The house of my childhood in Bellerose had a cellar; two dank rooms at the bottom of the house.
Downstairs, the first thing you saw was the coal bin. At least half the front cellar room was filled with coal to heat the house. The coal man would arrive in his truck and cart wheelbarrows full of coal over to the small cellar window. After he inserted a metal chute through the window, we would hear the clatter of coal falling into the bin and reaching almost to the ceiling.
Opposite the bin was a large furnace. Open the door and pour in shovel after shovel of coal to get a good fire going. At night, Dad would damper down the flames, and the ashes would fall to the bottom of the furnace. It became my brothers’ chore to shovel the ashes into a barrel and cart it up the stairs to the alley outside for the trash collectors to take. If money was tight we had to skimp on the coal and wear extra sweaters until next payday.
Just past the coal bin were two large washtubs. It was here that Mom would stand for hours scrubbing the clothes for our large family. She would rub them with bars of Fels Naptha soap against the rutted washboard, then rinse, wring and toss them in a big wicker wash basket, ready to be hung on the lines in the yard. Her hands were always red and raw from this chore. I wonder now what this Barnard College graduate thought about as she scrubbed an endless pile of shirts and towels, underwear and socks down in the dark dingy cellar. It would be many years before we could afford a washing machine, but somehow Mom kept eight kids turned out daily in clean clothes and the ironed white blouses and shirts required at our parochial school.
Sometimes she would send out a load of sheets for a “wet wash.” Mr. Lee, the laundry man from the Unexcelled Laundry, would come to the side door and return a load of clean but damp sheets, and Mom enjoyed a bit of chatter with him before heading to the yard to pin the sheets on the clotheslines. My sisters and I helped with this chore, and laughed on those winter days when the frozen clothes stood up on their own as we unpinned them from the line. There were also a few clotheslines strung across the cellar for those rainy days when the heat from the furnace would do the job of drying a load or two — not as satisfactory as sun-dried sweet smelling clothes, but it would do in a pinch.
The second room, called the “back cellar,” was my father’s domain. A high school science teacher, he used this space to raise tropical fish and store his collection of rocks and minerals. At least a dozen fish tanks were lined up with an assortment of different breeds. Dad enjoyed breeding them and watching them grow, and we all got lessons in how to feed them and clean their tanks. Behind the rows of fish tanks was a clutter of old shelves and dressers holding labeled samples of rocks, minerals and fossils. Dad liked to go on rock-hunting expeditions with his friend Ed, another science teacher, and brought back dozens of varieties. The showiest ones were displayed upstairs in glass-fronted cases; beautiful examples of polished agate and rose quartz, gold-flecked mica and uncut amethyst. But lesser pieces were relegated to the cellar and gathered dust there until the day Dad died.
The cellar held many life lessons for us kids in what was necessary for daily life — a good supply of coal, the hard work involved to keep us in clean clothes, the chores each family member had to do to keep these routines going. And then the lessons about the beauty and variety to be found in nature, in the little fish and the hundreds of different kinds of rocks. The cellar was dark and musty smelling, but probably as essential to our home as the pretty bright rooms above it.
Alice Clegg Wolfteich,
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