“Seventh,” Secrets at Seven Years Old

psychedelicMy brother’s bedroom was off limits, but that never stopped me from many things in my youth. Having eight siblings, 72 first cousins, and hundreds of class mates at St Mary’s of Redford grade, middle and high school—let alone thousands of parishioners in our little corner of the Detroit metropolis—there was always someone not to talk to, or some place not to go. Life, even at my youngest, involved secrets. Siblings ganging up on other siblings. Don’t tell. Schoolmates commiserating on a plan or a trick or a hoax against a classmate or a teacher. Don’t tell. Adults gossiping. Shhhh, don’t tell.

Kids created clubs and found secret hideouts. In fifth grade, four of us girls created the Spider Club, because when we did the spider walk, arm in arm, legs crossing over each other’s, we were cool, and we looked like a spider. We wore black. We had a hideout. Kids made easy game of hiding things, burying treasure, secreting away the trove of goodies we’d come upon especially after the holidays or birthdays or Halloween. With six older siblings this was simply part of survival. And secured that I would get to eat my own candy.

The mystery and intrigue of others’ secrets seems natural, we thrive on it. We humans like to have secrets and discover other’s secrets. There is a certain power in knowing what others don’t, knowing what others wish they knew, and knowing that you could tell them, if you dared. That superiority seems a disdain-able characteristic of adults. Purely childish for kids. It would seem that one of the reasons children view adults as authoritative and elusive is that they know things, they have secrets. It seemed a privilege of adults, or certainly my older siblings, that they got to know things that I did not. I hated that. Feeling somehow left out. But it made having my own secrets feel that much more mature. Big secrets. Big girl.

When one of my brothers disappeared one summer, and I asked to his whereabouts, I was told ‘he ran away,’ and that I wouldn’t understand. Would I not, as a seven-year-old, understand running away? Would I not, as a good Catholic, albeit a pain-in-the-ass little sister, not care about my brother? Did my parents not remember that I forever had my nose deep in a book following the likes of Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, the Bobbsey Twins or Ramona and Beezus? Running away was a fascinating and familiar idea. Something we had all thought about doing. A secret, child-only-no-adults-allowed, adventure. Who wouldn’t want such a thing? And if my very own brother had accomplished this, well . . . I couldn’t know.

It wasn’t until we came together as a group, assembled by my father, all eleven of us, minus missing brother, gathered initially with prayers and rosaries, that the big secret was revealed. My brother had run away to California. (Why is this bad news I had wondered). He was safe, there had been a call, blah blah blah. All I heard was that he was gone, and I quickly saw this as a perfect opportunity to go snoop in his bedroom. The secret basement bedroom.

The apparent gravity of the situation went over my seven-year old head, and I thought they should have shared the exciting details. Did this escapade involve ropes out windows? Disguises? Captors? Never to be known. To this day. Nonetheless, back then I saw that his room, from which I had been seriously and permanently admonished, was now mine for the taking. And so I went.

Because there was so many of us, we easily filled the big house. Four large bedrooms upstairs was not enough, and we needed to use the spare room in the basement, next to the furnace room, as a bedroom. Who knows what that room’s original purpose was.  It was not a large room, and by virtue of being in the basement it was not a warm room. The cold basement was a plus on hot and muggy summer nights, that is when we loved the basement most, but in the winter, even though his room was located right next to the giant furnace, a monstrous looking thing, that room was chilly. My brother didn’t have much space at all, but it was his, and that was fascinating. None of us were afforded the luxury of “our own room.” Two or three of us were in every room in the house, but he got his own.

And because it was his own, and it was in the basement, I suppose when he asked if he could paint it, the answer was simply yes. I am not sure if my parents knew what they were permitting, because paint it he did. I never asked, and perhaps I still need to do so, but the bigger mystery is how did he get away with that room’s decor? And it lived as the colorful cave of hippy for many months as I remember it. But it was only that once that I remember actually going in.

Two walls were paneled in that woe-begotten 60’s style: sheets of thin plywood, papered to look like wooden planks. You could, in fact, pull away the glued-on look to reveal the pegboard type material underneath. My brother hung posters on those walls, an array shouting out the names of bands and songs and concerts I think. I can only suppose now, as those walls were far less interesting to me. The other two walls were beautiful.

They were foundation walls, rows and columns of cinder blocks that had been set into the hole dug decades earlier in order to make the house’s foundation and basement. We all had basements in our homes. Even the littlest of houses had basements. And basements usually included a laundry room, a bathroom, a furnace room, and then the other rooms that became sewing rooms or rec rooms or work rooms. Or, in our case, my brother’s bedroom. The secret room.

It was across those two cinder block walls where I found wonder unlike anything I’d seen in a bedroom before. There were strings of what appeared, at first, to a seven-year-old anyway, to be nonsense words. Words painted in the style fashionable at the time and made popular by artists like Peter Maxx. Large bubbled letters, three bricks high, leaning into each other so closely you could almost not tell one character from the next. I spelled the words out, but still they made no sense. I remember “LSD.” “Marijuana.”

The walls were lined with words I did not recognize and colors I loved. Deep bright rich dark fluorescent. Shades and tones I’d never seen used for walls, or anything else for that matter, except maybe posters we looked at in the head shop on Grand River and Mettetal. Posters we saw when we snuck in, “no kids allowed,” more secrets, more restrictions. But that’s another Detroit story. In my brother’s room, I could stare at those painted letters forever  . . . . if I could get away with it. The poet in me was duly inspired.

Those words marched like fat soldiers dressed in rage and happiness at once, all the way across the room in horizontal rows. I traced each letter slowly with my fingers trying to imagine their meaning, intrigued by their breadth, and wondering what their secret was. Wondering when I would be able to decorate my room however I wanted. Wondering why my brother had run away. Wondering if I would ever do that, run away. It was all so frightening and exciting, and so obviously an older-kid thing, words that older kids could use, things that older kids could do. Not a little girl like me.

The ceiling was equally mysterious and mesmerizing, and I was, I still am, curious as to how it was that my parents allowed this interior decoration project. My brother had pinned dozens upon dozens of orange “Union 76” Styrofoam balls from the ceiling with fishing line. Not in rows or in an order of any sort that I remember. Just all hanging above me, a ceiling in motion.

Where had he found so many of those balls, the ones that the gas station gave away as a marketing promotion, the ones you were supposed to put on the top of the car’s radio antenna? How long did it take him to pin each one up on the ceiling?  Rows and rows of them hung as light as angel hair, each some twelve inches from the ceiling, and if I blew a stream of air towards them, they moved in waves, undulating in unison like the shoreline at Lake Erie, orange like when it was contaminated and we couldn’t go swimming.  So many secrets and restrictions that plagued me as a child, but there I was, in the midst of one. Just me. And the secret.

I leaned back on my brother’s bed, watched the sea he had created, and I blew upwards, and laughed as the ceiling swayed.


of nine children raised
on white bread, bologna and Campbell’s
chicken noodle soup
because who could expect
Mom to be a gourmet
with one in the crib,
one on the hip,
one on the way
and one begging at the front door,
“Please, mama, let me go,
let me follow
my big brothers to school.”

“No shirt no shoes no service”
was the rule,
and the table was full
at dinner each night.
Then the sixties came,
and the boys left quickly
after plates were cleared
to adorn themselves in beads,
buttons, bare feet,
and to comb their scant beards.
They made love, sang the Doors,
smoked hash, dropped acid;
they dropped out of school.

The rest of us, restless,
sat with our fingers crossed
and watched the colored screen
as draft numbers scrolled
in yellow and green, and we prayed
with Mom, Dad and rosaries
that the boys wouldn’t be called
to dress in army fatigues
and acquire mystery fame
as black-lettered names
engraved on a high school girl’s
silver POW bracelets.

One night’s tuna casserole
cooled stiff and dry,
as we witnessed
a hushed fight
begin to scream and fly
back and forth across
the stains of the long
white linen tablecloth.
The steaming bread baskets withered
while the glass milk pitcher
shuddered, waiting politely
for my older brothers
and my dad to “settle down now
we’re at the dinner table.”

But one brother cried
and buried his head
in his hands
while another ran
from the house wailing and high,
and dad chased the oldest
to the end of the red-
tiled porch with a ladle
raised high above his head
like a knife
threatening the boy’s life
or to rip the telephone
from the wall
of his basement bedroom
where he made secret calls.

That heavy evening closed,
and the emptied Pyrex soaked
in the scoured sink
all sudsy, and the babies
finally slept. So I left
to look at the scene
and found my brother’s beads
broken, some still on the string,
dripping off the concrete steps
where Dad had failed
to keep him.

I carried them down
to the basement bedroom
where “LSD” marched
across the foundation wall
in red letters as tall
as me, and orange Styrofoam balls
dangled from the ceiling
on clear plastic threads
like layers of sunrises
or sunsets.

His tamarind seeds were moist
and sticky in my fingers,
trembling and disobedient.
I set his necklace
on his dresser next
to the felt-lined wooden box
I had made him
at CYO camp that summer.

I felt brave,
or part of something,
but frightened
because Dad might steal
the hippie beads back,
and I might never
see my brother again.


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