What I remember, as if it happened yesterday, not more than 50 years ago, is this: eavesdropping from the top of the basement stairs as my sister Angie was being scolded for writing her name on the wall in letters that were about a foot tall, using black shoe polish—the kind that comes in a bottle with a wide sponge applicator. At first, I was sure I’d be caught, now that my days’ old handiwork had been discovered by Pop-Pop and reported to Mom; but after Angie was summoned to the basement of our still-new home and denied having anything to do with the graffiti on the unfinished cinder-block, I could sense my plan was working.
“I didn’t do it,” Angie wailed.
“Don’t make it worse by lying,” Mom replied.
“But I didn’t,” she insisted.
What I can’t recall, no matter how hard I try, is this: what exactly Angie had done to provoke me to scrawl those letters on the wall, hoping she would be blamed. I know for certain this wasn’t a random act of sibling mischief—I was really mad at her for something, and determined to get even. But what? What could she have done to me—she was only four or five years old and I was only six or seven—to have inspired such a spiteful act?
“Of course, you did it, Angela. We know it was you. Who else would have written your name that way, with the ‘N’ backwards?”
Um, maybe the person who had been working with her for weeks, teaching her how to write her name on the small chalkboard in the basement, trying and trying to help her master her Ns? Maybe she did it? But no one went there. No one would have suspected good little me of such a dastardly act. Even I found it hard to believe I’d done it. And even harder to believe I’d gotten away with it.
Angie got in trouble—not too much, I think. She was probably made to sit under the desk in the kitchen for ten minutes. In our house “under the desk” was what today would be called “a time out.” The desk was a built-in counter between two cabinets, not the worst place to sit (although it became less comfortable as one grew), but it served its purpose as a place for cooling off and contemplating punishable behaviors. Maybe Mom hadn’t even invented “under the desk” yet at the time of the shoe polish caper. Maybe all that happened to Angie was that scolding in the basement; still, I felt the powerful itch I’d had to seek revenge had been scratched. And Mom was pretty certain Angie would never write her name on that wall again, in shoe polish or any other medium.
I’ve often wondered: What did Angie’s little-girl brain do with that experience? Even she didn’t think to blame me; and surely, she knew—at least when her name was first discovered—that she had not put it there. Was it a lingering mystery in her mind? Did she ever doubt her own innocence? It wasn’t something we talked about then, or for a long time afterwards. Although for all of our growing-up years, we spent a little time in that basement almost every Sunday evening, polishing our Catholic-school saddle shoes on old sheets of newspaper, sponging on white as well as black or blue liquid, letting it dry, then buffing each shoe so we’d start the week in clean-looking (if unstylish) footwear.
I was thirty-something when I finally confessed to writing Angie’s name on that wall. A bunch of us were gathered around the kitchen table, my parents and some combination of the seven siblings, maybe an in-law or two. I don’t remember how the topic came up—bad things we’d done as kids, ways we’d gotten each other in trouble, or perhaps a funny story about something one of my then-little nieces or nephews had done to torture a sibling. Somebody mentioned Angie’s name on the basement wall—a wall that had since been painted more than once—and without hesitating, I’d volunteered, “Oh, I did that.”
A ripple of surprise went around the table. A look of vindication washed across Angie’s face, while Mom looked shocked, then sheepish. I felt relieved to say it out loud, at last. I mean, what was going to happen now, we were all adults and the statute of limitations on my perfect crime had long since expired. We had a good laugh, and went back to whatever else we’d been talking about. But the truth about that long-ago episode was now indelibly written into our family lore, in thick, wet letters. An event that had been buried for decades had resurfaced, and from then on, references to shoe polish and backwards Ns peppered family conversations and got woven into the punchlines for other stories.
Just this spring, my siblings and I spent a lot of time clearing out the considerable contents of that same basement in the house where our parents had lived for 55 years, the house we have always thought of as home, wherever else each of us has lived. Last December, we helped Mom and Dad move into an apartment in a nearby senior community, where they are now happily settled. Before they moved, we had several rounds with Mom of going through family treasures and watching her hand them off to kids and grandkids. Even after they moved, Mom and Dad came back several times as we sorted through closets or showed them what we’d done to get the house ready to sell. But the work of emptying out the basement—and everything else in the house that didn’t fit in the apartment or hadn’t been claimed by one of us—fell to the siblings and our families. It was a true team effort, one that evoked many happy memories, and about equal amounts of laughter, tears and sweat, and more text messages and photographs than I could count.
A bunch of us spent an entire day in late March hauling furniture and other items that were beyond repair up the cellar steps and into a dumpster in the driveway. We filled that dumpster to the brim, although there were still lots of usable items in the basement to be divvied up or donated. We couldn’t believe how big the space looked when we were done that day—big enough that we older siblings could recall how it felt to roller skate down there when the house was new and the basement felt like an indoor playground; or how we’d put on shows with our cousins or the dozens of kids who’d lived on our block back then; or how much time we’d spent playing ping-pong or torturing our Uncle Mickey while he sat at a big wooden desk wearing earphones and studied for law school.
And of course, a day spent in that basement could not pass without a few references to Angie’s name being written on the wall in black shoe polish by her twisted sister. Good times.
Once we’d mostly emptied the basement, it was obvious the walls and floor would need to be painted before the house went on the market. Crammed shelves around the perimeter and assorted desks, tables and other furniture had masked the dingy surfaces. We hired a painter to make the old basement look more presentable. Then we set about decluttering the two upstairs floors, getting our happy old house ready to become a real estate listing, for the first time in its history. Three weeks after it went on the market, we had an offer. And then it was time for the final round of clearing out, and saying goodbye to the house, which we did one at a time—sometimes alone, sometimes with spouses and kids—over the last two weeks before settlement.
Dennis drove away for the last time first, with Mom and Dad in the car, after he’d spent most of a Sunday dragging big stuff down the stairs and out to the driveway; he’d even gone into the attic to dig out the original, now-crumbling playpen, a relic as old as me. Brian checked out the following Friday, after he and Amy dragged more big stuff to the curb; his car was loaded with some of Mom’s artwork, which he was taking home to store. Pete left on Saturday, after a bunch of us made some Goodwill runs. Amy (crying like a baby, as she texted) and her family left later that day, after her daughter Samantha had taken most of the remaining furniture to her new apartment. Jen and her family stopped by for the last time on Sunday, to collect the remaining tools from the basement and donate them to a nonprofit where she used to work.
So, in the final days it came down to me and Angie, the two oldest and the two nearest, geographically, to clear out the few remaining items. Settlement was Friday. Angie went Monday night to put out the trash one last time. I collected some things Tuesday, then went to the house for what I thought would be the last time Wednesday, to meet a man who was picking up the living room rug. Angie would stop by Thursday night to pick up the two lamps on timers that we’d left in the front windows for the last six months.
We all knew we were running out of days to call that house “home,” and we were doing all we could to keep each other focused on happy stuff. After the rug guy left, I put myself under the desk for one last time and (once the tears stopped) I took a rare selfie to send to my siblings. I got a few LOLs, as well as kudos for being able to get myself into—and out of—that tight space at my age. I made one last pass through every room in the house, then I got into my car and pulled out of the driveway, tears streaming down my face. That evening, Angie sent a group text saying she might just write her name on the basement wall Thursday night. “With shoe polish?” I asked. She said she hadn’t decided.
Thursday happened to be Angie’s birthday. So I got her one extra little present, even though it meant I had say goodbye to the house all over again. Beside the lamp in the living room, I left a note that said, “Happy Birthday, Angie. You get the last word.” Along with, of course, a bottle of black shoe polish. That day, I smiled as I pulled out of the driveway. My parents laughed and laughed when I told them what I’d done.
Late that night, after Angie and her husband and son had collected the lamps and said their own teary farewells to the house, she texted us two pictures. One showed her writing her name (not mine, which might have been even funnier) on the basement wall—with a pen, not shoe polish (although she said that was the best birthday present ever) in letters that were only a few inches high; a close-up showed her backwards N. It’s in a spot covered by one of the shelves we left behind for the new owners, so they might not see it right away.
Still, we all know it’s there; and it feels good knowing that the writing is on the wall.