I had a dream about my great grandmother last night,
which prompted the following recollection.
The children in my immediate and extended family have an odd habit of
naming their elders after their pets. My father's father was Grandpa Gomez
to me for a while, despite the fact that his last name was Corwin. Gomez
was the name of Grandpa's dog; when Gomez died, my dad encouraged me to
call my grandfather "Grandpa Corwin". Grandpa Corwin eventually got a
new dog, a chihuahua named Chiquita. My younger cousins started calling
Grandpa "Grandpa Chickie". Then there was my father's grandmother, who
I knew as "Grandma Topper" for the first few years of my life. She evolved
into "Grandma Trinket" to my cousins (after old Topper's death), and eventually
became "Grandma Puppy", after two of her other dogs had a large litter, none
of which Grandma could bear to part with.
I have a weird family.
Grandma is now just Grandma, ninety years old but still taking care of
her dogs and living alone in the house she raised her kids in. She and her
husband (who died before I was born) acquired the house sometime in the forties,
and as far as I can tell, the house became a time capsule sometime in the
fifties. Her kitchen looked like a World's Fair exhibit; gleaming white
round-edged appliances labeled in silver script. The living room carpeting
was made entirely of wool, and I later learned that this carpet was the source
of the peculiar yet oddly inviting smell of Grandma's house. The bedroom-
turned-playroom was furnished in yellows and browns; cabinets built into the
walls house hundred-year-old books. When I was very little I was drawn
to the dolls and coloring books Grandma kept for us, but as I got older
I became fascinated with the artifacts in her house. It was, and is,
truly a museum.
It was always cool and eerie down in the basement; the
effect was probably the closest thing to a time machine I'll ever experience.
Grandma had arthritis; there came a point at which she decided she didn't want
to go up and down the stairs anymore. So the fifties decor and furniture in
the basement stayed there and somehow avoided decay. I've seen photographs
of the past, but photographs fade and it is sometimes difficult to imagine
that lush, bright colors even existed in the Fifties. Grandma had a very
angular-looking couch in the basement; the cushions were bricks of foam
encapsulated in vermillion, yellow, and navy-blue vinyl. There was a black
coffee table on tapered silver legs. There was a massive wooden cabinet
housing a black and white television with a tiny screen, a turntable, and
a stack of 78 RPM records. The walls were panelled, and the floor was a
clean white linoleum (real linoleum, not the plastic stuff on most kitchen
The couch, television, and coffee table were in the main sitting room of
the basement. Adjacent to this room was the storage area, which looked
more like your traditional idea of a cluttered cellar. The floor was
grey and dusty; boxes of large-print Reader's Digests perched on a
wobbly folding table. An old exercise bike stood by a rather fancy bench
with a mechanism to make it feel like a porch-swing.
Grandma's house seemed to weave and sprawl underground far more than
the upstairs floor would have allowed. Besides the storage area and the
second living room in the basement, there was the ultimate treasure trove:
the Bomb Shelter.
My first look at the Bomb Shelter was probably when I was seven years
old. My father led me through a dark brick-lined corridor behind the
exercise bike. It was utterly pitch black; my dad had to feel his way
along the passage, looking for the sudden sharp turn. Abruptly, we stopped
and my dad picked me up. He pulled a short string dangling from the ceiling,
and all at once the room was bathed in white light. We were in a tiny, sterile-
looking chamber, furnished only with an Army cot, a cabinet, and some sort
of portable toilet (a seat atop a metal frame, with a plastic bag hanging down
beneath it). We didn't stay there very long; I was wearing my church clothes
and Dad didn't want me to get dirty. From then on, though, my brother and
I would make a beeline for the basement whenever we went to Grandma's. It
was a while before we could navigate our way to the Bomb Shelter without
assistance, and even longer before we could reach the lightswitch in the
little room. For several years my only impressions of the Bomb Shelter were
that one brief image shared by my father and some dim glimpses my brother and
I were able to catch with flashlights that always seemed to be running out
It was not until I was perhaps fifteen that I thoroughly explored Grandma's
little underground cavern of history. The cabinet held medical supplies;
complete, perfectly preserved first-aid kits equipped with everything from
gauze to smelling salts. There was also a quantity of alcohol; old bottles
of wine and whiskey, which I imagine to this day have not been opened. Along
the wall, there was a narrow shelf on which various objects were displayed. There
was a can that I thought at first contained paint, but the label read "FAMILY
EMERGENCY PROTEIN FOOD" and was illustrated with a smiling, very white family
of four, presumably relaxing in their bomb shelter while the world above crumbled
In a plastic bag were about 10 copies of a magazine called Science Digest.
These turned out to be a wonderful find; Science Digest was quite a well-written
magazine, with many of the articles surprisingly relevant. There were rocketry
pieces by Isaac Asimov, and attempts to popularize relativity. There was the
pre-Moon Landing debate over whether it could be done. There was almost exclusive
use of the male pronoun, but I guess that's just the way it was back then in
There was a small carboard box next to the magazines; it was about the
size of a deck of cards, and contained several vials of liquid. The Happy
Nuclear Family illustrated the cover of this, too. The vials were supposed
to, according to the instructions on the box, change color when radiation
was in the air.
It was a good thing that the Bomb Shelter never actually had to be used.
For one thing, it had no door, and I doubt that the mere fact of being in
the basement would have meant anything in the case of nuclear cataclysm.