I don’t venture down in my basement too often. It’s not like it was one of those furnished ones that has a bar or a pool table or a play room for the kids or anything like that. Nope, mine is purely functional, cement and cinder block and, as basements go in my neck of the woods, pretty dry by comparison. Usually though, it’s too cold and damp and dark down there for my tastes. Oh, there’s always laundry to do but that’s more like throwing it in and getting it out and making your way back upstairs to where it’s bright as fast as you can. With the advent of Spring and ritual rite of spring cleaning bearing down on me, it was time to pack up some of the stuff that my daughter had outgrown or had no use for over the coming year. I guess that life goes by like the speed of light when you’re ten. One minute it’s Barbie Dolls and stuffed animals and the next it’s training bra’s and hushed phone conversations with your girlfriends. Oh well… I crated up some stuff and took it down to the dreaded basement. The sunlight was streaming in and out of the corner of my eye I noticed some boxes that hadn’t been opened or unpacked since I’d moved in. That was maybe seven or eight years ago. Curiosity got the better of me…

All the snow has turned to water,
Christmas days have come and gone.
Broken toys and faded colors
are all that's left to linger on.

Basements (and maybe attics too but I don’t have one of those) are great keepers of secrets. Stuff gets buried down there and doesn’t seem to see the light of day until events such as a garage sale or trip to the Salvation Army is in order. Usually that happens when one is getting ready to move from one place to another but until then, most of the stuff down there stays pretty quiet and forgotten. Unless of course you start to get too curious. The box had no label (I’m not the most organized person in the world, sue me) and the tape that kept it shut had held on and probably would have held on to eternity if not for my prying and persistent fingers.

I hate graveyards and old pawn shops,
For they always bring me tears.
I can't forgive the way they robbed me
of my childhood souvenirs.

The first thing to hit me was the smell. Disagreeable for sure but certainly not overpowering or too pungent. Nothing but a bunch of old papers with the creases starting to yellow and brown and the lettering starting to fade a bit. Some of the stuff was still in envelopes, tucked neatly away and I began to check the postmarks for dates. Many of them had also faded over time but some were right after my first birthday. Letters from my dad to my mom, explaining how sorry he was about the circumstances and how he didn’t really love the other woman. The proverbial “She meant nothing to me” repeated in different forms over different days. One could almost hear the tone of his voice in them. It sounded both sincere and pathetic at the same time.

Memories, they can't be boughten.
They can't be won at carnivals for free.
Well it took me years to get those souvenirs,
And I don't know how they slipped away from me.

It’s funny. My childhood didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. The good times seemed to keep pace with bad. I wondered why during all of the times when it was bad, this wasn’t brought up and thrown back in my dad's face. God knows, there were enough occasions and opportunities to do that. Maybe my mom just decided to take the higher road, maybe she was afraid or maybe, like most moms, she’d go to any lengths to protect her children, especially the youngest one. She officially died about ten years ago but in actuality it more like fifteen. Alzheimer’s had seen to that. When her ticket was finally and mercifully punched,, me and my sister divvied up what remained of her stuff. I guess I got the box and hadn’t thought much about it and it went to its hiding place deep in the bowels of the basement.

Broken hearts and dirty windows
Make life difficult to see.
That's why last night and this morning
Always look the same to me.

After getting over the initial anger and shock I thought to myself “What does this really change?” As it turns out, not much, no, not much at all. There’s absolutely nothing that I can do about it now anyway and both mom and dad and the secrets they carried with them have long been put to rest. In a way, I wish they would have either clued me in earlier or had not bothered to keep the ghosts that were held in the letters. I wondered for awhile what my mom had written in response but those letters weren’t around to reveal their secrets. I wondered if, before the disease kicked in, she meant for these to found or maybe she had just somehow forgotten. Either way, what’s done is done but the memory has become a little tainted.

And I hate reading old love letters
For they always bring me tears.
I can't forget the way they robbed me,
Of my sweetheart's souvenirs.

Shit, it was a couple of months before I turned eighteen when I joined the Marines. I had been dating this girl for maybe a year or so and love being what it is at that age, thought we were destined to be together forever. I think boot camp lasted thirteen weeks back then and mail call was one of the only things you looked forward to besides getting the hell out of there. You see, during the day, you did everything as a unit. If one member of the unit failed, you all did. Getting a piece a mail though, it was like getting a piece of home sent your way. You didn’t have to share it with anybody.

The first couple of letters she sent were what you’d expect out of any seventeen year old girl with her boyfriend gone. How much she missed me and how she was counting the days until I came home and so on and so on. It made me feel sorta special.

Then one came that had, shall we say, a different tone. There was the guy named XXXX and he and she were “just friends” but “you know things are crazy” and “you’ll only be back for a little while anyway” and blah and blah and blah.

Memories they can't be boughten,
They can't be won at carnivals for free.
Well it took me years to get those souvenirs
And I don't know how they slipped away from me.

I kept all of them ya know. I think, in the end there were ten or twelve letters. I shudder to think what I might have written in reply. I hope that girl from so long ago pitched them a little while after she got them. They, her letters that is, rest buried away in a suitcase or a box in the deep dark recesses of the basement. I’ll probably go read ‘em sometime here in the near future. After that, I’ll most likely pitch ‘em. No need to keep skeletons hanging around for prying eyes to see one day. I think she loves me for the way I am today and not for the way I was many years before she was even born. Lets hope so anyway. Words to Souvenirs copyright by Mr. John Prine. CST Approved (I’m still trying to decide what to do with the letters my dad sent to my mom.)

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