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The Secret Room of Uncle Em



The passageway from childhood to adult world may lie just behind a thin smoky curtain. On one side is the bustle of a family holiday in a little Massachusetts town. On the other side the author finds spies, detectives, crime and alien monsters.




READ: The Brief Passage of Maydeth Scott

My great Uncle Emerson had a hidden room. It lay behind a curtain, through a thin doorway off the great dining area that stretched between the kitchen and family room. Kids were not allowed in there. We had to wait, at least until the Thanksgiving dinner had been cleared or the Christmas gifts dispersed. Then, after saying our copious thank-yous for the bounties thus received, the kids were free to wander the overgrown yard, long retired from farming, and explore the ancient house.

Emerson Scott (right) and his nephew John Robinson in the 1930sHidden rooms run in the family, among us men, at least. My grandfather had a smoking place to the right, just beyond the big barn door, beside the shop where he built cherry cabinets, and above the basement where he grew his own worms, fat as garter snakes, in long abandoned bathtubs. Uncle Bill kept his cabinet of precious feathers for tying flies, plus a desk and tools for taxidermy. My father has today, and has all the years I can remember, kept a basement workshop more crammed with electronic dials than the cockpit of a fighter jet. I have a writing office, all my own -- always have, always will.

In all the years we visited Em and Pearl, I can't recall a change -- not in their clothing, not in their house, not in the stories we told or the songs we played on the piano, not in the food we ate or the furniture. A new toaster would qualify then as a home improvement. The concepts of "redecorating" and "public space" had not evolved. Homes, when I was growing, were more like nests, thick with the smells and trinkets of their owners. Year after year my brothers and second-cousins would return, expecting things to be as we had left them the holiday before, and we were never disappointed.

Uncle Em, really my father’s uncle, had a simple way with holidays. Every fall he made a pilgrimage to Shrewsbury, from his home in rural Upton, Massachusetts. There he visited a miraculous place called Spags, the first of the giant discount stores. Spags was a godsend to Em, a man born at the dawn of the 20th century, surrounded in 1960, by more kids than he could name. A case of Slinkies or wind-up metal robots, a case of Pez containers, a case of cocktail peanuts or ribbon candy, some chocolate-covered cherries, a box of candles, gift wrap, a few strings of colored lights, a ham or a turkey -- and the holidays were in the bag.

And so we sat through the long celebratory meal, the endless white table spread with cut glass bowls and heaps of food -- while the secret room behind the curtain beckoned. Afterwards, with everyone gathered in the family room, Uncle Em sat and grinned, a raja in his corner chair, a smokeless White Owl Panatela fixed on his face like a second nose. Eventually Aunt Pearl flipped the toggle on the piano, an engine whirred, turning the keyboard miraculously into a church organ. Finally the adults began talking the talk of relatives long dead and holidays beyond the memory of a boy not yet 10 years old. So we kids slipped away, and the annual exploration began.


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