Great Uncle Em's Hidden Room
Relatives were created to stay the same
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.
Hidden 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.
In the dark hall that led to the second floor stood a wooden display
case crammed with salt shakers shaped like pigs. There were rows of them
on glass shelves behind glass doors -- all salt shakers, all pigs with
holes in the heads or backs, as different as they could be. We weren't
supposed to touch them, but we did, reverently. Then we usually snuck
upstairs, but not for long, There was something forbidding about the
chilly Victorian bedroom, the bed piled with visitor's coats, hats and
pocketbooks. We hunted for buried treasure under carpets, under furniture,
in floor cracks and heating vents. A single dusty Indian head penny was as
good as a gold doubloon.
To get pie, for there were always pies, we had to wash our hands. That meant braving the bathroom off the kitchen, beyond the stove, pulsing like the sun, and the frozen back door. Something about the old porcelain bathroom fixtures frightened me. They were of another time. Or maybe it was the unbearably intimate artifacts of people so much older than even my parents. Uncle Em used a straight razor. It lay on the counter sink beside his shaving mug and brush. His leather sharpening strap hung on the back of the bathroom door, on a hook with a stray coat hanger or two that jangled when the door shut. There were unknowable bottles and unthinkable boxes of stuff. There was a heavy glass ash tray, near towels, by a bathroom scale with massive numbers. There was always a cigar butt floating dreamily in the toilet, it's layers giving way like a boiled onion. And I always made it my business to do as little business there as possible.
"Can I go in the -- you know -- the special room?" I would finally whisper to my mother, slipping back into the heat of the now crowded living room. And she would always say that it was up to Uncle Em. That meant sitting in the lap of the raja, the man who now reminds me of an olive-skinned Edward G. Robinson, but kinder and wearing a flannel shirt. Uncle Em would set his cigar aside for a moment, the wet tip shining in the metal tray, and smile his raga smile. He worked, for years, as chauffeur to the wealthy owners of the hat factory in Upton. His hair gleamed with Brille Cream and his eyes shone with a wondrous affection, as if he could not quite believe his life had turned out so well. Then after a bounce or two, and a chocolate cherry or two, I was off.
The curtain leading to the secret room was as light as a woman's summer dress. It stank of decades of stale White Owls. I remember being in the room alone. Perhaps my little brother Jeff was asleep on the bed full of coats upstairs and Brian was playing games with the cousins, I don't know. The world behind the curtain cared nothing for the world outside. Sounds beyond the curtain faded as the true treasure hunt began.
The room was filled, floor to ceiling, with books. These were not, in my memory, the great works of literature -- but cheap, musty, brownish dog-eared paperbacks. In the hidden room, holiday after holiday, I came to know Earl Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Isaac Asimov and a host of wonderfully trashy authors. There were volumes of risqué cartoons with jokes I didn't always get, gag books, novels and short story anthologies galore, and not one of them written for kids.
There was a little bed in the room, or a divan or some sort with a metal necked lamp. I stretched out and read. I read until they came for me or until I fell asleep. I read until my eyes hurt and my neck ached, I read until the room absorbed me, and I smelled like an old panatela.
I begged to take unfinished books home, and sometimes I did. But if not, I knew that book would be there, right where I left it, year after year. That's what grandparents, aunts and uncles are for, after all -- to stay just as you left them. They hold the world together as it spins the years around. They guard the rooms of memory and open them every holiday. This holiday Uncle Em would have been 100, but he slipped away somehow some years ago. Still, about this time each year, he reaches from his distant raja chair and lifts the curtain of my childhood – always has, always will.
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Don't miss the column by J. Dennis Robinson in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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