasn’t let go when the CCC started. He kept his job well into its heyday. Not only that, somewhere along the way he had picked up a wife and 2 daughters I didn’t know about. Holy cow!

Using phone directories (which listed peoples’ professions alongside their addresses back then), I find out that Ralph was let go as an engineer sometime in 1941. With that information, I had to form a new theory: the CCC must have finished all the work a county engineer would be hired to do. When the CCC started to disintegrate, the county probably realized there was no more work for my semi-educated 36-year-old grandfather.

I say semi-educated because the censuses consistently list Ralph’s highest level of education as 8th grade. ‘Engineer’ was just a title; he didn’t have a degree.

In 1942, Ralph was divorced from Gladys, broke, lacking purpose, and living in Flint, Michigan. The directory states that he was running a pool hall there. Before, I would have blamed him for allowing himself to be near the alcohol in the pool halls, accelerating his and his second family’s self-destruction. But I realize now that if I had lost both my job and my family in less than a year, I might start drinking, too.

I don’t like that he took such a long time to get his act together, but I’m grateful that he eventually did it. That he was there in 1970 on that rooftop with my dad. That he tried and succeeded to connect.

(l to r) Bill James, Eva Burns, Ralph James
My grandfather is the man on the right.