My Closet, My Self

For some reason I have closets on the brain. Before you ask, it’s nothing to do with headlines about the Olympic diver compelled (one presumes by threats from the tabloid press) to make a public statement about his sexuality. Good grief, why is this news fodder? Who actually cares? What business is it of ours? And also: Yawn.

No, this week I have been contemplating storage facilities, not symbols — but then again, maybe they’re one and the same? Why would they pop into my head if not as an alert? Am I hanging on to things I no longer need? Have I shoved something to the back of the “closet” that I could make good use of right now? Or is there something — a habit, idea, etc — that ought to be mothballed for a time?

It occurred to me, during these mental meanderings, that I can remember the location and contents of every single closet of my childhood home. Stuff in our house was named. Is this normal? I don’t mean catalog descriptions such as sofa or chair. I mean The Curio Cabinet. The Front Chest. The Teak Wall Unit. The Upstairs Linen Closet. The Closet Under the Stairs.

That last one sounds ominous, doesn’t it? If you’re British, you’re picturing a Harry Potter-style arrangement, but this was America in the 1960s, with the door on the tall end of the wedge rather than opening into the side. Here we kept the family’s coats, while the floor was a repository for shoes, boots, and sometimes the vacuum cleaner. Though it never achieved the anarchic heights of Fibber McGee’s, this closet was eternally in need of a tidy, which inevitably revealed things shoved to the back that had been missing for decades.

The closet also featured in a recurring nightmare I had as a young girl. (Oh god, you’re thinking as you hit “unfollow”, she’s telling us her damned dreams. Well, yes. But just this one. For now.)

At the start of my dream something was taking place at the house. Maybe there were guests. I was sent to the closet as an errand. Instead of the usual mess, I discovered a portal (no, I’ve never read Narnia). Passing through, I found myself on the upper story of our house, but of course it was transformed into a corridor of stone walls and cells — dirty cells with thick metal bars, like somewhere you’d store the Man in the Iron Mask. The cells contained hideously deformed freaks. They were truly terrifying. They wanted to hurt me. I scurried past them. Memory plays tricks on me, but I suspect the implied threat was that I, too, would be incarcerated. And damaged.

There was an ogre. Not a cuddly, Shrekian ogre. A giant, bearded, black-haired dangerous monster with whom it was impossible to reason or negotiate. I remember this. Even as a child I knew that words, not fists, would be my weapons of choice. (And that they weren’t always adequate.)

Did he chase me through this corridor? Was he waiting at the end? Maybe both. Maybe the point of the dream was to run this gauntlet without getting caught.

I always escaped. The unchanging ending took place in the back garden, one much larger than ours, with a wooden fence running down one length of it. People looked over this fence, so the idea of being seen by others — exposed to their scrutiny and judgement? cheered on? — was clearly another factor. Anyway the ogre was out here too, felled, like a Gulliver, though who overpowered him and how is yet another detail lost to the mists of time. The important thing, then as now, is that he was vanquished and everyone was saved. Hip, hip hooray! Call off the child psychologists.

*** *** ***

My parents each had their own closets — Mom’s in their shared bedroom, Dad’s in our den. Both were huge and jammed full of mostly unworn clothing. Mom used to joke, unkindly, that Dad never threw anything away and still had his bar mitzvah trousers, which wasn’t far off the truth, though he never actually got bar mitzvahed, as far as I know. The irony — and you’re well ahead of me here — is that her closet was no better. It contained a wealth of garments representing stops along the scales, a kind of nine stations of the cross familiar to anyone who has a troublesome relationship with food. Or relationships. (Like mother like daughter.)

I don’t remember treats lurking in the depths of Dad’s closet, but on the high shelf of Mom’s, hidden away, was a small collection of dirty books: The Story of O, The Happy Hooker, that kind of thing. I must have been some kind of brat to have gone on this reconnaissance mission in the first place, much less return to keep reading in secret. Later I’d merely raid her closet for things to wear.

It seems to me this post has become as messy as one of our closets, lacking even basic definition or purpose. But there you have it. I suspect this is a subject worth returning to, for what we keep and why we keep it is well worth an hour’s meditation. And I haven’t even described the peculiarity that is the “Edinburgh Press”, or the excitement my young self would have felt to learn that one day she’d inhabit buildings so old they don’t contain built-in closets, necessitating the purchase of armoires

What’s the strangest thing at the back of your closet? One of mine contains the canned cremains of two beloved cats — in a Tiffany’s box, natch. Top that, why don’t you?

 

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