A childhood longing for secret places

The only lament I have ever had about my old house here in Maine is that it lacks for secret places. I didn't feel this loss at first, when I lived alone. But when I adopted a 7-year-old boy back in 1993, his activities pointed out for me the importance of having places in a home where one can quietly retreat or create a world small enough to feel big in.

I recall one day when Alyosha had one of his little friends over. They were playing hide-and-seek, and I watched as my son sought, in vain, to find a place to hide. He finally ensconced himself under the kitchen table and was immediately discovered. The less-than-challenging game soon ended.

When I was a boy growing up in Jersey City, N.J., in the 1960s, my family lived in a '20s- vintage brick home on a densely settled residential street. Like all homes built in the days before the cavernous "open concept," it had myriad places for a kid to discover and explore.

I remember the spacious closets with jungles of my parents' clothing; the space under the staircase, which smelled of old blankets; the attic; the winding backdoor stairs in their own closed-off vestibule; and the little world under the front porch.

But the best place of all was the basement. Always cool, always poorly lit, it had narrow passageways and walled-off chambers, like a primal miniature Hogwarts Academy. One of these compartments became my secret science laboratory, in which I once built a rocket that never got off the ground. But this failure was irrelevant - it was the building effort itself, in my own hideaway, that was the real pleasure.

Of course, my getting lost in my own home did not always sit well with my parents. One summer, when I was 8 or so, I secreted myself in the crawl space under the front porch, pretending I was a geologist looking for rare minerals. I don't know how long I knelt there in the dirt, but it must have been at least a couple of hours because by the time my father discovered me, he was steaming.

"Where have you been?" he demanded. "We've been looking all over for you!"

I had no reply. Instead, I held up a perfectly ordinary rock and asked him, "Do you think this is a meteorite?"

I have often found myself envious of friends who tell stories about buying old homes, knocking out a wall, and discovering a room that had been sealed off years, perhaps even generations, ago.

But my home, because of its relatively small size and simple layout, seemed too transparent to afford such a discovery. By the time I had adopted a second son, a 5-year-old boy named Anton, it was clear that his games of hide-and-seek would be just as hard to carry out as his older brother's had been.

Then something interesting happened. I was looking into having major work done on my ceaselessly needy abode. As the contractor and I made our hunched and hobbled ways through the mud-floor crawlspace under the house, he emitted a series of "hmms."

I asked him if he was "hmming" about good news or bad.

The contractor took me on a tour of the netherworld of my home.

"Look here," he said as he pointed out floor joists and sills. "Your house was built in stages, at least three. It probably started out as a one-room camp that they added to over the years."

Now enlightened, I could clearly see the different hands that had put together the various segments of the house. What's more, it seemed that the middle and one of the end sections overlapped, like the tubes of a partly-closed telescope.

I didn't think much about this odd setup for a while until I hired a carpenter one day to do some work on the ceiling of our mud room. When he removed part of an upper wall, he revealed - wonder of wonders - a hidden space: a long-sealed-off loft, the overlap between two rooms. I scurried up the ladder and examined the terra incognita with my own eyes.

"We can seal off that opening with new wood," the carpenter said. "Take me a couple of hours, that's all."

I turned and looked down at him from the top of the ladder. "You'll do no such thing," I said. "I want it left just like this."

And so it was.

Anton now has his secret place, and he revels in it. But there's something more. Recently, his 19-year-old brother Alyosha came home for a visit. Seeing the loft, he immediately ascended into its snug harbor and sat there, quietly content, as if making up for lost time.

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