The Backstory Is In the Basement

One of my husband’s least-favorite things is having to fetch stuff from our basement pantry storage area. Truthfully, calling it a “pantry storage area” is an affront to both pantries and storage spaces. It’s a hodgepodge of milk crates, Rubbermaid shelving, cardboard boxes, and paper and plastic grocery sacks full of sort-of organized canned and boxed groceries, baking ingredients, condiments, extra spices, and an embarrassment of tea. My husband is a neatnik by anyone’s standards. Compared to my rather poor standards, he’s Marie Kondo. A mere glance into that room gnaws at his nerves. He stalks away, growling about how there’s so much down there, we don’t even know what we even have anymore.

“Why do you do this?” he asks. “Seriously. There’s only four of us in this house. What’s it all for?”

Considering current events, you’d think I’d have sat back and pointed with comfortable smugness at our seemingly endless larder.

Instead, I went to the stores. 

There was always at least one more thing I could get—an extra bottle of shampoo, some evaporated milk, another can of tomatoes, a spare bag of pet food. It was impossible to feel prepared enough, though I understood intellectually that we were already the most prepared family on our block.

Why do you do this?

I interpret life through the lens of writing, which means the answer to my husband’s question naturally became “my backstory.” Lately I’ve been thinking about how deep backstory goes, unpacking myself the way I’d unpack a character. I’ve been surprised by how much of my backstory—and what passes for my character development—lives in the basement.

Growing up, when my parents asked me to “go to the store” to get something for dinner, they didn’t mean an actual store. They meant our basement.

My pantry. . . does not look like this. But the image gives me flashbacks to my mother’s basement.

What most people would have used as a utility room, my mother turned into something out of a 1950s survival shelter brochure. Eight six-foot-high wooden shelving units boasted a whole corner store’s worth of food, toiletries, paper products, and laundry supplies. Every foodstuff had its own shelf and row, and sometimes these spilled out into demi-orderly Sam’s Club stocking crates on the floor. When my friends came by to play an RPG or just hang out, there’d be no shortage of chips and cookies to entice them. Often, Mom would make a special trip to stock up beforehand, coming home with a full pint of Ben & Jerry’s for each guest, or a whole six-pack of glass-bottled soda per kid. She never did any grocery trip in half-measures, forever stockpiling as if we were just this side of Armageddon.

Why do you do this? 

I’m making up a backstory for a new D&D character now. (“COVID-cation” seems like an ideal time to try out some of the many online RPG options that can help our family keep in touch with friends.) I’m thinking about why people do things whenever I think about that character. (And, I suppose, whenever I look at the state of my over-prepared basement.) 

Everyone is a combination of their best and their worst days. The days that make the strongest impressions. It’s as true of the characters we invent as it is of people in real life.

My mother’s example taught me that responsible adulting is having not just what you need, but much more than you need. It’s having an abundance that makes generosity reflexive. No one is allowed to leave the home hungry or wanting. No one is entitled to anything less than everything we can offer. We weren’t rich, but we were always well and thoroughly fed, and “we” readily became “anyone who walked through the front door with us.” Raised by survivors of the Depression in isolated, rural Michigan, stocking up the larder for winter taught my mother that home is the thing you build up around yourself: a wall of preparation against an unstable world; a shelter you can offer to others. The main thing she had the power to build with was food. Supplies. Preparedness, made material.

Characters—well-written characters—are people, as authentically realized as anyone you’re likely to meet. You should ask the characters you write and read the puzzled question my husband asks of me, staring at a basement braced to feed an army.

Why do you do this?

Or, put another way, Why are you like this?

I do it because I learned by osmosis that I can prove to the people around me that I’m capable, prepared, and loving by always having everything they need. I can’t have people over to the house for dinner without knowing their dietary preferences and making sure the menu covers all of them. If there’s a chance they’ll come back soon, I’ll stock up on the ingredients I need to cook for them again. As soon as I open a package of anything, I put that item on my grocery list, even if there are still two of it on a shelf downstairs. Because I’m starting to run out, right? I need to stay ahead of that. What if a time comes when I’m too sick, or too busy, or our money dries up and we’re too poor to make sure there’s always one more thing on the shelf?

Follow the “Why are yous?” and “Why do yous?” far enough back and you’ll find every person, every character, has bones made of coping mechanisms. They are the choices the people around them made in strange and difficult times, and the lessons they interpreted out of them. They’re a system of fears and assumptions and worst-case-scenarios.

I think about that now as I sort cans into boxes and keep careful track of how much milk we’re going through. I wonder how much further I can stretch it with a bit of canned milk in tea and powdered milk in recipes. 

Thinking about it isn’t helping me develop that D&D character’s background any faster, but I know that when it’s done, it’ll have a basement with rooms full of gods-only-know what.

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