Behind the hidden door in the attic Laurie discovered a secret from long ago
Laurie Russell stared at her mother in dismay.
“Didn’t we make a bargain on your birthday last month that if I gave you the cellphone of your dreams, you would do a huge chore for me sometime?” Patricia Russell spoke calmly, but her tone held that “you-can’t-argue-with-this-statement” quality that Laurie knew all too well.
“Yes,” Laurie said. “But does it have to be this Saturday? You know the sale is at four!”
“If you start early you should be able to finish cleaning the attic in plenty of time for the dress sale.”
Laurie sighed. The house had belonged to Grandmother until she died a year ago, so the attic was crammed with her belongings. Cleaning it would take forever. Laurie tried again. “Couldn’t I do it Sunday?”
“No,” her mother said. “Carpenters are coming Sunday morning and painters Sunday afternoon. The attic has to be ready for them.”
Laurie bit her lip. This was going to seriously disrupt her plans.
The local women’s club was holding a sale on used evening dresses for high school girls who otherwise couldn’t buy a dress for the senior prom. At the sale preview of scarcely worn dresses last week, Laurie had recognized “her” dress instantly.
“Look, Mom,” she’d said afterwards, holding out her new cellphone. “I snapped a picture of the one I want. Isn’t it gorgeous?”
Her mother inspected the stored photo. “Yes, indeed, but it looks expensive. Can you afford it?”
“Oh, I have the money saved, no problem.”
“H’mm…I don’t know, sweetheart. It’s beautiful, but much too sophisticated for a seventeen-year-old. Now, don’t look like that! If you really want it…”
“I do,” Laurie said, as if taking a vow. The dress was the most eye-catching she’d ever seen–a scrap of scarlet silk held up by spaghetti straps. Narrow from chest to knee, it ended in a scarlet ruffle that slanted up one side.
How wonderful she’d look! Two weeks from now she’d walk into the ballroom with Matt, her date, and heads would not only turn, they’d swivel. No longer would she be Laurie, girl geek, with shabby jeans and hair in a ponytail, but Laurie, the sophisticated college freshman-to-be.
Not that being a girl geek was such a bad thing, she reflected: it had enabled her to earn the money for her prom dress. She’d defragged the next-door neighbor’s hard drive and downloaded old Mrs. Sutton’s funeral music, an hour’s worth of classical pieces and operatic arias, to a CD. “I want to have it ready just in case,” Mrs. Sutton explained. She’d imaged legal documents onto a CD for the homeowners’ association—whose officers admitted to barely knowing how to send e-mail, let alone perform any other computer-related task—and showed the retired Army colonel and his wife across the street how to use instant messaging. No matter how boring the job, whether backing up files or updating a Web site, she’d done it.
Her clients, mostly elderly people who lived on the same street as the Russells, gratefully paid her modest fees.
“Here’s what I want you to do on Saturday. Put anything for giveaway in boxes, mark them, and put them in the garage. Put anything we want to keep in other boxes, mark those, and put them in the hall closet for the time being. Vacuum the attic, including windowsills, closets, and door frames. And soap the windows ready for the painters.”
“And after that I’ll be free to go?”
“Of course,” her mother said. “A bargain is a bargain.”
“You’re going to spend Saturday doing what?” Laurie’s friend Stacey shrieked into the telephone. “You’re going to miss the sale!”
“Not if I start early enough,” Laurie said.
“Can I help? Let’s get Kim in on this too.”
“Thanks, but no,” Laurie said. “It would be great if I could pull a Tom Sawyer and make you two do the work while I sit around watching, but the deal is–Mom gave me this expensive cellphone, so I have to repay her by doing something she wants.”
“Uh…okay. And why this Saturday?”
“The attic has to be ready by Sunday,” Laurie explained. “Mom joined a barter club. She tutored some of the club members’ kids in algebra and geometry and in return she gets the carpentry and painting. But the guys have jobs during the week, so they can only come on the weekend.”
“Wow,” Stacey said. “Your mom certainly is smart. I could never be a math teacher–I wouldn’t want to teach people like me!”
Laurie laughed. “I’ve got to go. See you tomorrow.”
Saturday Laurie woke to the steady beat of rain. Opening one eye, she saw that although her bedside alarm clock said seven-thirty, the room was still dark because of the gloom outside.
Not to mention the gloom inside, she thought as she flung back the covers and got out of bed. She chose her clothes for the day: battered sneakers, old jeans, a plaid shirt, and a bandanna to protect her hair. Reluctantly, she left the cellphone on the dresser. If her friends called it would be too easy to get sidetracked. Better to avoid temptation entirely.
Downstairs in the kitchen her mother was finishing her coffee. “Have a good day, dear,” she said, setting down her cup. “It’s too bad you have to do this today, but you know why it’s important. I’ll see you tonight. ”
“Oh! What about Kevin? Do I have to pick him up from Jason’s house?”
Her nine-year-old brother had spent Friday evening at a birthday party sleepover.
“No, Jason’s mother will keep Kevin for the day. I’ll pick him up on my way home.”
“‘Bye, Mom. Enjoy the conference,” Laurie said.
What a relief that her young brother would be out of her hair today; having to superintend his activities on top of everything else would have been too much.
She picked up a stack of empty boxes from the dining room and began climbing the stairs to the attic.
You know why it’s important, her mother had said.
Laurie did know. The Russells were a family in straightened circumstances: three years ago her father had left them. She remembered the questions that she and Kevin had asked.
Why did he leave us, Mom? Doesn’t he love us any more?
Did we do something bad?
Will he ever come back?
Questions to which her mother had no answers. For the first six months, Patricia and Randal Russell communicated through lawyers. After that, both Laurie and Kevin attended hearings at which their father was present. He smiled, spoke pleasantly, promised to visit—but his eyes were distant.
Then Grandmother Powell, who lived in Herndon, Virginia, two hundred miles from New York City, invited her daughter and grandchildren to live with her.
As Laurie set the boxes on the attic floor she noticed that up here the rain sounded even louder. She flicked on the light and groaned inwardly at the sight of discarded household goods piled everywhere. An old-fashioned chest of drawers, flanked by two worn kitchen chairs, stood against the far wall. There were piles of clothes, shoes, pots and pans, even an old rocking-horse still showing traces of paint.
The attic was supposed to be completely bare and clean by the time she finished.
Well, the only way to go through a rotten situation was to go through it. She started with the piles of magazines and books. The good ones could go in the giveaway pile, the damaged ones could be thrown away.
Coming to live in the old Victorian house on the main street that wandered through Herndon had helped cushion the impact of divorce on Laurie and her brother. Grandmother’s habit of baking cookies three times a week endeared her to Kevin; Laurie found a sympathetic ear when she recounted the difficulties of adjusting to a new school. Patricia worked as a tutor and substitute teacher until a job opened in the public school system a few months later.
The Russells had just begun to feel at home when tragedy struck. On an April day when clouds skipped across the pale blue sky like spring lambs, Grandmother, out digging in the garden she loved, collapsed. She died at the hospital without regaining consciousness.
Why did she die, Mom?
Why did she leave us to go to heaven? We loved her.
This time there was an answer. “She had a heart attack,” Patricia said. “It was just one of those things.”
Laurie filled four boxes, sneezing as her efforts dislodged the dust that covered everything around her, wrote “Giveaway” on the lid of each, and lugged them downstairs to the dining room one at a time. She hoisted another four empties and climbed the stairs again.
By now the pain of losing her grandmother had subsided, although certain reminders still brought a momentary pang: the crocuses and daffodils that popped up so merrily a few weeks ago; the seed catalogues that kept arriving in the mail; the birds that Grandmother loved still coming to the bird feeder, looking about with their bright darting eyes as if expecting to see her.
As she carried the next box downstairs, Laurie thought about what her mother had said on the anniversary of Grandmother’s death. “Now that the year of mourning has passed, it won’t be disrespectful to clear away some of the odds and ends. I want to divide the attic into a bedroom and study area so we can rent it to a college student. The money will help pay your expenses at Virginia Tech this fall.”
By the time she stopped for a hasty sandwich and a drink at one o’clock, her clothes were covered in dust and cobwebs. Sweat trickled under her arms and her hairline felt damp. You’re going to need a major shower before you go try on that dress, she told herself. She sucked on the straw in her drink until the last drop was gone. Time to get going.
But it cheered her that a good bit of the job was done; it was amazing how large the room looked now that the junk was gone.
By two-thirty she’d finished vacuuming and dragged the heavy machine to its customary place in the hall closet downstairs. Soaping the two windows came next.
She was getting a little anxious about time. She definitely needed a shower before she could go anywhere. Shower—five minutes. Dry off—two minutes. Change of clothes—another five minutes. Brush hair and tie it back—five more minutes. That was already seventeen minutes and she still had to grab her backpack and an umbrella, lock up the house, and walk to the sale a few blocks away—another twenty minutes. She’d need to start at least forty-five minutes ahead of time to get to the sale at four.
Laurie worked as fast as she could, applying soap to the windows she’d already vacuumed and wetted down but it was still five past three when she finished.
Done at last! She looked around the room, feeling proud of herself. But drat it all…the chest of drawers was still there. The best thing would be to empty the drawers one by one, carry them downstairs, and then see if she could push the chest closer to the exit door, ready for her mother to help carry down later.
It took all her strength to move the chest, even without its drawers. As she went round to the other side to see if she could drag it by hooking her arms in the now-empty front, she noticed a door in the wall that the chest of drawers had hidden. What was behind it? Nothing at all? Or more junk?
Laurie let her breath out in an explosive sigh. She didn’t have to open it. After all, she had done what was expected of her: emptied the room—except for the chest—disposed of the contents, vacuumed up the dust, and soaped the windows. That was all her mother required.
But if she left without opening that door, she, Laurie, would know that she hadn’t lived up to her part of the bargain. If behind that door was another unsightly pile of discards, it would be discovered the next day, and her mother would know that Laurie hadn’t performed her task one hundred percent.
Ten past three. She could leave the attic now to get ready and still make it to the dress sale.
A bargain is a bargain, her mother had said.
No. She absolutely could not leave without opening that door. Sighing again, Laurie lifted the flimsy latch. After a moment she realized that the object inside the closet was a trunk. She pulled it out, bringing curls of dust with it.
It was an old-time steamer trunk, the kind people used to pack when they set off on journeys that took years, not hours or days. She recognized it because there was one very like it in the antique shop that Stacey’s mother owned downtown.
Laurie brushed a few cobwebs off the lid, wondering whether she could open it. After all, she didn’t have a key…didn’t even know who the owner had been. Whoever it was had clearly forgotten about it; the trunk would never have been found if her mother hadn’t decided to use the attic.
Surprisingly, the lid opened with only a small creak. As the owner hadn’t bothered to lock it, the trunk wouldn’t contain jewels or gold coins or priceless manuscripts.
Laurie stared as the lid opened to reveal yearbooks, four of them, with “Herndon High School” emblazoned across their crimson leather covers in gold. The dates ranged from 1949 to 1952.
She picked up the1952 edition. Inside someone had written, “To the prettiest girl in school, from Tom, with love.” Other messages were addressed to “Betty, my best friend,” and “Betty, always a good sport.”
Grandmother’s first name had been Betty. So these were her high school yearbooks? Why had she hidden them away? And who was Tom? Grandfather’s name had been Andrew. He had died when Laurie was six and Kevin not even born yet.
Full of curiosity, she began turning the pages, looking for her grandmother’s maiden name, Betty Chalmers. Betty’s photo appeared in the yearbook three times—in the senior class photos, in a full-page collage of couples dancing at the senior prom, and again as the president of the Future Homemakers of America club.
Laurie studied the pictures with interest. Her grandmother at that age had worn her dark hair short, as most of the girls seemed to in those days, and like them she’d worn lipstick that looked almost black.
At the back of the yearbook she discovered a large envelope with two more photographs. In one Betty and a tall young man stood hand in hand—Betty in a dress with a close-fitting bodice and a bell-shaped, floor-length skirt, the young man in dark trousers and a light-colored jacket with a carnation on the lapel. The next photo had been taken by someone standing behind the young man as Betty looked up at him. From the way her arms were positioned Laurie guessed she had been pinning the carnation to her friend’s jacket. But it was the expression on her face that made Laurie stare.
So that’s what it’s like to be in love. I’ve never felt like that…that hasn’t happened to me yet.
She and Matt were good friends, of course. As president of the school’s computer club she relied heavily on him to take some of the administrative work off her shoulders. Laurie enjoyed Matt’s company and he, she was sure, enjoyed hers. But neither of them had time to be serious about anything other than getting ready to attend college in the fall.
Well...she smiled as slipped the photos back inside the envelope. It was interesting to catch a glimpse into the past. How funny to think of her late grandmother as a high school girl. She knew Betty had lived in this very house and gone to the same high school that Laurie now attended. And had she, like Laurie, been constrained to do chores on a rainy April Saturday when she yearned to be elsewhere?
The compartment that contained the yearbooks was only five inches deep, with slots at each end. Laurie slipped her fingers inside the slots and pulled.
She had to wrench the tray so hard that she staggered back when it came free, but she recovered her balance and set it down on the floor. A strong smell of moth balls arose, making her nose twitch as her gaze fell on something that looked like a pile of laundry inside the trunk. No, it was a sheet that was covering something bulky. She lifted it out.
The sheet covered a folded evening dress. Excited, Laurie shook it out, releasing an even stronger smell of moth repellent. Was it…could it really be….? Yes, there could be no doubt. Another glance at the yearbook confirmed that this dress was the one that Betty had been wearing in the photographs. Now she could see that it was the same delicate pink as the cherry blossoms that had bloomed two weeks ago. The bodice and underskirt were made of taffeta, but the cap sleeves were made of the same fine tulle that formed the overskirt.
Contemplating it, Laurie realized that although fifty years might have passed since its creation, this dress was a classic. The miniskirt, the granny dress, grunge chic—all of those had come and gone, but this dress would never go out of style. Her grandmother must have been thrilled to wear something so beautiful to the high school prom, in the company of the young man she clearly adored.
But why had she put the dress away in a closet where no one had thought to look for years?
Laurie rewrapped the dress and was about to put it back in the trunk when she saw something else inside. She hadn’t noticed when she lifted the dress out, but there were two thick stacks of letters, bound with narrow blue ribbon, underneath.
She pulled the ribbon aside to read the address on the topmost letter: Private Tom Waterson, followed by an APO address. The top letter in the other stack was addressed to Miss Betty Chalmers.
Briefly Laurie considered opening one of the letters and reading the contents, but once more conscience held her back. If Grandmother were still alive, she might very well have given permission, but since she was dead, it would be better to ask her mother first. As next of kin, it was Patricia Powell Russell’s right to make decisions regarding Grandmother’s property.
Still, she could peek to see whether the other letters were addressed to Private Tom Waterson. A minute later, she nodded to herself, satisfied. They all were.
She was about to put the letters back when she noticed one last item at the bottom of the trunk.
The yellowed news clipping from The Washington Post was dated July 1953. “Herndon Man, 20, Killed in Korea,” the headline read. Laurie gasped and read further. The photo of the smiling young man in the uniform of the United States Marines made her bite her lip. Tom Waterson looked so proud, so confident in his uniform, so unaware that he was fated to die in a country thousands of miles away.
Quickly, she ran her eye over the rest of the item. Apparently Private First Class Tom Waterson had served in Korea for a year following basic training. Scheduled for leave to go home to marry his fiancee, Betty Chalmers, he’d been killed in action the week before he was due to depart.
Dear God…how terrible.
It was strange that she’d never heard of her grandmother’s being engaged before she met and married Grandfather Powell. Neither her mother nor her grandmother had ever mentioned it.
Suddenly she remembered to look at her watch. Ten past four! She’d never make it to the sale. The dress would be gone in the twenty minutes it would take her to run, uncombed and filthy, to the women’s club building downtown.
Laurie closed her eyes, took a deep breath, counted to a hundred. Then she tucked the bundle under her arm and went downstairs to her room. Ten minutes later—clean, dry, dusted with talc to banish any lingering dampness—she reached for the dress that now lay on her bed.
She slipped into it easily, managing somehow to zip up most of the back. Then she turned to look in the full-length mirror inside her closet door.
Truthfully, she told herself, that scrap of scarlet silk she’d wanted to buy would have looked better on her. Betty had been fair-skinned, with black hair and brown eyes; Laurie’s eyes were also brown, but she had dark brown hair and her father’s brown skin.
Against her complexion, the pale pink appeared almost white. Still, it didn’t look bad, she thought, turning around to look at the back view over her shoulder. A dark pink hair ribbon and a matching ribbon waistband would add dramatic contrast.
Weak sunlight streaming into her room made her open the window to look at the wet green world outside. She leaned her arms on the windowsill, wondering whether her grandmother had leaned out in that long-ago spring to smell the freshness of rain-washed lilacs and feel soft wind tickling her face. Had she daydreamed of the wonderful time she would have, dancing in this pink confection of a dress with the man she loved?
On the day of the prom Betty was looking forward only to the good things of life. She hadn’t known of the heartbreak that lay ahead.
Any more than I know, Laurie thought. I also hope for good things…and I’d like to fall in love with someone the way she did with Tom.
The lump in her throat made it hard to swallow and the mist that suddenly blurred her vision was not rain, but tears. What courage it must have taken to go on after Tom was killed. Betty had mourned, but kept her grief to herself.
I bet she never told anyone, Laurie thought. She hid the dress and the letters away in the attic and went on with her life.
How admirable of her not to sink under her personal tragedy, but simply to soldier on.
And her daughter was like her. After her husband left, Patricia had simply wound up the loose ends of their old lives and moved the family back home. “What’s done is done,” she’d said. No tears. No self-pity.
I come from a line of strong women, Laurie thought, and lifted her chin. When I go to the prom with Matt I’ll remember that, and while I’m dancing with him I’ll think about that other prom night, fifty years ago.
Monday she would take the dress to the dry cleaner’s. Cleaned and ironed, it would be as good as new.
For she would wear Grandmother’s dress two weeks from tonight. She’d wear it in a spirit of thankfulness that she was her mother’s daughter and her grandmother’s descendant, and in the hope that she would live up to their tradition of strength and grace. That tradition was her heirloom.
Her cellphone suddenly played its “incoming call” tune. Laurie grabbed it, read the caller ID. “Stacey! How are you? I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the sale.”
“Oh, kid, I hate to tell you,” Stacey wailed. “The dress you wanted was the first to go! I’m so sorry.”
“Never mind,” Laurie said. She glanced at the dress hanging on the closet door and smiled. “I’ve found something even better.”
Copyright July 2004 by D.M. Read. No part of this story may be reprinted without written permission by the author.