Secrets require space, as in the hidden drawers of a writing desk my grandfather built out of ash for his lover, who also happened to be his sister-in-law, my father’s (and mother’s by marriage) Tante Hilde. A small, light-colored desk with a clean, simple design. A writing desk. After my father’s death, my mother said: You and your siblings must decide who gets the desk. I did not want to want the desk. I wanted someone to say: Here, you should have it.
How do you know when desire is a waste of time?
The voice of my mother. She said the desk had a secret drawer. If it were up to me, and if I had such a drawer, I would keep the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet there, the letter that when I was a young child I was sure I must and could discover. If I thought of enough words, enough English and German words, I would find one that contained that letter.
Thunk is not a word, but for a while I thought it was, and so, in my mind, it came closest to containing that letter. A letter that shouldn’t be there must be in a word that wasn’t a word. How could a word not be a word? How could a parent not tell the truth?
Early memory: discovering that if I closed my eyes but opened my mouth, I could not see. Hunger and vision, two separate things.
The more I contemplate the drawers, the more I see in them not so much a secret as a private joke. The drawers are located at the back of the desk and therefore are not visible when the desk is pushed up against a wall. Otherwise there is nothing secret about them, for they, like the two drawers at the front of the desk, are marked each by a large keyhole. The same key opens all four drawers. Two explanations occur to me as to why I didn’t find the secret drawers sooner: foggy-headedness in the wake and confusion of my father’s death; hearing the word secret and assuming the drawer (my mother had mentioned only one) was more hidden than it was, thus trying to locate it from and on the inside. But secrets are everywhere.
The secret of any object. Of any living or not living thing.
Whitman wrote: I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can.
We scattered father’s ashes over the moss. Toward the end, everything he said was a secret no one could decode. Words were lost to him, except words that were not words.
Did I even want a desk with so much written there? Did I want a desk that would say to me each time I sat down: secrets, betrayal, family, Germany? And yet, it is a nice piece of furniture, and it was the one thing, among so many things, I found myself, fearfully, wanting.
The phrase secret drawers is kind of funny, if you translate it as “secret undergarment.”
To feel one is spent, before having been born. A wind-up toy, with a piece missing.
One of the three Jaquet-Droz automata is a drawer, one who draws. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo’s father tells him, Some magicians began as clockmakers. This makes sense, clockmakers touching, literally, the workings of time. Becoming a magician is the logical next step.
The automata were intended to evoke wonder, like a magician. I find the mechanical repetition a little spooky, like a merry-go-round, like the little marching soldiers in that crazy story, The Nutcracker, unless I am in the presence of a child. To the sound of the merry-go-round’s music, I hear Tom Waits crooning, You’re innocent when you dream.
Out of the tiny bits of machinery Hugo’s father discarded in his attempt to rebuild the automaton, Hugo, with the resourcefulness of the orphan, with the need to keep the parent alive by becoming him in his actions, made little wind-up animals.
There is a different kind of secret to these creations, hidden in all the little gears, all the little parts that must work just so. Knowledge, skill, making.
Digressions are drawers one looks into just for the sake of seeing what one may find.
Secrets require a contained space to hold their power. The corrosive power of some secrets needs to be contained. The fruit of others needs to be held in a dark, fertile room.
In my childhood there was a stone tower. It was part of the family vineyard that had once, before the Peasant Wars in Germany, been a nunnery. It is rumored that Napoleon slept one night, during the wars, in what is now called “Das Napoleon Zimmer.” His portrait hangs above a short chaise, upholstered in satin, from which my legs stuck out already at age twelve. The tower, which stands across the cobblestone courtyard, is centuries old, though newer than the cloister that had housed the nuns and then, much later, various generations of my family. It was a tower out of a fairy tale, with a winding stone staircase, and a trapdoor that led to the top. When I climbed it as a child, I did not yet suffer from vertigo. The tower had six sides with a window in each face. The glass had, of course, been added more recently. Each pane was a different color: red, green, blue, yellow, orange, and clear, sectioned into nine squares.
Choosing a color to see the framed world through was a gift of space and perspective. I can say I was happy in that tower. Looking at the vineyards and the distant mountains in blue was like the long, rainy afternoons when the straw mattresses we slept on smelled particularly sweet. I saw the vineyards vibrating in red, blazing in orange, protected in green, suffering a fever in yellow, and then clear, which was always both reassuring and disappointing.
I moved from window to window and looked down at the courtyard, at the members of my family coming and going, carrying trays of food and wine, smoking, sitting, pacing. That they all held secrets, some of them possibly terrible, I did not contemplate. I was interested in the colors and my own looking, in the heat on the clay shingles that roofed the cloister and how it mingled with the smell of vineyards. Could the color of the window glass one looked through affect one’s sense of smell?
The voice of my mother is the colored glass pane through which I have been taught to see family. This is not necessarily a good or even accurate thing, and could possibly have been a quite harmful thing, but it occurs to me that with me something is broken; it is perhaps the inevitable break between the immigrant and the native born. What am I passing on? The details almost do not matter to me. Just let it be love (whatever colors that comes in) and not hostility, rage.
When she was small, my daughter asked:
Mama, what is your eightieth name?
What was the name of your great-
She recently borrowed three books from the library: one on Stalin, one on Elizabeth Gray, and one by Tina Fey. Now, it seems, she has settled on Mary Tudor for her summer assignment.
You mean Disney was a person?
What if your eightieth name were “doorknob”?
Is your eightieth name “woof”?
You said your eightieth name is “leaf”?
My children used to enjoy looking in my jewelry box. It is a carved wooden box made in Poland, painted in greens, blues, and reddish tones, that a friend gave me as a wedding gift. She is Hungarian. The box came from a shop in Berkeley. Once, when I still kept them in that box, my daughter decided to untangle my necklaces. When my son was three or four he liked to put them all on at once. The box has become mysterious to me. More than jewelry now, it holds these moments from when the children were little.
The second jewelry box I have was given to me by my mother and contains her living will, two small cloth storybooks from Japan, and photos, including one of my brother who died in infancy. It is a silver, nickel-plated box that my mother’s mother got in Japan, where she spent a good portion of her childhood. My mother had this box on her dresser all during my childhood, and sometimes I am sure I looked inside. But I can no longer remember what I saw there. What I recall is its fixedness on her dresser. One of many objects that, without my knowing it, anchored my world.
The automaton that draws feels nothing when it draws. It draws the same pictures over again forever. The automaton will not get closer to anything, to any secret, when drawing, nor will it get further away. It will draw until it breaks, perhaps slowing down first, perhaps rusting.
What is it about secrets I fear? Betrayal. Self-betrayal. Loss. The way we cannot know and certainly cannot control those closest to us—even those who took shape inside us—
The way I cannot ultimately know myself.
And perhaps in this fear also lies good comfort.
I only know about the love affair between my grandfather and Hilde from my mother. My father, whose father was having the affair, never spoke of it.
My mother’s drawers were neat, everything folded.
The automata repeat the same gestures over and over. History and family repeat themselves in some cases.
W. G. Sebald in The Natural History of Destruction reports that after the war Germans walked around, through the rubble, expressionless, mostly mute, like automata, baffled by and dissociated from their new reality. The reality of their bombed-out, utterly shamed houses. And cities. And country.
What were the gears and tiny screws necessary to move them to sift through the rubble, to look each other in the eye?
When the keys are gone, if they are lost, the desk’s drawers will no longer open.
If you keep a secret from yourself long enough
you may lose the ability to speak it, to find it
in the dark room where you keep it.
My Lutheran parents settled in mostly Jewish neighborhoods on Long Island. First in that archetype of suburbia, Levittown, where renting to Jews (although Levitt was a Jew) and especially blacks was not allowed, and then, after a trial return to Germany, to another suburb.
When I was a child and old enough to need one, my father built me a desk. It had no secret drawer, or keyholes. It was painted white and was very sturdy. I kept pencils and pens, a diary, small miscellaneous things in the drawers, the twenty-seventh letter forgotten.
Would this have been the letter—the key letter—used to reveal secrets or to keep them?
I will never know the expression on my father’s face as he conceived the design, as he made the trip, surely alone, to the lumberyard and then into the basement, his space, to cut wood. Much less will I know why my grandfather chose ash, or how it felt in his hands.
A small pamphlet, commemorating the twelve-hundred-year-old village in which the vineyard is located, mentions a man named Heinz, who had been a boy during the war, and was the only Jew to survive and return after. He returned alone, married, and raised a family. He is a stranger, but I’d like to give him the desk:
I will never know what he writes
or whether he writes anything
I only know the desk is not mine.
Maybe he would write
about peppermint tea and his dead mother’s legs
or about the wind on his cheeks
the sea air and the sea gulls from a summer holiday
long before, or of the way the streets smell now.
Perhaps Hilde would push him aside
money and blood on her side
claim her desk.
She might sit down and say I want
to tell you about the child inside
they won’t let out
fruit picked and tossed aside
because this was love and not marriage.
Perhaps it is the so-called “facts” that are deceptive, secretive, like a day that is too bright. The blinding wind of what we “know.”
My mother’s house bombed by the Americans.
An older brother who never returned from the Russian front.
Her father, a minister blacklisted by the Nazis, dead at age forty, in 1940, from a brain tumor.
Her bird her companion in the basement during the bombings.
In a recent conversation with my mother, I learned that my grandfather had not built the desk, only designed it.
The scaffolding crumbles.
Hilde was the youngest of six sisters. Surely, they were hoping for a boy to manage the brewery and the money. Hilde never married. Hilde liked me very much. She told me things, my mother tells me. Four of the sisters married “respectably.” My mother’s word, used ironically, but used nonetheless. My grandmother married “down,” against her father’s wishes, into a family of gamblers and alcoholics. One of the sisters married a high-ranking Nazi. Hilde and my grandmother had their anti-Nazi views and my grandfather in common.
Who was the man that made the desk? He would have had no idea about the affair. Yet it is he who made the “secret drawer,” in 1932, year of my mother’s birth.
After Hilde died, the letters remained in the drawers for thirty years, until my grandmother died and her younger son found them, and either read them or burned them, or both.
The drawer (my mother mentioned only one) is a dark lake with my twenty-seventh letter floating somewhere in the middle. Around the lake, poppies—a meadow of poppies—flower of forgetfulness, and remembrance.
Here is a small desk
pressed against a window
I will sit down again
after the many deaths
after the fear of dying
each morning and late afternoon
I will sit down again
in this room of sunshine and wind, here it is
the small desk, mine now
pressed against the far window
where the great disc sets
and the wind turns pages
and pages of light.