by Brenda Ordonez
My father decided to make elderberry wine in the basement of our house. The basement was a dank, darkly lit place, housing a small electric furnace, a shower stall in one corner and in the farthest corner an alcove of odds and ends that no longer belonged upstairs. My father made his wine in a two-gallon crock jar he set on a table near the alcove. My mother used to make sauerkraut in the jar. Daddy, as we always called him, confiscated it, scoured it, made it ready for wine "brewing." For several weeks he checked the jar daily, lifting back the layered cheesecloth from the jug's mouth and dropping his head close to whiff the fermentation.
On a Saturday morning, he came up from the basement, rummaged in the kitchen cabinets for the aluminum dipper, a relic from our grandfather's water bucket days, and giving my mother the eye, went back to the basement. There he drank dipperful after dipperful of the elderberry wine, and when the jar was half empty, he hung the dipper on a nail in the rafter above his head.
Hours later my mother, not missing him, called us to dinner. We glanced at the empty chair where he always sat. My mother picked up the platter of fried pork chops—one for each of us—and passed it to my brother, who sat on her right.
"There'll be an extra chop for you tonight, Thomas," she said. "Your daddy has decided to live in the basement."
After that, mother receded. She still kept up the house, cooked meals and ate with us, talked about everyday things. We knew, though, Thomas and I and our younger sister Charlotte, that she was moving away from us.
Something as musty and unhealthy as the basement air had passed between mother and daddy.
Daddy did come up from the basement the next day, at least we thought he did. But it was only his ghost we saw passing through the house, reading the newspaper at breakfast, going to work, polishing his shoes on Sunday evenings as always.
Life trundled on in so many ordinary, familiar ways we often forgot that the three of us had become orphans. For in that forsaken house, mother had gone so far from us she seemed only a pencil dot on a line of horizon. The ghost that was daddy soon became but a felt presence, a mild stirring of air that locked the doors and turned off the lamps at night as we each made our way to separate rooms, separate beds. What did those children abandoned in their own house dream of?
We believed we huddled together in our aloneness. We didn't. The belief itself, without substance, became another ghost. We spotted its frailness sitting next to us when we watched TV, read a book, ate a sandwich for lunch, did homework, opened birthday gifts.
We orphans grew up without knowing whether or not we were stunted. But we knew there had been a foreshortening when, over the phone, in a letter, through email, we said to each other in response to the question how are you: "Oh, you know, a little under the elderberry dipper, but otherwise OK."
We three married, had children, but never, ever did we rent or buy a house with a basement.
Ghosts came to me almost whole in one sitting, a rare gift in my writing life. My head wants to edit a sentence as soon as I think it, certainly as soon as I write it down. At the beginning of 2012, I had resumed a nearly lifelong habit of keeping a handwritten journal of creative thoughts, and the story sprang out last October.
My father actually did make elderberry wine in the house I grew up in. And my mother did make sauerkraut in crock jars. The rest of the story is fiction, except the alienation at its heart. We confront our own ghosts in setting words down – how we move away from each other in nano inches, the minuscule grinding we're unaware of until it comes to us, if we're lucky, that sandy beaches once were boulders.
The coming together and moving away is what I always write about in one shape, texture or another. I was never able before to put it so succinctly—how amazing when the light comes on.
Brenda Ordonez is a published writer of poetry and nonfiction and a former senior editor and writer in the health care field. She has a B.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. She lives with her husband and tuxedo cat on Florida's Gulf Coast.