Secret Place

Personal Essays

By Natalie Unruh

Inside my secret spot, no one can see me.  Mom will never find me in my tent.  Bright western sunlight is dulled by the blankets before it reaches my hideaway.  However, some light peeks in uninhibited to spy on this strange cavern.  Children’s Encyclopedias are stacked neatly under a chair, sharing space with the Little House on the Prairie boxed set.  The encyclopedias are mostly for show, looking quite official with a rough, gray canvas hardcover with gold lettering up the sides. 

Under a different chair in the corner, there is a tipsy stack of National Geographics.  They have been slowly sliding to the floor in an avalanche of yellow to rest, bent backed, against a rough wooden chair leg.

I recline in a corner, propped up by mismatched, slightly flattened pillows.  A National Geographic lies splayed across my knobby knees.  The magazine has been unable to hold my attention for the past few minutes.  I am currently occupied with watching the shadows play across my tent’s walls.  It’s windy and cold outside and the sycamore tree in front of the house is being batted back and forth by the wind.  In my special place, I feel none of the cold. 

At first glance, my tent looks haphazard and disorganized; blankets thrown recklessly over dining room chairs.  Corners of books, pillows and fuzzy legs of stuffed animals sticking out from under the blankets complete the chaotic scene.  But this setup has been well planned out.

The old, wooden, dining room chairs have been carefully placed in a rectangle with a space of about three feet by five feet left between.  The blankets have been thrown over the chairs in accordance with their weight and size.  Dad’s extra big, blue quilt is draped cautiously over the tops of the chairs, along with a large denim quilt.  They are my tent’s roof.  On one end is my favorite fuzzy John Deere blanket.  The enormous green deer leaps gracefully over the seat of the chair.  At the tent’s entrance I have placed the worn, brown calico blanket that was once my grandmother’s.  The edges are so frayed that I can see the quilt batting inside.  This blanket is by far the lightest, so it is the best to serve as a tent flap to my haven.  It is also the best blanket for seeing the shadowy legs of my mother if she should happen to pass by.

It’s Saturday, which means I should be doing my chores, called jobs by my mother.  But as soon as I woke this morning, I dove into my reading hideaway.  It’s now about ten o’clock and I’m surprised I’ve held out this long.  Several times I’ve heard the calls of my mother as she reminds me to finish my jobs.  I’ve resisted so far, but my mother has that certain persuasive quality about her that makes it very difficult to disobey for long.  She hasn’t had to raise her voice yet, and it hasn’t acquired that distinctive tinge of irritation, so I know I’m in the clear for a while longer.

But I’m currently wasting these precious moments anxiously awaiting the remonstrance I’m sure is coming.  I’ve turned my attention to the tent flap, watching for the twin shadows of my mom’s legs.  Bright sunlight flashes between the edges of the blankets, giving me a peek of the living room beyond.

I can see my older sister slowly polishing the antique sewing machine table.  She pulls the glass stemmed lamp off of the table, along with its accompanying doily.  Next comes the coffee cup stuffed with pencils, pens and bookmarks.  Finally the ever-present stack of random papers takes its place next to her slipper-clad feet on the floor.  She grabs the aerosol can of Lemon Pledge and shakes it.  A pungent spray of polish covers the top of the table.  The rag follows, rubbing the polish into the cracked wood, removing dust and putting a subtle shine into the wood grain.  Once she’s cleaned the entire surface, all objects are leisurely placed back on top of the table.  She moves out of sight to the TV stand.

The light shining between the blankets is too bright for my unaccustomed eyes and I return to my magazine.  This one has been pulled from the 1980’s and the cover is separating from the rest of the magazine.  I gingerly prop it on my knees and stare into the universe, as given by the Hubble telescope.  Brilliant waves of gas swirl around a distant star, swathing it in gossamer robes of dust and light. I flip on to the next article filled with photos of delicate, floating fans of coral.  Bright parrotfish twist around strands of sea greenery, peeking shyly out; large upper lips protruding ridiculously.

Once the magazine has been lightly perused, I toss it aside and it slides the length of the tent, passing under a chair and out into the open.  I flop back onto the lumpy brocade cushions, fingering a soft bit of fringe as I stare at the canopy of blankets.  My hand mindlessly reaches for the bowl of dry honey-nut Cheerios.  The bowl is tipped and the golden rings spill onto the white carpet.  For a moment I blink stupidly at them, and then return to finding faces in the restless shadows made by the twisting sycamore outside. 

By this time the smell of the Lemon Pledge has seeped into my haven.  It is mixed with the aroma of old books and the earthy tang of the freshly watered plants just behind my tent.  My head slips to the side as I gaze out at the red-brown of the large pot housing our red-edged dracaena.  The palm-like plant towers over my tent.  Grouped about it are several lesser plants; an enormous spiky aloe vera shares floor space with a sprawling Christmas cactus.

From a far region of the house I hear my mother prompting me to get started on my jobs.  It still lacks that slight tinge of exasperation, so I ignore it and reach for some reading material so when she comes looking, I can pretend to have not heard her.  The closest book at hand is “Farmer Boy”.  I scoop up the turquoise colored paperback and flip rapidly through the pages to my spot.  A whiff of old, yellowing paper and glue floats up to my nose and I inhale happily.  The book reaches out and pulls me into its long ago world and I’m lost in New York State, watching Almanzo’s mother make old-fashioned donuts.  The occasional pencil drawing fills the pages; one illustrates the Wilder men cutting ice in the winter, storing it away with sawdust to be pulled out in the heat of summer to make ice cream.

 In that tent I was safe, but even as a child I was able to realize that I needed to step outside of my hideaway and fully engage in the world around me.  This would become steadily more difficult as I got older, but I had mentally prepared myself for new ideas and thought processes by spending all that time hidden away from my immediate, small world

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