Building a Basement

Then there was the time that she put a hamburger in the dryer thinking it was the fridge.

Memoir by Michele Whitney, Summer 2015


Once, I nearly built my grandmother a basement.

I must have been twelve years old when Grandma came to live with us. At that age I’m not sure if I understood the reasons for her stay, but I heard the adults talk of her “being senile” and forgetting things. The final decision was made, I heard, after Grandma had locked herself out of her own house and couldn’t figure out how to get back in.

I didn’t really care about the reason she was coming to stay; I just knew that I couldn’t wait for her to get there and spend time with me. My preteens were a dark cloud of loneliness, and I knew that my grandma would be the sunshine that broke through that cloud. Grandma gave me the love and attention that I craved. With her, I could relax and be my nerdy, awkward, chubby self, and she would love me more for it. She gave me a special kind of love that encouraged my authenticity. She thought I was beautiful. Amazing. And I felt the same way about her. Everything about her was wonderful and eccentric. She was frail but strong, sharp and witty, intelligent and sexy, and just overall beautiful.

And her laugh. We were kindred laughing spirits. If she found something funny, she would burst into the most contagious laugh…just like me.


The grandma who was coming to live with us when I was twelve years old was not the grandma I knew.

Grandma had a few humorous difficulties as she settled in with us. She wanted to be useful, but was getting more and more confused. Once she picked up a stack of photos and began intently shuffling through them. I asked her what she was doing. She said she was counting her money.

Then there was the time that she put a hamburger in the dryer thinking it was the fridge.

And speaking of food, there was the time she completely destroyed dinner. Grandma had always been a great cook, and in her “mind” helping meant cooking from time to time. But I realized that her cooking days were over when she used two whole bottles of salt to season only a few pieces of fish.

Caring for this new grandma was obviously difficult for the adults, and as a child, I couldn’t fully grasp what I saw. The once witty, sharp grandma I knew began to fade away. There were a few glimmers of her vibrancy. Her laugh. But even that began to dull over time. And as her laugh faded, I experienced an unexplainable sadness that left a grandma-size hole in my heart.

And to make things worse, my grandmother turned on me.

One evening my grandma and I sat in the kitchen calmly watching television, when suddenly she jumped up and said, “I have to get something out of the basement.”

I replied, “Grandma, what are you talking about? We don’t have a basement.”

“Yes, we do. I saw it last night,” my grandmother said sternly.

“Grandma, this is a one-story house. It doesn’t have an upstairs or a downstairs.”

“Yes, it does.”

I was getting frustrated and so was she. I decided to try and “reason” with her.

“Grandma, if you saw a basement, show it to me.”

My grandmother quickly walked through the kitchen to the dining room in the back of the house. I followed her as if I were going to a new place in a house I had lived in for most of my life. Was she joking with me? No. We finally got to the location of the so-called basement. Standing sideways, my grandmother’s small, frail body rocked back and forth. She placed one foot in front of the other, with her arms swinging to each side. She looked like she was dancing. I imagined she might have been carving out her own space as to where the basement should be. She looked confused as she said, “I know the basement was…right…here…” as she sharply pointed downward.

I looked at my grandma. I looked for my grandma. Who was this woman? She looked as if she had been defeated. I slowly got closer to her and put my hand on her back. I pointed to the floor and said to her gently, “Grandma, see. There is no basement here.”

She didn’t budge. She continued to look downward for the basement. Tears fell from my eyes and dropped to the place where the basement should have been. Didn’t she understand? Why wasn’t she listening to me?

“Grandma!” I screamed. “We don’t have a basement!”

My beloved grandmother finally raised her head, with anger in her eyes, cursed at me, and walked away.

I stood there alone. Each stage of grief filled my heart. Did my grandma just curse at me? Did the woman who was so filled with love and laughter just look at me as if I were dirt?

The little I knew about the disease was that it made you forget. But could the disease also make you add new rooms to your own house? As I stood there in my grief, I desperately wanted to find a shovel or a bulldozer to create this basement my grandma was so adamant about seeing.

Then I could go to my grandma and say, Yes, Grandma, you were right. I was wrong. Here’s the basement right here.

For the rest of her days at our home, Grandma and I never again talked about the basement. Perhaps she gave up the illusion. I often wondered if I could see through my grandma’s eyes, get in her tangled mind, or sit within her heart, what I would see in her basement. Was it a safe haven or a place where she could belong? Maybe there in that basement, she could ultimately recapture her memories and her beautiful life.


Michele Whitney is a writer, college professor, and musician from Chicago. She holds a BS in Marketing, an MBA, and a MS in Human Services from Capella University. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, The Griffin, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, r.kv.r.yand Diverse Voices Quarterly. You can read more of her work at 

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