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A sense of secret

Children seem to have an inborn sense of secretiveness that leads to all sorts of misunderstandings and misbegotten adventures. I’m not sure where it comes from, perhaps it is the “self” attempting to define itself, to draw the lines between itself and the rest of the world. There are simply things children keep to themselves and protect jealously from their parents, siblings and best friends. It’s that little knob of reality known as “me” as opposed to everything and everybody else that is “not me.”
Similar but less limiting, is that demarcation between childhood and the adult world that encircles but cannot be included in it. This is where the secret clubs exist, the hideouts and magic words, rituals unrecognized by adults. If the adults could see and understand all these, they would dismiss them as silly or inconsequential, but they are very important to children even though they may be transient and occasional.
The recent death of one of my childhood friends brought back memories of a summer spent mostly in that private, secret world. Jackie was in the same grade I was, but because of the nature of the alphabet and school policies, he ended up in a different classroom. I doubt very much if most school administrators and teachers realize the influence this has on children’s friendships and even their futures. Jackie and I were summer playmates but when school started we seldom crossed paths and soon became acquaintances rather than friends.
But, for that one summer when we were seven years old and ready to go into second grade, Jackie and I were nearly inseparable. He lived less than a block from our house with his parents and younger brother. His mother, as was true of most mothers at the time, was not employed outside the home and freely allowed us to play in the house. She could easily be persuaded to provide graham cracker and jelly snacks with Kool-aid on hot afternoons. My mother, on the other hand, never allowed playmates beyond the screened-in front porch where we could read comic books and play board games.
In our family of all girls there was an ongoing daydream of a wonderful playhouse Dad would build for us someday– that someday which stays in the future until we outgrow it. In Jackie’s family, probably because they were boys, a very real tree house rested on a sturdy branch of an old tree at the back of the yard, next to a small stream that gurgled downhill in spring and after summer storms, shrinking to stagnant puddles come July and August heat. The tree house consisted of a platform built of sturdy old planks that smelled of chickens with two walls and a roof made of burlap bags stapled onto wooden frames. The burlap roof and walls effectively blocked out the sun during the hottest part of the afternoon, but more importantly to us, they also shielded the occupants of the tree house from prying eyes directed that way from the rest of the neighborhood.
That privacy, I’m sure, was the reason the tree house was so appealing to us. It certainly wasn’t the comfort! The old planks, while worn smooth and splinter-free, were dusty and smelly, the burlap blocked not only the sun but the breeze, as well, and kept us from looking out as well as keeping others from looking in. Most of our pleasure in using the tree house was in our preparations. We sneaked about gathering up “supplies.” We smuggled in pop bottles surreptitiously filled from the garden hose, packets of crackers for sustenance; comic books, decks of Old Maid cards or chalk so we could play tic-tac-toe on the plank floor. At one point that summer, Jackie brought a large grape lollipop (the kind known then as an all-day sucker) which we shared over the course of the afternoon, passing it between us, counting licks in our attempt to share equally.
A day or two later, Mother told me Jackie wouldn’t be able to play with me for some time– he had come down with mumps. A couple weeks later, my throat hurt, my head felt heavy and I had trouble swallowing. The doctor came, took my temperature, gave Mother an envelope of little salmon-colored pills, and affixed a quarantine sign by our front door. Later, mother told me the doctor said he had never seen anyone with such a total case of mumps. Every single one of those salivary glands was swollen to capacity and my neck extended from my ear lobes to the tips of my shoulders. I was under quarantine for two weeks. The good news was, because he had already had mumps, Jackie was allowed to visit. We played Old Maid and tic-tac-toe, read comic books and never told anybody about the grape lollipop.