The obvious thing is to have a good hiding place, of course, but the less obvious thing is to keep it a secret for all time, and that is how I became the best at playing hide and seek.
We would count to 20. It used to be to 10 but my little sister had a habit of speeding up from 5 and so we had to change it. She would lie face down on the worn sofa, her face smothered into a throw pillow and we would hear the muffled sound of “one … two … three” and then go running. “Stop running through this house!” My grandmother would holler, drying dishpan hands on a damp apron, and we’d slow to a speedy walk. My cousin would go one way and I’d go another and if our paths crossed, I’d slip on past the closet, and pretend to hide somewhere else. Only daring to come back to it once he’d tucked into his own space.
I’d only open the left door because the right one squeaked at the hinge and was I awful careful not to fling it wide because it made a cracking sound when you did that. I’d wiggle my way behind his dress shirts. At 6 feet 6 inches tall, my grandpa seemed like the biggest man alive, and his shirts hung long in that closet. But that wasn’t the best part. His cowboy boots were carefully lined up beneath those shirts, and so I’d slip one then two spindly legs into those open columns of ostrich skin and at that moment, I was not in the closet. I was part of it.
At the count of 20, she’d call “ready or not, here I come!” and I’d hear her slow her run to a quick walk past my grandma, and sometimes I’d hear those footsteps go right on past. I was boringly safe during those rounds. I preferred the moments that door would open. She’d look around and I would wait behind that wall of long sleeves, so still I’d nearly break. Hearing her breath reverberate all around me, I’d clench my jaws tight, using all my might to keep from giggling myself found. Then I’d hear that door close and her little feet would be off again while I’d sit in those boots warmed over with pride and downright satisfied with myself.
Once she’d found my cousin, they’d call the game, and I’d wait until everyone was safely back at the sofa before I’d sneak from my spot … leaving it unspoiled and ready to be used again next time.
I never told them. In fact, the only one who ever knew was my grandfather, who once needed to swap his dirty mechanic’s shirt for one of those crispy dressy ones. He gave them a swift swipe and found me, statuesque in his giant shoes, my eyes the size of fried eggs, my breath held tight in my chest and cheeks and one tiny finger smashed hard against my lips, silently begging him not to give me away. His surprise to find me there was only outshone by how impressed he was with my cleverness and of all the good feelings conjured up by the memory of that game, that’s the one that sticks best. That shiny feeling that a grown up genuinely finds you clever.
So many year later, when I graduated from university, my grandfather bought me a briefcase. Inside it was a note he’d scratched onto a torn piece of paper, marked by the grease from his fingers. “Successful people carry these” it said. “I always knew you’d need one.”
They’re a little outdated these days. And as a stay at home mom, I don’t have much need for it in the traditional sense. But I still have it.
I keep it safely in the back of my closet. And each time I come across it, it reminds me I’m clever. But most importantly, it reminds me he thought so too.