Memories of my Oma’s Keller – The Wonders of the German Basement
You could blindfold me, spin me in a circle three times, and drop me through time and space into Oma’s Keller, and I would still instantly know where I was, just by the smell and feel of the air; cold, with a hint of damp, the smell of earth and laundry soap, and maybe a little oil?
The door for the cellar stairs came right off her kitchen (opposite the fridge, so it did lead to jam-ups when too many of us were in there at once!). The stairs themselves were steep, curved and risky. It is a miracle to this day that no one ever fell to their doom! My fearless Oma would charge up and down them all day long, carrying loads of canning jars or baskets of laundry, never once misplacing her feet! (I imagine that’s how she kept in shape… no Stairmaster or Pilates for her… she had housework). Every time I went down she’d shout after me “Hold the rail!” (Ok, so I stumbled a few times… but the steps were about 1 1/2 inches taller than regular steps!)
And the light switch at the bottom of the stairs meant you had to RACE up to beat the darkness!
I loved going down to fetch what she needed for her (like fruit for dessert), or just to look around. Remember, this is the time before video games, and children’s television programming didn’t come on until 3:15, so cellar exploration was exciting. (Sometimes I would pretend to be one of the Famous Five, but nothing sinister ever really happened down there). But for a kid who grew up in a California suburban home with cement slab foundation… it was magical! The Cellar was literally a cave of WONDERS! An entire extra house UNDER the house… and loaded with interesting things.
(side note- My cousin’s house had a room devoted to kids…the Spiel Keller… I was GREEN with envy. Can you imagine a room devoted to toys and games? although as an adult, I realize it was a way for my very tidy Tante to keep the house from being overrun with Legos and Mensch Aergere Dich Nicht dice)
My favorite room was her cellar pantry. The walls were lined with shelves that were LOADED with the cans and jars of fruits, vegetables and preserves that she had put-up herself; Kirschen, Mirabellen, Bohnen und Gurken (Cherries, Mirabelle Plums, Beans and Pickles) and so much more. There were bottles of Johannisbeer Syrup (Black Current Syrup) that she had made herself (we would pour it over pudding or mix it with water to make juice). Crates under the shelves were filled with bottles of soda and beer. Remember, in Germany, you didn’t buy six packs; you had crates of bottles that were returned and refilled! And of course, the deep freeze that scared me just a bit… I feared falling in.
The laundry room was next to the pantry room. I admit, I never did figure out how to use the washer. There were settings to preheat the water, and you had to know what temperature to wash things in. (The mysterious labels on the clothing were no help at all, you need a degree in hieroglyphics) Washing in Germany is more of an all-day event than a quick…”let me just toss that in the wash” like it is here. The wringer was fun to play with though. There was a dryer, but it was NEVER USED! There were racks indoors (in the Heizung Keller), and a line outside! And of course, the clothes pin bag hanging in the corner. You remember it? It looked like a little dress with the bottom sewn shut). And shelves loaded with cleaning products and scrubbers. I don’t think that a stain existed that Oma couldn’t clean … and believe me, I was the kid who tried.
Other rooms had furniture, trunks, bits and pieces. Not trash or junk, these were useful but unused objects that just weren’t thrown away. Everything was neat and organized, and nothing was too old. There were tools and interesting gizmos, canning supplies and Christmas boxes. There were even toys left over from my Aunt. By today’s kid standards, probably not exciting… but I loved it. Naturally, I stayed out of the furnace room, Oma might get the idea that I wanted to fold the drying laundry!
In Southern California, we lived in a tract home made from wood and plaster on a cement slab. No Cellar stairs, no underground adventures…. and no jars of Mirabellen as Nachtisch for Oma’s delicious Mittagessen! Oma’s Keller will always be linked with Germany in my mind.
Bits and Pieces from Oma’s Keller
Lucky for me, some of the things from Oma’s Keller are available here…
And at the risk of sounding like a commercial, German laundry soap really works! I have three kids, and all are/were active in sports. I’ve tried all sorts of laundry soaps to get the stains and yucky smells out. And Gall Seife, with it’s little brush on top, is a miracle worker…