I dismiss the basement half-bath when we move in. It is a scary little space, tucked into the back of the basement, behind the stairs. It is cobwebbed and dank, with thin walls abetting its cinder-block sides. It hints of other, lesser beings–spiders and blind-eyed crawling things, rodents, and unknown invaders–who might have taken up residence.
I shudder, and Mark uses the space to store the many shutters we remove from the windows throughout the house. He stacks and leans them inside the ramshackle wall. There is no door; the only privacy comes from an old pink patterned shower curtain that pulls across a sagging bar. As nice as it would be to have three working bathrooms in the house–imagine, three people: three commodes!–I write off the little space and walk off into busyness and forgetful time.
Some years pass, and Jim grows into young manhood, and he becomes interested in the basement, a warm, dry, claimable space–a space that could be a suite, an efficiency apartment, almost. We start thinking about possibilities. Mark moves his tools and his workshop out to the unused garage, rigs up a fan, cleans and organizes.
Jim moves his desk and TV and video game systems into the basement.
We go to funky restaurants and look up at the bare-beamed ceilings with their industrial style pot lights, urban, hip, and fun, and we think: our basement ceiling is made of beautiful beams. It could look like that. We could create this look, this feel.
To make it a fully functional space for Jim, it would be great to have a little kitchen, and it would be great to have a working bathroom, too. And so, one day,–after Mark confessed that he often went downstairs to iron a shirt of a morning and availed himself of the little commode,–“Works great,” he said,–I thought: Okay. Let’s clean it up.
We have, after all, dozens of pails of paint left over from our initial transformation of this house. There is a lovely sky blue, especially, in quantity. And there are tubs and tubs of glossy white.
So I pull on some plastic gloves and Mark moves the shutters, stashing them under the basement stairs. We throw out the old mouse bait (I tuck fresh bait up into the rafters, just in case); we plug up some suspicious holes with steel wool, and we fill a tall kitchen trash bag with various stuff that had been moldering. I fire up the shop vac and rid the space of a thick patina of grime and detritus, the nasty, hanging-down fuzziness of neglected basement. Cleared and open, the space seems safer, more possible.
And now I can fill buckets with steaming soapy water and scrub–scrub walls and ducts and sink and toilet, scrub floor and cinder blocks and pipes. With my hands in the hot water, wielding the rags, rubbing the outlines of the essential components of this small, forgotten space, I begin to know it. I begin to see what it could really look like, how it could be made to feel.
This could be more than functional, I think. This could be clean and fun and welcoming. We could–and then I think: We WILL–transform this space.
And so, of course, we go to Lowes. We buy high-powered, darned near explosive stuff to put in the toilet tank, stuff guaranteed to blast off years of grime and and crud. (It works.) We buy a pristine white toilet seat to replace the translucent gold one, the one that has triangular floating shapes frozen into its amber, a look I sort of remember from friends’ homes way back when, new builds in the 1960’s.
We look at sinks to fit the little niche where the tiny, vintage, corner sink is now, working but rusty. We buy, instead, a paint kit to rejuvenate the aging, perfectly-sized ceramic fixture.
We buy kick-butt cleaner, and we buy cement floor treatment.
Armed, we go home and work. We paint the upper walls blue. We paint the duct-work and the cinder blocks (real cinder blocks, black and powdery-dense on their insides) a bright white. We scrub the sink. We sandblast the commode. We soak all the fixtures in a pungent solution of sanitizing bleach.
The little bathroom, like a sad and matted, neglected beast, seems to stretch and sigh and expand. We are rubbing away the filthy false layers. We are honing in upon the true.
And, oh, it feels good to do that.
I know this to be true: I was an odd child. I did not dream of horses or get lost in the dressing of my dolls. But when we drove, each summer weekend, to Cassadaga Lake to swim, I would watch for the little shack that perched on the side of a hill, jutting out from a new-growth woods, and I would virtually engineer its transformation. Thick plaid blankets, I would think, could insulate the walls against the snow-bearing winds of winter. I would imagine innovative heating–fireplaces made from stacked stone–, and rustic beds, and hand-hewn furniture. I would imagine a comfortable life in the woods on that hill, in a space that others had overlooked and dismissed. I would ponder possibilities in a space reclaimed, re-imagined, transformed.
That was the activity that engrossed me, the silly, childish kind of daydream I had buried until transforming the little bathroom woke it up.
From beneath my cluttered craft table, in a box of treasures to one day be formatted, matted, and framed, I pluck three plastic maps. They are bas-relief geology maps; the mountains punch up, rivers snaking through them to the broad blue sea. I found them years ago in the trash-bin of a geology classroom that was being repurposed; I begged permission, and then I took them home to ponder them.
Now I think they might be the perfect artwork for a young man’s bathroom.
Mark buys wooden molding, and we find a tin of rich mahogany stain on the paint room shelves, and Jim treats the wood. Mark takes it out, when dry, to his garage workshop. He uses his scary, venerable chop-saw to miter corners and build us some frames.
The maps, framed, transform the bathroom space. On the blue walls, they stand out, capture interest. They say, ‘This is a cared for space.’ At a junk store, we find a kind of wooden pillar to hold rolls of toilet paper. We rescue the goofy ceramic moose toothbrush holder from its stashed-away obscurity. We remember a couple of decorative shelves we can mount, and a painting that would be perfect to lean on the ledge. The tiny neglected powder room, tucked away in the recesses of the basement, begins to glow.
At odd times, in moments of sudden quiet, I run downstairs to visit it.
I scrub the floor with the special cement treatment, and I paint it a battle-ship gray, covering splots and scratches. The clean new floor transforms the space completely.
Visiting a friend, hitting a wonderful second hand store, I find rugs and a thick white shower curtain to provide privacy until Mark frames out the new doorway. I throw the old pink monstrosity into the wash (drop cloth!), and I soak and scrub the chunky shower curtain hooks. At night, images of the floor float in my mind. Could I use paint and sharpie and polyurethane to create faux tiles?
The little bathroom is reborn, and I see an article in Country Living about a laundry room, transformed, and I go down and eye the side of the basement that houses the washer and dryer. Stashed in the paint room is the indoor-outdoor rug I had in my former office, a cheerful expanse with splashy green and purple and orange asterisk-stars emblazoned. Wouldn’t that look nice?
I grab Mark. We head to Lowes.
Because if we can transform these little places, these inanimate things, what else could happen? If our labors peel the layers and reveal these potentials–well, think of it. Well else might we be able to do?