Still Life: Childhood Refuge

After my parents divorced, my two younger sisters and I went to live with our grandparents for awhile. And I took refuge, I believe I can use that word, as a five year old in the basement of Irene Murphy’s house. The time would have been mid-Fifties, and the place was where she kept her boxes of Filipino imports. She’d gone into business for herself because she had to, I think, once her husband, posted there as a diplomat, divorced her. She lived with her sister down the street from my grandparents, and the two of them occupied the center of a rather rowdy social circle. She traded in wholesale slippers, shirts, wicker, teak salad bowls, and those grass placemats. All the things you know as mid-century modern which turn up at the Salvation Army now, I saw them first.
The memory of the place still gives me dreams of exotic bazaars and endless looping cobbled streets that turn into alley ways and then take a turn onto new shop windows with more shelves of draping jewels and feathers and scarves and fabric and scent and around the corner and down the stairs is a completely new thing. The floors of Irene’s bohemian house were literally cobbled, that is laid with half bricks, treated and shellacked, different colors and not at all level. White fur rugs were strewn about. White-washed walls held bold abstract expressionist portraits that I could peek at quickly because they were on the first floor which was the grown ups’ place. We kids got the basement and it was a heaven that enlivened every lascivious girly cell. Sequins, silk, wicker, iridescence, low ceilings, stacks of boxes in dim light, receded back into an infinity of stuff. The light fixture was tucked under a shelf so that the fluorescent light haloed around the work table, ledgers, and labels, barely spilling out into the rest of the rooms.
Irene would give the three of us girls a pair of sandals each every now and then. But on the frequent occasions that my socialite grandparents went for cocktails, we headed to the basement just to look. This was the refuge part. It seemed built precisely for kids, precisely to fascinate and stimulate the lonely, traumatized, and highly sensitive. Can’t put my finger on what it was exactly. I am sure in the bright light of day, the things were cheap and flimsy, but then that was partly the point. Deep in that scented hide-away, everything seemed exotic having come from the furthest reaches of the world. I felt I knew from personal experience that I’d seen the treasure trove from the Arabian Nights.
Inside my chaotic life, as siblings and so-called “parents”, appeared randomly and then disappeared, as boring school clothes were chosen for me, as boring classes were quietly endured, as people kept smiling without meaning it, as the food, the shoes, the conversation alternately threatened and bored, there was this place that was reliably Other. It was never something I could ask for or make happen. There was something about the remove and the darkness that made the mystery. The same shoes shown brighter at Irene’s. As soon as we got them home to Mom’s house in Oregon and walked the wet woods once, the little slippers made of grass and sequins fell apart.
But it was not so much the having of shiny slippers, as it was the place they came from, or rather, that first step into the place. The scent of dried grasses and sandalwood, the dim light, the low ceiling, a delicate darkness. The light down there made Irene a magician, a business woman and a conjurer. She could levitate these magic slippers from the Far East, as it was called then. There is no place now to me as far away as that, Mars maybe.The Magic Basement Storeroom Shop and Slipper Bazaar is an emblem, a stand-in, a talisman decidedly for something, for the existence of a Place Out There, a kachina that invokes the possible, for the mystery of stepping into deKooning’s studio, say, or a smokey bar where your lover waits, or moving on tip-toe through the Forest of Arden lit with fireflies, or the souk at Omdurman. A talisman for the power, not of invention inside my own head, but of appreciation, surprise, and gratitude for what is out there somewhere. Not that you would or could invent such a thing, but that you arrive as a devotee at the door, the bottom step, the tent flap.
For me the magic exists in dreams and only there, though the souk at Omdurman came closest in reality. The disappointment is too strong and too frequent for me to go out looking anymore. I concede it is there. I tell you it is.

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