Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My secret places

One of my brothers in the back yard. Winter, 1960.
It was a big house by most standards--we liked to call it a "four story house," but that was only true if you counted the basement and the attic. Counting the basement was legitimate; it was part of our play area--the chalkboard was down there, hanging on the beadboard wall of the laundry room, and the cramped and dusty space under the basement stairs was the clubhouse for the Secret Z club, an organization my little brothers and I briefly formed, the chief mission of which was to buy candy, smuggle it home, and eat it.

The attic was off-limits without parental accompaniment, accessible up a rough wooden ladder and through a trap door in my parents' bedroom closet, and therefore wasn't part of our daily life but only part of our daily consciousness, a quiet private space above us, waiting to be explored.

So a big, four-bedroom, if not four-story, house, with an open front hallway with a wooden bookcase by the kitchen door, and a living room with a piano and a fireplace with a broad oak mantel, and a high-ceilinged dining room with an ornate hanging light fixture that we grandly called a chandelier, and tall windows that looked out into the snowy back yard and the birch tree. Wide carpeted stairs hugged by a glossy wooden banister led to the second floor, where there were four bedrooms and one small bathroom for twelve people and suddenly the house no longer seemed so big.

The Girls Room was in the front of the house, the biggest bedroom, and until we bought the bunk bed I slept there on a mattress on the floor at the foot of my sister Kristin's bed. Sometimes she stuck her feet out from the end of her covers and demanded that I rub her feet, which I did, trying not to tickle. She had a dark brown birthmark that spread across the toe of one foot, which I found fascinating--the birthmark was thicker and harder than the rest of the skin, and nubby, and rather than disgusting me, it made me wish that I had a birthmark, too, some secret scar that identified me, but I had nothing, just puny arms and nearsighted eyes and hair that always looked uncombed.

A girl so secret you might not notice her.
But I was small, and I was quiet, and my stealth served me well in hunting out quiet places to be alone. I was introverted, uncomfortable in crowds, even when the crowd was my own loud and self-confident family. And so in that house, I hid. I read in closets by the light of a ceiling bulb that turned on and off with the jerk of a grimy cotton string. (And sometimes my brother locked me inside and took off the doorknob and left me there, but as long as there was a light on and a book in my lap I didn't care; I always knew he'd come back and get me, and he always did.) Or I sat, like a cat, under the dining room table, on the oval braided rug, mostly hidden by the white drop of the tablecloth; I assumed no one could see me there and perhaps no one could, but I could see them.

The coat closet on the main floor--just a pole hung in a recessed space between the kitchen and the basement door--was another quiet place to read. The coats hung down and hid me, and since there was always something going on in the kitchen, the warm heart of that house, it was a fine place to eavesdrop. A good place to cower and hide if there was fighting, and a good place to listen if there was something going on. And there was always either fighting, or something going on. Only occasionally was I discovered, with a bellowing, "What is she doing in there?" and I'd crawl out, clutching my book and my new knowledge, and flee up the stairs.

I spent a lot of time in the bathroom, sitting on the cold floor with my back against the door, or perched on the closed lid of the toilet, legs dangling, reading. It was the only room in the house with a door that locked, other than my parents' bedroom, and I tried to ignore the frequent urgent knocking. "Hurry up!" someone would yell.

"Go downstairs!" I yelled back.  There was a bathroom downstairs, one that might have once been a mudroom, a frigid space with a toilet and a sink between the back door and the kitchen, but nobody ever used it except my father. It was too public, and with two doors it was likely that someone might burst in upon you as you sat. Guv never minded, though, and we'd often hear him shutting the door and then letting loose a thunderous pee that you could hear throughout the downstairs, followed by the magnificent crescendo of the flush.

"Laurie's hogging the bathroom! Trish, Laurie's reading in the bathroom!" and I'd finally unlock the door and slink out, hiding my book behind my back and under my shirt, defiantly lying. "I was not!"

There was only one place in that house that was mine, and that was the secret cupboard in the Girls' Room closet. The closet was big, a walk-in, with white-painted shelves fitted all the way around above the clothes pole, and shelves below for shoes.  The shoe-shelf was a good place to sit and read, hidden by my sisters' dangling skirts, a good place to hide if you were in trouble and had stolen some money or read your sister's diary or hit your brother and were going to get killed.

But the secret cupboard above: That was mine. I could barely reach it; it was built high into the wall on the left-hand side of the closet, a two-shelf cupboard that closed with a little metal latch. The whole thing was supposed to be mine, but one of my sisters took over the top shelf, because I was too short to reach it, even standing on my toes on a chair. I resented the intrusion but there was no objection I could legitimately make; I couldn't reach the shelf and I didn't have enough stuff to fill it with anyway. She stuffed it with boring stuff--glossy magazines and girlish things that did not interest me.

But the bottom shelf was all mine. Every now and then a sister would try to annex that space, too, but I defended it passionately, dumping their things on the floor and positioning my box to take up maximum room. I had a cardboard carton of treasures, nothing terribly important, not books, but scribbles and drawings and construction paper and things I'd torn out of magazines that I wanted to hide and keep, empty boxes that I collected because of the possibilities of empty boxes, old pencils, small rocks, paper dolls, coloring books, a feather I had found. Mainly, though, I was passionate about it because it was mine: My stuff. My box. My cupboard. My space.

If I could have, I would have climbed into that cupboard, shoved the box aside, crouched with my knees by my chin, and pulled the door closed. My cupboard. My space. A place to read, a place to hide.


Meganne Fabrega said...

I love your perspective on childhood's secret spaces, such a vital part of growing up. (Especially for readers/writers- secret spaces are great spots to spy on others from.)

Cait O'Connor said...

You sound like me as a child and I love the caption under your photo.

Kila said...

Ditto what Cait said.

Enjoyed your post :)

laurie said...

thank you!!

Far Side of Fifty said...

Wonderful a smaller family you would have had more places to hide but you would have been missed sooner:)