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.