A Story for BellaEssays, Family — By William DeWitt on May 15, 2012 at 9:23 am
As with most things creepy and scary, it started with a scream. Not a cry for help, really. More like someone who had just seen a ghost. And then came a succession of loud and perplexing sounds; the reverberating thud of things being thrown aside and run over. When she was twenty-four years your Gram could really move.
We were young then, just out of college, and West Virginia Tech was my first teaching job. Gram was just twenty-four, and I was twenty-seven. We were also poor, but that didn’t seem to matter much when you are young and in love. It was the early 1970s, a time of waning protest on college campuses. It was also a time of great music, memorable fashion, and entertainment that pushed all the social norms. It was fun to be young then.
Our basement, if one could call it that, was not much more that a large hole in the ground. A good seven feet deep, the horizontal dimensions were about six feet by eight feet. The floor itself was dirt, good old planet earth. A single bare bulb in an overhead lamp holder with a pull chain provided more than enough light. The only purpose for having this subterranean chamber, it seemed, was a gas-fired water heater located in one corner. Access to the basement was through an opening in the floor on the enclosed back porch. A hinged trap door was used to close the opening, and an ordinary rug covered the door. Gram and I had lived there for several months before the landlord even told us about it. And that was by accident. It was all very creepy.
The accidental discovery of our basement came about in this way. One morning when we got up, there was no hot water. Being an engineer, I immediately began looking for the water heater. To my dismay, there was none to be found. When I called the landlord, he sent over an engineering student whom he had hired to do maintenance work. He was in civil engineering, so not one of my students. But, he did know where the water heater was located – in the hidden basement. Because of recent heavy and sustained rains, the basement had flooded, and the rising waters had extinguished the pilot flame on the water heater. Using his engineering knowledge and a long piece of water hose, he siphoned the water out in several hours. By that evening, we had hot water again . . . and now a basement.
Since this newfound basement was not really a basement as such, we henceforth referred to it as the root cellar. That moniker came from Gram. She said that it reminded her of her grandmother’s (your maternal great-great grandmother’s) root cellar where potatoes, turnips, and carrots were stored. The underground environment kept the food cool during the summer and prevented freezing during the winter.
It wasn’t long before Gram began hearing strange noises coming from the root cellar. Our kitchen was almost bare when it came to cabinet space, so Gram started using the root cellar to store rarely used household items. One Saturday afternoon, she was moving some things to the root cellar for storage. That is when I heard the scream; and the strange sounds; and her breathless story about a large animal in the root cellar. “Was it a raccoon?” I asked. “I don’t know”, she said, “but it was huge.”
Since Gram totally refused to go back to the root cellar with me, it was up to me to check it out alone. And, so I did. What I discovered, after slowly descending the steps into the earthen void, was not creepy at all. In fact, it was downright enchanting. When I described to Gram what, or who, had taken up residence in our root cellar, she was at my side in an instant. Remember, she could move quickly in those days.
Four, tiny, furry, newborn kittens were pawing their way around on the dirt floor. Their eyes were barely open, and their movement was still rather unsteady. Adorable – yes; scary – no. But then, almost in chorus together, we remembered the recent flood waters. If it happened again, the kittens would surely drown. What could we do? How could we relocate the kittens and at the same time not separate them from their mother?
“Why don’t we just play with them?” I asked Gram. “Play with them,” she said, “what good will that do?” That’s when I told her about a time when your Aunt Gale and I were children. We grew up in rural Tennessee and literally lived in the woods. The road in front of our house was unpaved, and there were no other houses in sight. Each summer, our entire family planted a large garden in an area that we called the new-ground. Located about a half mile past the woods behind our house, it was a large flat area that had been cleared of trees and tilled for a garden. After school, Gale and I would play in the nearby woods while the adults worked in the garden.
One day, while playing together, we discovered a small hole in the ground filled with a litter of baby animals. They were very small with hardly any fur at all. So, we ran fast to tell grandmother (your paternal great-great grandmother) about our find. When grandmother saw what we found, she knew right away that it was a rabbit’s den. “Don’t touch them,” she said. “If the mother rabbit smells your scent on them, she will move the babies right away.” We tried hard, honestly we did. But, in the end, we could not help ourselves. After grandmother left and was clearly out of view, we not only touched the rabbits, we played with them.
The next day, after school, we could hardly wait until we reached the new-ground so we could see the baby rabbits again. We ran all the way. There were no rabbits, of course, because the mother rabbit had moved them just like grandmother had said. We were disappointed but not really surprised. We never told anyone. It was our secret.
When Gram heard my story, she knew exactly what I meant. So, on that day, right there in our root cellar, we became children again. We played with those kittens, took them up the steps to the back porch, and put our scent all over them. Imagine that – human beings putting their scent on cats! Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Remember how Nicky and Cadie are always trying to rub their scent on you? While we played with the kittens, we also watched and waited for the mother cat. We needed to return the kittens to their proper place before she returned. It was not a long wait. We first spotted her walking along the fence line in our backyard. Quickly, we returned the kittens to the root cellar and closed the trap door.
Slowly but surely, she made her way across the backyard and down into the root cellar. After several minutes, she reappeared in the yard. This time she had a kitten in her mouth. Assuredly but more quickly this time, she crossed the yard, expertly navigated the fence line, and then disappeared from view. The mother cat repeated this scenario three more times until all her kittens were relocated. Each time, Gram and I returned to the root cellar while she was away and played with the remaining kittens. When there was only one kitten left, we were surprised to find that each of us was saddened because this would be the end of our adventure. As the mother cat carried the last kitten across the backyard, we stretched and strained our bodies as much as possible to get one last look as she vanished from sight.
We never saw her again. But, on that Saturday afternoon in West Virginia, we allowed ourselves to become children again. And, we experienced the mystery of God’s wondrous creation. We should all do that more often. It is good for the soul.
You may not remember this, but when you were three years old, Gram discovered a rabbit’s den in our back yard. Because you were staying with us on that day, she immediately ran to find us and tell us about her discovery. Gram and I both looked at each other and smiled. We each knew what the other was thinking, and we shared that story with you. The baby rabbits were barely visible, and we tried hard to uncover the den without leaving our scent. In the end, it was not to be, because the next day the rabbits were gone; just like with Gale and me sixty years before. It was great fun though. Five generations experiencing the wonder of God’s creation. Imagine that!