I never understood what got her so frustrated. As children, we went to friends’ houses as often as we could. Our father stayed late at work a lot, so nobody was around to get on our mother’s nerves. Yet she would yell at someone almost every morning, throwing the frying pan across the kitchen, hot and full of eggs. She was dangerous, and we didn’t like her.
She told us that maybe she should go up to the attic and pound nails into the floor. We all sort of laughed, but we didn’t say anything. You never knew when an attempt to be friendly would backfire.
When I was fourteen, I began to have upsets of my own, and one day I ran up the attic steps to hide. I threw open the door, skidded to the middle of the attic, and angrily turned on the light. The floor flashed under my loafers, a sheet of silver nailheads. In the eight or nine years since I’d last been up there, she had paved an area about fifteen feet square with metal.
A few years later, after reading Virginia Woolf, I asserted that a woman who can get a room of her own will become fluent, productive, and her best self. But someone needs to care what comes out of that room. For my mother, since no one cared, the best she could bring out of her private space was increasing silence within her family. In a more open-hearted context, I can see what she did as a kind of wacko, brilliant installation art. At fourteen, I saw it only as one more excuse to leave her alone.
Before my son Mark died of cancer at the age of twenty-eight, he asked for a copy of a play by Jane Martin called Clear Glass Marbles. It’s about a dying woman who asks her daughter to buy her ninety clear glass marbles and to leave them in a large bowl by her bed. Each day in the last weeks of her life, the woman holds one of the marbles in her hand because, as she says, “it makes the day longer.” Each night at bedtime her daughter hears a marble roll across the floor. Her mother explains, “I’m learning to let go of them.”
I sent a copy of Clear Glass Marbles to my friend Joy. The first time she read it she cried. The second time, she heard a marble roll across her attic floor.
Every so often she hears another marble. She drew a picture of the person she imagines living in her attic: Deidre, a slender, dark-haired young woman in a long white dress; sitting on an old trunk, gazing at a bowl of marbles. Several marbles lie scattered on the floor.
Joy gave me the portrait of Deidre to hang over my desk. A bowl of marbles sits under the picture.
Even from the dirt road you could tell it was a lonely house, with that sad look houses get when they haven’t been lived in for a while. Lance, Christine, and I had canoed across the lake to find the ancient, rusted houseboat we had glimpsed from the other side. Taking a path up a hill through the trees had brought us here.
We were all seniors in high school, at that point where you always feel like you’re on the brink of something. This excursion, too, held all the nervous excitement of being somewhere you shouldn’t be.
The yard was littered with old toilets, a bathtub, and a rusted oil derrick, which, in silhouette, looked as if a dinosaur had just taken its last step and fallen at the edge of the field.
Inside, science-fiction novels were scattered like dead birds on the floor, along with shotgun shells. Printed on a piece of official-looking paper, now yellow with age, was the deed to one genuine oil well, registered to a Mr. Gerald Bean.
“He bought the oil well, sunk all his money into it, and when it failed he committed suicide,” Christine said, with a confident gesture toward the shotgun shells. None of us left the room without casting a sidelong glance under the table for a dead body.
“Hey, it’s the attic,” I said, noticing a chain dangling from the ceiling. It was the old kind of attic with a staircase that folded down like a tongue, the kind that is always haunted.
The attic was filled with newspapers, and boxes lined the wall. Through a hole in the floor where part of the roof had caved in, you could look outside and see the road. Lance found a blue-and-white name tag that read, Hello, My Name is Jerry Bean. He pinned it to his T-shirt, and suddenly I pictured Jerry Bean enthusiastically shaking hands at a convention of local hermits or area oil moguls.
Then Lance found an old high-school yearbook from 1967. We flipped through until we came to “Jerry Bean, Most Likely To . . .” The rest had been scraped away, as if with a knife, and something scribbled over it in indecipherable red ink. In the picture, Jerry’s head was thrown back, his eyes squinting, his hair blown into a reckless pompadour.
At the other end of the attic, Christine looked at a box of small, glittering gold spoons tucked neatly into rows. She fingered one gently and slipped it into her pocket.
“Hey, look at this!” Lance exclaimed. “I just fou—”
I heard the rumbling first and seconds later made out the dim outline of a truck through the hole in the floor. Suddenly we were running through the woods, down the hill toward the river where our canoe was waiting. I don’t remember climbing down the attic stairs, but outside, I noticed that I held one of the gold spoons in my hand. I had gripped it so tightly it had left a greenish mark across my palm.
Later, I would wonder about the headlights bobbing along the road toward us. Maybe just a passerby, or maybe it was Jerry, returning for the night, or making a sentimental journey, or checking to see if his oil well had turned a profit, or returning for the spoons, passed down through four generations of Beans until they had found their way into that attic with the hole in the floor. I didn’t think about it as I dropped the spoon into the cattails and grabbed an oar. The spoon glittered under the water for a moment and sank into the mud. We were already gliding away from the shore.
Lance and I paddled, and Christine sat between us on the damp bottom of the canoe. Nobody said a word. I was thinking about the windows of the houses on the other side of the lake. Even this far out, you could already see people settling down after supper to their newspapers, to their children, to the blue glow of their television sets. When Lance looked back once I caught a glimpse of his face, growing older, stranger with each dip and pull of the paddle. I felt the headlights of the truck on my back, but never turned around to look.
The thing I hate most about living in Manhattan is not having an attic. Everybody should have one. There are certain items that aren’t meant to live in a closet. Christmas decorations, for one — in addition to seven years of tax returns, oversized suitcases, and my mother’s old card table and chairs.
Trunks belong in an attic, too. I have relegated all evidence of my childhood to one trunk: high-school and college yearbooks, graduation photos, my Girl Scout sash, 157 swimming ribbons and medals, favorite dolls, newspaper clippings, and old family photos. I have no doubt that trunk belongs in an attic. I shouldn’t have to think about my childhood every time I open the closet to put on a coat.
Last month, I couldn’t take it anymore. My apartment was making me claustrophobic. Every closet was bulging, a tormenting reminder that I was losing the organizational battle. I was feeling guilty that I couldn’t throw things away when it suddenly occurred to me that it was quite normal for a thirty-seven-year-old woman to have accumulated a few things in her lifetime. It was a testament to my being alive. What wasn’t normal was that I had no place to store these things.
So I went out and rented myself an attic, a little five-by-eight-foot attic on the fifth floor of a mini-storage warehouse in Chelsea. I’m not saying that my new attic is exactly like the one we had when I was growing up. I don’t have to worry about falling through the insulation, hitting my head on crossbeams, stepping in squirrel poop, or climbing up a rickety ladder. Instead, I use an elevator.
Now my closets hold shoes and clothes, and my attic is filled with the things I still want in my life, but not in my life. Kind of like everyone else’s attic, I guess.
The greatest difference is that when I want to go to my attic, I have to hail a cab.
New York, New York
When my maiden aunts died in northern Minnesota, the family gathered to put their affairs in order, tasks that ranged from complicated legal maneuvers to cleaning out the attic. As the youngest family member on hand, I ended up in the attic.
I started cleaning the attic with a sense of anticipation, but more than halfway through I had found no wonderful old pictures, no priceless brooches for future children, really nothing of note. Apparently, my two spinster aunts had been very organized about what went into the attic and what went into the trash.
Then I found a sealed wooden box. Not an old crate or a packing box, but something hinged, bound, and locked.
There was picture wire at hand, and I worked it into the lock, twisting it until the lock sprang open, releasing the contents: two quilts and four quilted masks.
The masks were colorful, and gauze was sewn into the eye-slits, so that the mask-wearer saw the world in a filmy, softened light.
As I opened the quilts in the poorly lit, dusty attic, I could see that they, too, had interesting shapes and unusual colors. Then I realized that what I had unfolded were two perfectly rendered, erotic homemade quilts that showed each sister in an embrace with a man.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I had in hand the makings of a family scandal. So I made a secret pact of my own with these sisters, packed the quilts in the box, relocked it, discreetly loaded it into the trunk of my car, and transported it safely to my own attic.
The basement was too dark and scary when I was six or seven, but I loved the attic at the top of the creaky stairs. I loved its two little windows on either end, its rafters, the point where the two halves of the roof met above me.
The attic was filled with old dressers and boxes and the headless dressmaker’s form my mother never used. Someone had built a storage closet at one end of the attic, leaving a small, slope-sided space tucked under the eaves. I threw some old carpet scraps onto the floor of that space and dragged one of the old dressers in front of it. That small triangular corner became my secret hiding place.
I went there in the afternoon, on hot days when I could hear other kids playing in the street. I especially loved to go up there when it was raining: the tap-pound-beat of water just a layer of shingles away; me, safe and dry, curled up on those old, gray carpet scraps. Pretending I was Anne Frank. Waiting.
Brooklyn, New York
Grandma was good about helping people in need. When my oldest cousin couldn’t stand her mother’s drunken escapades anymore, Grandma let my cousin live in her finished attic. “A kid’s got to have a normal life,” Grandma would say.
I was young then, but I recall the day my cousin moved in. To clear space in the attic, Grandma packed up the mementos of her childhood on a Kentucky farm at the turn of the century. What I remember most were large porcelain dolls and an old photograph of a man and woman standing in front of a log cabin. The man’s stern, weather-beaten face was a mass of gray hair and beard. The woman had the most peculiar face I’d ever seen; she was so flushed it looked like blood had somehow gotten trapped in her face.
After my cousin grew up, married, and moved out of the attic, Grandma put her keepsakes on display in the room once again. By then I was a teenager and a little bolder. One day I asked Grandma who the people in the photograph were, and if the woman had some sort of disease.
“They’re my ma and pa,” she explained, laughing. “Your great-grandparents. She had no disease. She was half-Cherokee, which means I’m part Indian and so are you.”
For about a year afterward, I’d sneak up to the attic and stare at my half-Cherokee great-grandma.
One day I went to visit Grandma and there was D., a wild teenage girl who went to our church — so wild she giggled through the preacher’s hellfire sermons.
Apparently, her mother couldn’t handle her anymore, and Grandma agreed to take the girl in. D. moved into the attic, and for a long time I wasn’t allowed up there. Secretly, I resented not seeing my Indian relative because of her.
I resented it until the day when Grandma wasn’t home and D. taught me some of what her wildness was about. In the attic, I learned about passion under the approving eyes of my half-Cherokee great-grandma.
Because of my brother Paul, my childhood was filled with make-believe. He believed anything was possible, and he made me believe it, too, including his dream of living in a many-storied house with an attic.
The closest we ever got to having an attic were the visits to our mom’s hometown, where we would sleep over with Aunt Toot. She lived in the same one-story house in which she had been born and raised. It didn’t have a real attic, but it had one room filled with trunks, wardrobes, beds, and the accumulations of several generations. This was our dream attic. Every time we visited Aunt Toot, we explored all the trunks and wardrobes.
As an adult, years later, I was the last to be told that Paul was dying. He had wanted to tell me himself, but not over the telephone. For eight years, I had kept promising to visit but never did until Mom finally told me.
When I entered Paul’s house, I faced a long, narrow flight of stairs to the living room. Another staircase led to the kitchen, and I had to climb even more stairs to find the huge attic bedroom, where he slept.
Laura Polk Hine
As a teenager, I dreamed of castles. I’d be walking in an unfamiliar area when I’d come upon a huge, empty, modern-day castle. I dreaded approaching it. It was always vacant and incomplete. Seeing this castle, I felt such uncertainty and fear. I knew death itself was inside. In my waking life at this time, my drug hunger was insatiable. I made up stories about myself and began to believe them. At fifteen, I was temporarily committed to a mental hospital. I no longer had any idea who I was.
I grew older, married, became a mother, and began to discover myself. At the age of twenty-one, my dream changed. I’d walk up to a beautiful, old two-story house that looked familiar and comforting. I’d head straight for the attic, a maze of secret passages and hidden rooms. Sometimes a room in the attic was oddly shaped, with a tiny window overlooking the yard. Other times the attic would be so small I’d have to crawl through it. Each room was full of old boxes and trunks with forgotten treasures: old pictures, antique gadgets, afghans.
Now, almost thirty, in my second marriage, I’ve been through years of therapy. I know and like who I am, and my dream has changed again. Now I come upon a newer, more modern house. The attic is one huge, bright room with a slanted ceiling. It has two large windows, one on each end of the house, and it’s flooded with light.
At “meet-the-teacher” night in my son’s elementary school, I stand in the halls, fighting an urge to scribble on the bathroom stalls or aim a paper airplane at the teacher’s head. It’s almost impossible to accept the fact that the years have gone by and I have a five-year-old child.
Suddenly, a man taps my shoulder. “Don’t you remember me? We went to high school together,” he says. His forehead is shiny and the skin near his eyes is like wrinkled tissue paper. His teeth are the color of corn. Worst of all, a stray hair is growing out of his ear.
“Remember tenth-grade English? I sat behind you in Mr. Lusin’s class, and thanks to you I aced every test.” I vaguely remember the teacher: he wore brown corduroy pants and dated a girl named Hilda the week before our Regents Exam. She had confided that his lips tasted like licorice. But I am annoyed that I had let this stranger with a loud laugh cheat off me.
“So who’s your kid?” he asks. “What’s his name? I’m sure he knows my Robert. Everyone does. He’s the eraser monitor. I can’t believe I’ve been living here all these years and I’ve never run into you before.”
He points to the children’s drawings hanging from a clothesline across the classroom.
“Look, I’ll show you my kid’s work.”
Robert has drawn a boy in a gray coat with lots of buttons, a phone in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Green rectangles with backward dollar signs seem to be coming out of his pockets. The man points to a brown square drawn in the corner. “Fax machine,” he says proudly.
He scans the pictures. “Which one’s yours?”
Under the words “Who Am I?” my son has drawn whiskers, a tail, and a pink nose. He seems to be licking a bowl of milk.
“Wow. Time goes so fast.” The man snaps his fingers, then tells me about everyone he’s still in touch with. Names and faces flash through my mind like a deck of cards being shuffled. Everyone is fertile and prosperous: one did his root canal, another his taxes, another removed a mole from his toe. They all live in postcard places. The deck is stacked. I wonder who they sat behind in English.
At that moment I can think of only one person to ask about: Larry, who had an attitude before it was fashionable, who caused a tidal wave when he strolled into class late. We were Navaho Indians in a play. He kissed me backstage, and I forgot my one line and fell out of the canoe. I want to know if he married the girl with the chipped front tooth who smelled of oranges, or if she had finally done one too many cheerleading tricks and split in two as I had prayed.
“You look exactly the same,” he says. “Really.” He looks me up and down as if I am a piece of fruit on an outdoor stand. I take a step back so he can’t squeeze my head and sniff.
“So, what’s new with you?” he asks, rolling up his sleeve and adjusting his Rolex.
I point to my chest.
“These,” I say.
He writes his phone number on the back of an empty tampon box I find in my pocketbook. I go home and kiss my sleeping pussycat. Then I climb the steps to my attic to find my high-school yearbook.
Merrick, New York
It’s the 1930s and I’m eleven years old. I live with my father, my older brother Sammy, and my sister Carole. My mother died when I was three years old. Carole and I think she committed suicide, but we aren’t sure. Daddy doesn’t want anyone to tell us anything about our mother.
I ask questions, but nobody tells me anything except Annie, the cook. She says, “Nerves’ll kill anybody.”
In the upstairs hall, outside of Carole’s and my bedroom, is the door to the attic. Large rolls of carpeting hang up there by ropes, like swings, from the ceiling. We are told never to climb on them, but we have a great time swinging back and forth high above the attic floor. I guess it isn’t the safest thing to do. But the ropes are strong and the carpet doesn’t come crashing down, even when two or three of us ride at once.
When it’s my turn to ride, I look out over the dusty floor and see a stack of boxes against the far wall. I wonder what’s in them.
After school the next day I go up to the attic. I untie the rope around one of the boxes and pry it open. It’s full of letters and old newspapers. I read about my mother’s death in one of the papers. She did commit suicide. It says, “She inhaled gas through a hose attached to an open gas jet.” Despondency is given as the cause. There are letters from a doctor to my father about my mother’s depression and a note on rumpled blue paper from my mother, telling my father to “be good to the children.”
So now I know the truth.
But it was not until my first year of college that I began to deal with the trauma of my mother’s death. When the campus physician asked me how she died, I was struck dumb. I could not speak the words mother, death, or suicide. Many hours of therapy helped me handle the pain. It would have taken longer if I hadn’t rummaged around in that dark, dusty attic.
DeWitt, New York
I quit my teaching job at the local college, and we moved more than a hundred miles away from the little duplex we had been renting. In our excitement about moving, we forgot all about our hidden treasures in the attic.
A year later, we got a call from the young man who was now renting the place. He had found the package of five hundred silver dollars and the nude pictures of myself. He had been one of my students, and had recognized me from the pictures we had hidden so that no one else would find them.
After a year of living together, Laura and I moved into a ramshackle coach house in Evanston, Illinois. Laura was starting grad school in anthropology; I was already going to business school at night. The house was built over what used to be a stable, but was now the garage for the dilapidated mansion out front.
The place had a kitchen, a living room, two bedrooms, and a big, unfinished attic. Laura and I made a deal: the second bedroom was hers, the attic mine. I would have a place to smoke pot, which she hated.
I got a big extension ladder and sawed a cutout in the attic hatch where the ladder passed through. I drilled a hole in the attic floor and dropped speaker wires through the living room ceiling, down to the stereo. I could put on a stack of Grateful Dead records, switch the speakers to “upstairs only,” climb up into my den, smoke dope in a bong I made from a plastic milk jug, and look at Art Institute postcards or my tiny book of Hiroshige’s Tokido paintings, or read. My ritual was to get stoned as soon as I climbed up the ladder and to continue smoking religiously as long as I was up there.
I had a how-to book, A Child’s Garden Of Grass. I bought grow-lights and a lamp timer. I filled six three-gallon tubs with dirt. By early spring, I had sprouted hundreds of holy marijuana seeds on a plate between wet paper towels and tenderly transplanted seven of the most robust sprouts to each of the tubs. I did all of this work stoned — and most of it seated or crouched, because only in the middle of the attic could I stand upright.
As my babies grew, I kept a laboratory notebook on their progress. I sketched the leaves, the stems, the bugs. I noted when and how much I sprayed malathion. I noted the light-timer settings (which I changed to mimic the seasons to prompt flowering), pruning, growth, feeding, and watering. I sampled them, noted the weights, and estimated the potencies. In all, my notebook ran upwards of seventy pages.
Laura went on an archaeological dig that summer, and I spent most of my free time in the hot attic, sweating freely, pampering and smoking bits of my plants. I was their shepherd: attentive, loving, caring for them, preying on them. Letters from Laura grew very infrequent. I didn’t really miss her; she would return, and that would be good. In the meantime, I was absorbed.
Laura came home that fall, angry at me; after two days she told me she wanted to break up. Dazed, I asked her to reconsider. Then I agreed to move out. Up in the attic, bewildered, I killed and bagged my plants; I would dry them at my new place. I left the crumbling cardboard tubs leaking dirt onto the dropcloth.
My new apartment was less ramshackle. I could smoke in every room. I could take long walks in the nearby forest preserve and get stoned.
It was ten years before I again lived with a lover. I found out later that Laura had married someone that Christmas.
I still listen to the Grateful Dead, but it’s been six years since I’ve smoked pot.
San Francisco, California
When I was very small, a squat little man came down from the attic through the trap door in my bedroom closet and showed me how to fly. We zoomed along the walls, skimmed the ceiling, and turned loop-de-loops over my bed. Many years later, I went up through the door on my own. There I met a beautiful young architect who was busy remodeling. This man showed me ancient castles, a variety of public and private bathrooms, and many an old hotel. We walked through dim, yellow-lit hallways, down wide, winding staircases with ornately-carved wooden banisters, on faded red carpeting. Once, in a heart-throbbing moment of realizing I was dreaming, yet not quite knowing what to do, I asked him, How can all this space fit up here, in the attic? He laughed a long time, as if I had told a really good joke.
Dawn Baumann Brunke
St. Germain, Wisconsin
Our daughter Jenny began begging for piano lessons when she was only six years old. A year later, convinced she was serious, we rented a spinet and found a local teacher. As the notes sprang more surely from her little fingers, we upgraded both piano and teacher: we bought a shiny, smooth Steinway baby grand and located an eminent teacher forty-five minutes away in New York City.
By fourth grade she was also playing the flute, singing in choir, and acting in school plays. We applauded her every performance in band, orchestra, choir, drama group. The Saturday mornings her father drove her to her piano lessons were precious times for both of them, and the children’s concerts I took her to were fun for me, too — and virtually the only musical education I ever got.
Jenny won prizes, passed auditions, was accepted to a selective conservatory-cum-college, and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in both music and psychology. Once, when she was thinking about her future, I told her, “Don’t feel bad on our account if you don’t pursue a musical career. You have already given us so much happiness by filling our house with music while you were growing up.” I never dreamed then that she could ever completely give up the music that had filled her life.
But the summer after her graduation, she met and married a man who considers music, poetry, novels, and drama to be “idle time-wasters.” He informed Jenny how badly she had been brought up. She could write a poem and play a sonata, she could bring a character to life and lose herself in a book. But she did not know how to scrub a floor on her hands and knees or how to make dinner from a pot of beans.
Jenny moved with this man far away from us. Once or twice a year, we have visited them and their two children, as they inhabited camper, school bus, hogan, and, finally, a corner of her in-laws’ house in the tiny, storybook European village where her husband grew up. There was never any question of squeezing a piano into their quarters. But I wept when she sent her flute home. I had once asked her whether she ever played it. “No,” she said. “I don’t have the time or a place to practice. This isn’t the time for music in my life.”
I never asked her again. I had to accept the truth that comes so hard to parents — that our children’s yearnings and values are not the same as ours. I loved Jenny whether she made music or not.
Two weeks ago, her sister-in-law bought a piano, and when we were visiting, Jenny took us over to see it. For the first time in eleven years, she sat down at a keyboard. First she sight-read from her niece’s beginner books, nursery songs in a foreign language. Then the memory in her hands — red and rough now as they had never been in her student days — took her through beginning after vibrant beginning. When she faltered, forgetting a middle section of a Bach prelude, a Chopin mazurka, a Clementi sonatina, she closed her eyes, assumed that intense, absorbed expression I knew so well, and let an inner memory take over. Her heart was learning to sing again, her hands to dance.
She stretched those hands out like starfish and smiled ruefully. “It’s hard after all this time without my music.”
“I can send it to you,” I said, adding quickly, “if you’d like me to.”
“Yes, I’ll give you a list.”
Flying home, I heard in my head the melodies I had once taken for granted every day. Now I pull down the attic stairs and head for that brown cardboard carton waiting to release its songs.
I was afraid of the attic because I knew it had ghosts. My big sister Kathy told me they lived behind the north wall. We were not allowed inside. Two doors lead to the attic from the landing. One was always locked.
My grandmother, who lived with us, had the key to the locked door. Sometimes, with a grim expression, she would let herself into the locked part of the attic, carrying an old picture of my grandfather and a candle, and close the door. I didn’t know what she did in there and didn’t want to know. The spirits breathed in our house, a living presence. We all assigned them to the attic.
One day, Kathy led me up to the attic. She told me to stay on the rafters or I’d fall through the downstairs ceiling. I concentrated on making the right steps.
We headed for the far wall’s tiny window, whose light evaporated almost completely a few feet away. I could barely make out the rafters, but the window drew me with its promise of daylight. The closer we came, the braver I felt. When we made it to the window, we looked out onto the front yard, the street, our two palm trees, the sidewalk. Nothing moved; it was boring. I wondered why my sister found this place of any special interest. But she had gotten me where she wanted me, and she walked swiftly away from me across the rafters.
I knew that in order to leave the attic, I had to face the dark, and the ghosts, alone. I began picking my way back. As I neared the door, the darkness was thickly, tangibly black. I forced myself to focus on the rafters, but, away from the window, I could no longer make them out.
My courage deserted me as I heard the door slam closed and lock. I looked up to see if the doorway was still visible, but it wasn’t. Everything before me was swallowed in a hell of darkness. And I knew the spirits were there. I knew if I looked, I would see their faces. My feet froze, like in my nightmares. I shut my eyes as hard as I could. A light began to float around in front of me, even with my eyes shut tight. It was golden-white, with an electric blue outline. I didn’t want to see it, but it moved like a ghost. I screamed for my mother.
She heard me from downstairs and ordered Kathy to “let him out of that place!” My sister immediately opened the door. “Oh, why do you make such a fuss?” she exclaimed.
One night recently, after twelve years of marriage and four children of my own, I received notice that my grandmother had passed away, at the age of ninety-three. She had lived in a rest home for ten years, and told everyone there she wanted to live to be a hundred. When she realized she wouldn’t make it, she asked for a priest. She confessed to killing her husband.