My mother didn’t like me to read too much, especially when there were more active things to do. With a shake of her head she’d say to me, “Carol, you’ve always got your nose in a book!”
I loved having my nose in a book – especially books about Nancy Drew. She solved mysteries, and I was fascinated by mysteries. Again and again I read the books in which Nancy Drew discovered secret rooms or passageways.
My grandparents’ farmhouse reminded me of houses from these books. It had endless doors, strangely shaped closets, and stairways that we were not always allowed to use. The main staircase, just beyond the front door, was wide and light and had a beautiful banister and landings at the top and bottom.
But the back staircase – behind a door in the living room, was different. The closed door made it seem almost like a hidden passageway, and I was sure there must be a secret panel somewhere in its dark walls. We were discouraged from using this stairway because the painted wood steps were steep, narrow, and slippery. A knotted length of rough and scratchy rope served as the only handrail. My grandmother grew nervous when we wanted to go up “the back way,” and now that I have grandchildren of my own I can understand her fears.
To discourage their use, the door at the bottom of these stairs was kept shut, and when I got permission to climb them I had to go up two steps in order to reach the latch that opened the door toward me. This pushed me back down a step before I could get over the threshold and begin my ascent. The staircase led to three of the five upstairs bedrooms, the landing, and a bookshelf-lined hallway. On the shelves were storybooks, comic books, atlases, and nursing textbooks illustrated with drawings and photos of horrific and fascinating wounds and diseases. (My grandmother was a nurse before she was a farm wife.) My brother claims there were Playboy magazines hidden there too, but I never saw them.
I wanted to climb the back stairs for two reasons. The first was to find a hidden panel. (I never found it.) And the second was to sit on the floor in the silence of the dimly lit and almost hidden hallway and spend the afternoon with my nose in a book.
On Wednesday: Gardens