Notes From Underground

A father’s basement record keeping provides his daughter with precious insights into his past.

Lyn Mikel Brown's family photos
Among the author’s family photos is the shot, at right, of her grandfather and father in front of their Vanceboro house. It’s the only image her dad had of the two of them together.
By Lyn Mikel Brown
Photos by Tristan Spinski
From the May/June 2019 issue of Maine Homes by Down East

My father documented life along the floor beams of my parents’ house. Because of this, I know when their well was drilled. I know when my mother administered CPR to a local man who died anyway. I know every place my parents traveled beyond their rural Maine county, and when. I know who my father helped carry to their graves, and if their funerals had a bagpiper and what tune he played.

Each year, my father recorded the first frost, the first snowstorm, the day and time the ice went out on the lake. He registered his children’s marriages and the birth of each grandchild. He logged the December day he canoed down lake, the day my mother won $400 in the lottery, the day I was accepted to graduate school.

This was my parents’ third house. The first was an 1870 farmhouse in Vanceboro, bought by my great-grandfather and handed down through generations. It wasn’t until my grandmother died in her upstairs bedroom that my mother took the reins and insisted on indoor plumbing, disappointing no one but my brother, who liked to sit in the outhouse, his holster around his ankles, shooting imaginary varmints through holes in the knotty pine.

When a plum Maine Central Railroad job opened up in Calais, my parents sold this piece of family history for a pittance to someone who had no reason to care. We moved into a five-bedroom Greek Revival fixer-upper a short walk from the train station. My mother admired the curved wooden banister. My father admired the backyard path to the Legion.

The third house — an 1,800-square-foot ranch in Alexander — is the retirement home my mother wanted. Twenty minutes from Calais, it’s cozy, with perennial beds coloring the grounds and a picture window view of Pleasant Lake. But the move was a sacrifice for my social father — there would be no more helping Jim Casey sweep the floor of his barbershop, no after-work gossip and drinks with Rocky and the boys at Johnson’s Hardware.

Instead, he dug into the stony soil to plant a vegetable garden, with beans that gracefully wrapped themselves around tall poles and cucumber vines that escaped the bed’s borders. He carried the unearthed rocks up the driveway and built a wall along the property line. He swept leaves off the deck, painted eaves, chopped wood, and gathered up fallen branches in the surrounding woods to reveal painted trillium. Each winter, he snowshoed along the frozen lake checking summer camps for break-ins, his black cockapoo, Mike, following in his wake. He made stews and “river drivin’” biscuits. In the evenings, he watched Hee Haw, a poor substitute for his beloved Don Messer’s Jubilee, or simply sat with his memories in front of a crackling fire in the Franklin stove, a glass of Dewars in hand, recalling a hungry Depression-era childhood. “Did you ever imagine we would have so much, Diane?” he would ask my mother. “Did you ever think we would be warm and well-fed on a cold winter’s night, looking at the moon over the frozen lake?”

Lyn Mikel Brown
Lyn Mikel Brown poses in her parents’ Alexander home, where she now lives part-time.

And, sometimes, when the spirit moved him, he flicked on the basement light, descended the dozen or so steps, climbed up his paint-stained metal stepladder, lifted a white ceiling panel, and, as he did for 40 years as an engineer on the railroad, logged the passage of time.

My father was just two when his father died. In his wallet, he carried a faded black-and-white photo, the only one he had of the two of them. Together they sit on a timber in front of the Vanceboro house, his father in a newsboy cap and cardigan, arms resting loosely on his knees, my father in a pom-pom hat that nearly covers his eyes. Both are looking at whatever my father is holding in his chubby little hand. A rock? A small toy? It’s a candid photo marking what should have been an unremarkable moment.

Always longing for the parent he lost, my dad lived by his father’s example. His father hunted; so did mine. His father played town-league baseball; so did mine. His father’s obituary described a man “always pleasant and genial to his friends.” Mine worked hard and sincerely at being those things too.

And so, I was certain his father documented life on the studs of the Vanceboro house. I phoned Jeannie, the daughter of one of his childhood friends, who lives in Vanceboro with her husband, Al. “Was this a thing people did?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of it,” she replied. “But come home. Your house has been seized by the town for unpaid taxes. We’ll get the key from the selectman. You can check.”

So it was that my husband and I found ourselves with these two kind people, poking around a seedy 60s remodel of the house my great-grandmother cleaned on her knees. A midday sliver of sunlight between drawn brown-and-gold plaid curtains revealed stained wallpaper and grubby linoleum floors. Flashlights in hand, we picked our way through mouse droppings and plastic bags filled with garbage, the smell overwhelming any hope of conjuring the life I once knew there. One after the other, we made our way down the narrow stairs to the basement, where I knew immediately I’d never have the answer I sought. The original dirt floor was covered in cracked, damp cement. The foundation had been repaired and most of the original beams and joists replaced.

writing on a beam
A sampling of her father’s basement beam writing.

In 2001, my parents moved to their final home in Punta Gorda, Florida. My husband and I bought the lake house and began spending summers and weekends there. We’ve remodeled the kitchen, added windows, and replaced the Franklin stove with something more efficient. But my mother’s Bob Ross–inspired paintings are still on the walls and my father’s life hums along the support beams.

We held my father’s funeral “up home” in the Methodist Church, a block from our first house. After the service, after the gathering of family and old friends, we took the familiar short-cut drive on New Brunswick roads to the Calais border crossing and, finally, the lake. That evening, I carried the metal stepladder to the basement, skipped a stud, and finished my father’s story: Lindy Brown, died January 6, 2006, buried in Vanceboro with military honors, John Moffitt, piper: Amazing Grace.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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