The Secret in the Old Trunk

As my mother slid open the wall concealing the steep stairway to the attic, she said something about the Underground Railroad. But trains were for boys, and I was Nancy Drew climbing the stairs, sure to find the secret hidden in the attic.

Mother had offered to finish clearing her best friend’s house so it could be sold. I liked the friend; she sometimes took me to the playground, fed me cookies, and listened to my fourth-grade tales of woe.

Mother raised the trap door, and we were in a small, sealed-off portion of the attic, nothing there but a dressmaker’s dummy and an old trunk – a perfect spot for Nancy to discover a clue. Mother peeled off the top layer in the trunk and tossed me strands of Mardi Gras beads. They were beautiful, and draped with beads, no longer a teenaged detective, I swept across the floor, pirouetting and leaping for an appreciative if imaginary audience.

Gradually, the dusty, faded clothes accumulated in a pile on the attic floor. The attic was stuffy and hot, and I, suddenly tired of being a detective and a ballerina, hinted we should leave now and she could finish later.

My mother had never been afraid of any of the things that terrified me – not spiders, not even snakes. So when she peeled the paper wrapping off a crisp, clean white sheet and stifled a shriek, I pivoted and stared at her, alarmed.. She turned it toward me, and I saw a red patch with the insignia of a cross. Nothing – it meant nothing to me, but my mother was shaken, and that meant a lot.


My grasp on history was vague – Mother talked about the house, the Underground Railroad, the Klan – but the stuff of nightmares was that ordinary objects, like sheets, could frighten my mother, and that the close friends whose homes I visited could hide things that horrified her.

The ironies eluded me until years later – that there was a secret in the old trunk, that a house designed to serve the Underground Railroad was later owned by a Klan family, and most important, that the people you thought you knew best could harbor dark secrets




Author's Comment

 When an event from the dim past arises, I like to examine it, both recalling what the event felt like at the moment and what new perspectives and insights decades of living provide. The discovery of the Klan uniform was particularly interesting to me because of the gap between my original reaction – my mother’s fear – and the larger social context with which I now view the incident.



As a professor of English, Edna Troiano co-authored college textbooks and co-edited an anthology of literature. As a retiree, she enjoys non-academic writing – magazine features, book reviews and other forms of creative nonfiction. She’s currently writing a book that makes theories of literary criticism accessible to book clubs and bookworms. She lives in Southern Maryland with her husband.


  1. wondering about the mother’s fear — did the child ever ask or learn any more about her mother’s awareness of the klan, and where her fear came from? What had the mother witnessed in her life? What’s the larger social perspective from which to view this remnant of a memory– does it make the discovery of the ‘secret in the trunk’ any less fearsome or appalling?

  2. Any time Nancy Drew is mentioned, I’m hooked! An intriguing, reflective story with many subtleties and disturbing touches. Nicely done.

  3. Yes, great story–concise, powerful, and moving. I’m sure that it resonates all too well for far too many–
    And now I want to know more! Looking forward to a sequel.

  4. I liked this short piece for many reasons, but one was that the author is a person of a certain age. One who remembers Nancy Drew and what it was like as a child to want to be a dancer.

  5. Great story, Edna. Love these kinds of remnants. I am working the story of a slave from Petersburg.

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