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A Family Activity I Dreaded as a Child

Response to Writing Prompt 4: Write about a family activity you dreaded as a child.

Once every few weeks, my mother would announce over Friday night pizza that the next morning we would be cleaning the basement. This was a vague “we” as my mother took no part in this particular activity. To be fair, she did quite literally everything else. The only time I ever remember her descending those precarious, maroon-carpeted steps was to inspect the finished product of our morning labor. In between those dreaded mornings, she remained safely upstairs. We never knew exactly what the threshold of disaster and chaos had to be to move my mother to this basement-cleaning declaration, but as the carpet slowly disappeared and the toys and mayhem gradually piled around our feet, and then ankles, and then knees, a cautious unease began to surface, warning us that the dreaded day was approaching.

As children we were never lacking toys of any kind, specifically toys that were meant to be deconstructed into a million colorful pieces. I don’t have many memories of actually playing with Legos, never mind tossing them by the handful gleefully around the basement, but someone must have been doing just that because those tiny rainbow squares were everywhere. My mother would remind us - over our moans and groans - that if we just cleaned up after ourselves, the basement would never get to this point, to which we would moan louder and roll our eyes because of course that was out of the question. Didn’t she know how to play Barbies? Was I supposed to upend my narrative and put each character and all their tiny rubber shoes back in the bin each time it was time to get ready to go to church? Out of the question.

We had generic toys too. Every so often if I was especially bored, I’d meander down and putter around aimlessly like a subway pigeon until I found a toy I hadn’t touched in a while and seemed like a good use of the next 20 minutes of my afternoon. Lincoln Logs and BRIO train tracks filled those 20 minutes nicely. Now, those certainly come in a more manageable size than Legos and there isn’t much narrative to be had like my Barbies, but these small construction sites took planning and creativity. These projects took constructing, running into a previously unforeseen logistical problem - like running out of curvy pieces - then deconstructing and starting over many times. By the time the puzzle was solved and the creation complete, there was a mandatory admiration period where everyone must applaud and compliment the ingenuity and design that might never have come to life without much perseverance, determination, and those 20 minutes.

So as I think you’d agree, cleaning up after ourselves was not a plausible option. However, for this exact reason, these toys contributed heavily to the mess. They remained on display on the floor, ready to be admired and praised only to be accidentally kicked over almost immediately, ignored, forgotten and strewn about, indistinguishable among the Legos, blocks, dress-up, Monopoly money, action figures, beanie babies, matchbox cars, and other toys whose function was a mystery.

As I said before, my mother slept straight through or simply stayed far away from the entire affair. But my father, who was tasked to over-see this monthly nightmare, was always heavily involved. There were four of us kids, plus my dad made five, all with varying degrees of helplessness and short fuses. On every normal Saturday and Sunday, I would pop awake at 6 am ready to start my day of freedom, not willing to waste a single second on sloth or dilly dally. However, on the mornings we were cleaning the basement, I laid in bed tense and silent as I heard my brothers, one-by-one, drag their miserable feet down two flights of stairs to their fate below. I pretended to sleep as long as my brain would allow before it withered of boredom, hoping that one day I’d sleep through the torture happening right underneath my own roof. I’d lie there for what felt like hours, until I felt it safe to emerge, which was usually around 6:15 and they’d barely started and most of the time they were still just eating their cereal.

When the time came, we would obediently file down the stairs accepting our fate, even though we knew full well that the sooner we started actually had no indication as to when we’d finish and this whole morning would culminate with dad walking around with an already half full garbage bag and us desperate and screaming for mom to make him stop, and him yelling back that we don’t play with any of these toys anyway, and us swearing that we used every single one just yesterday!

Somehow it eventually all ended and afterwards I never could really remember how. Had I helped at all? Had I put one thing away? I would vaguely remember shuffling around, playing Barbies in my head and kicking things. It must have worked! What hard work that was!

We would re-emerge into the sunlight - haunted and dispirited, but relieved - for lunch or dinner, but mom was still in her pajamas so it must be the next morning already and we had toiled through the day and night, all while trying our best not to cry.

Then Dad vacuumed.

Then Mom went down to inspect.

We held our breaths.

We passed.

The basement was clean! We could play kickball and make a fort and rollerblade down there! This time we pledged we’d keep it clean forever!

By Emily Menges


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