The dining room was on the upper level. An outside door was on the south wall of the dining room and a staircase led from a landing just outside the door to the ground level. A stairwell down to the basement door sat behind the staircase, creating a semi-enclosed space under the stairs. I could slip into that space and feel like I was hidden from the world.
It was useful for all sorts of things. I had my first kiss there. His name was Kirk and he was in the third grade. He had a head full of curly blonde hair and wore stylish wireframe glasses. My brother was dating his sister and I guess we had the idea that these things should be all in the family, so we did what we saw them do. It went something like this:
Me: I think the boy is supposed to lean in and put his lips on the girl’s. That’s what I’ve seen my brother do. I’ll close my eyes and you try it.
Him: Are you sure?
Me: Yeah. I have a lot of brothers and sisters. I’ve seen it a lot.
Him: Okay. [Closes his eyes and slowly leans in to kiss me quickly]
Me: I don’t understand why they like that so much.
Him: Me either. Let’s play tetherball.
It wasn’t exactly romantic, but definitely true to our eight-year-old selves. We lived for tetherball. The story is remarkable only in that it was out of character for us to let anything interrupt the endless hours of hitting the ball back and forth, trying to get it past the other player until it wrapped tightly around the pole. Romance was lost on us.
The space under the stairs was also the sight of a disgusting experiment with cigarette butts, yet another attempt to push past our age and try on adulthood. Limited access to matches or lighters, and probably some sense that we didn’t really want to taste the smoke, kept us from actually lighting up. We were more concerned about the look and perhaps the feel of the cigarette in our mouths.
But more than a place for the occasional premature foray into adulthood, the space under the stairs was my private getaway. My most vivid memories of that space are of sitting against the stairwell with
I had a lot of secrets. At the age of four, my father dead and my mother out of commission for awhile with the heavy grief of widowhood and single parenthood, I learned to take care of myself. And even after the heaviness lifted, the habit of holding in my pain was firmly established. I had a skillfully crafted appearance of strength and resilience in front of my family, but the dogs knew better. They heard what it was like for me to lose a father to cancer, and then to lose him again when all mention of him was erased to help assure my step-dad that my mom’s loyalty was to her present husband. They knew how scared I was when my mother would rage through the house, angry at everyone, but no one in particular. They knew the intense fear I felt about losing my step-dad when my mom dared to suggest she might divorce him. In that small space, with the dogs on either side of me, I felt safe and protected. For the time that it was necessary, it served me well. It helped me cope with things children shouldn’t have to face.
I think about that place a lot when I feel insecure and unable to articulate to others what I’m feeling. There was something freeing about not having to have words for the dogs. Their love and attention and loyalty remained steadfast whether I spoke or not. In my child’s mind I was certain they understood. And because it brought relief I developed the habit of protecting myself by retreating from others and coping with the feelings on my own.
I don’t have a stairwell to retreat to anymore, but I still withdraw. I have a wealth of ways of keeping people at a distance when what I’m feeling seems to contradict the exterior of strength and self-sufficiency. Pushing people away so I can retreat is like creating that space under the stairs, where I’m left with only myself and a couple of inarticulate dogs to comfort me. I think that’s protection. I think I’m keeping myself safe. But maybe it’s just a cowardly way of trying to reinforce that false notion that I’m self-sufficient. Maybe it’s just a way of recreating the temporarily necessary reality of my childhood, while simultaneously robbing myself of some the richness life has to offer.
I need a new image of protection, one that leads me to engage rather than retreat, one that encourages trust in the universe, instead of assuming that I’m alone to face the world.