Let There Be (Fluorescent?) Light

When I was a child, I spent every warm Saturday afternoon at my maternal grandparents house. My grandparents were loving but typical Depression era middle class people to whom getting tasks done was far more important than playing. It didn’t matter; I had my own agenda and rituals.

They grew prize winning roses in long neat beds in their big back yard. My grandmother spent much of the day cutting and arranging giant bouquets of them for services at their church on Sundays. (Her sense of duty demanded her expected contribution, but we all knew she lived for the compliments too.) I would play around her, running up and down the paths between rows while she cut the roses and then retreat with her to watch her arrange them in a big vase in the basement - the cleanest most organized unfinished space I’ve ever seen under a house but about its so called “mess” she never stopped despairing.

My grandfather would spend the early part of the afternoon building and repairing things around the property. (He was the epitome of the grandfather who could fix anything.) I hung around the basement to watch him too. There were workbenches, running the length of the house with shelves of tools and gadgets on the wall behind and jars of every kind of hardware imaginable, fitted into their lids which had been screwed to the underside of the house floor joists. (Need a 5/8” washer? Just reach up and unscrew a mayonnaise jar.) I wanted to get my hands on all those tools, but I was a granddaughter not a grandson, and my getting too dirty was not permitted. Later in the day Grandpa would go work in his vegetable garden on the lot next to the house. - I grew up on a strange diet of 1970’s processed junk and freshly harvested organic produce.

I loved the sloping yard with vivid colors of masses of roses, kelly green grass, and wispy rows of corn, secluded by a bamboo forrest that would rival any in Asia, but conversely also I loved the juxtaposition of the cool dark basement, lit by long fluorescent tubes over the work areas. Their cold and flickering bluish light always makes me feel miserable in schools and big discount stores. In that half underground earthy space, however, they illuminated some strange magic of all things possible. Countless old radios and clocks, discarded yet kept, the windowed nook under the side porch, where my uncle had built model airplanes, my great grandfather’s screaming circular saw and his anvil... the upstairs may have been the so called civilized area, but the basement was the inner workings of life from the industrial age.

I spent Saturday after Saturday, waiting for something exciting to happen with all those tools. I was forever stuck between being enthralled with what I saw and bored by what I could not do in this space where everything yet nothing happened, stuck in the eternity of waiting to grow up and make things happen for myself with my own tools and my own colors.

When the 3 foot tall flower arrangement was safely in cold storage - the old rounded style refrigerator kept just for this purpose - my grandmother would head to the kitchen to can tomatoes, and my grandfather would head to the garden to work. That was when I’d ride my bicycle in loops down the wide slopping drive, listening to the Realistic cube shaped AM radio, stowed in my front basket. This was the era of disco, and my grandparents hardly approved so the volume stayed low. I’d ride leaning forward so as not to miss a staticky note.

At 6:57, the CBS news as my cue, I would gather my drawing supplies from the basket after parking the bike next to one of my favorite trees, a pecan that still feeds countless neighborhood squirrels. I would sit down beneath the tree, trunk against my back, roots uncomfortably under my behind, and sketchbook on my knees, and listen so eagerly for the sound of the creaking horror movie style door that marked the beginning of each episode of Radio Mystery Theater. My grandmother would watch me from the kitchen window and fret that I was too close to the street or outside too late by the time the show was almost at the end. Once she badgered me into the basement to listen utterly unsatisfyingly to the end of the show on the steps inside. Only once. Some might say I got my stubborn streak from her.

To this day I spend most of my time under the canopy of our trees and practicing the magic of possibilities in the studio while listening to old recorded copies of Radio Mystery Theater on my Mac’s Soundsticks. I have a love hate relationship with the compact fluorescent bulbs in my ceiling fan light. The tree hugger in me loves them. The artist in me despises their weak output and their odd color cast (yes, even the ‘daylight’ ones) and instead I bask in the full spectrum track lights that allow me to see my intricate work. In the nook behind my bench is my homage to my grandparents’ basement, a small fluorescent tube light and next to it the Burpee Seed clock that hung above my grandfather’s desk, reminding him which time of year to plant what. I wait no longer to grow up and make things happen. I am surrounded by tools and possibilities from which I make (almost) everything I want come true.

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