When we were younger, my sisters and I absolutely loved the holiday parties that my parents gave, but not for the reasons you might imagine. We were not invited to the parties. The concept of trotting your children out to be admired at an adults’ party was still a long way off.
It was the fifties and my parents, being British, believed that children should be neither seen nor heard. Nonetheless, the impending holiday party brought great anticipation to my two sisters and me.
Many of these parties took place in a rambling, heritage house not far from the university where my father was head of the English department. The house was in the middle of a golf course; since conservation laws would not allow a heritage house to be demolished, the golf course had been built around it. The guests at these parties were mostly academics, they tended to drink too much and fall down when they attempted highland dancing, which my father, coming from a long line of Scottish highlanders, tried to teach them all. I can remember the vast living room shaking as they all got drunker and livelier as the night wore on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The day of one of these parties was a busy time. The house smelled of spruce, due to the massive Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. We would always go as a family to cut the tree, hauling a toboggan with a saw on it. The saw was never sharp enough and I still remember my father swearing as he tried to cut through the trunk of the tree. My mother did most of the cooking for the party and was helped by our cleaning lady, Mrs. McCarty, who had 11 children, the posture of a queen and did all her work in high-heeled shoes. We children tried to be as helpful as possible but for most of that day leading up to a party, we were on our own. That suited us fine because we were making our own plans for the night of the party.
After a quick dinner on the eve of the party—we were allowed to have a nibble of some of the food that my mother had prepared for the guests—we were expected to go upstairs and get ready for bed, which we did without question. Then as my parents put last-minute touches on the preparations, we waited. My bedroom overlooked the long driveway to our house so we could see the headlights of the approaching cars. I still remember the sense of excitement seeing those headlights. When the cars pulled up outside, we sprang into action.
My parents’ huge bedroom—the mirror image of the living room below it—was down the hall from our bedrooms. It was there that the women guests were invited to put their coats on the four-poster bed and freshen up. In the far and darkened corner of the bedroom was a walk-in closet, a small room with two metal bars on either side where my parents hung their clothes. The roof sloped down to the floor on one side behind the metal bar. The triangular space behind the hanging clothes was the perfect spot to hide ourselves. There was only 18 months between my older sister and me; our worry was our little sister, who was five years younger than me and didn’t fully understand what we were doing. However, she did know that hiding was fun and that we were all to keep quiet.
I remember how my heart beat with excitement as those women came into the bedroom. They would lay their coats on the four-poster bed, apply lipstick at my mother’s dressing table, survey themselves in the full length mirror and all the time, the three of us watched through the crack in the door from the corner of the bedroom. As soon as the women left the room, the three of us were out of the closet and trying on their coats. Fur was all the rage in those days; I can remember my older sister and I parading around the room in mink coats trailing on the floor, beaver jackets with the arms too long, and fox stoles wrapped twice around while my younger sister, too small to try the wraps on, watched us and giggled.
As the evening wore on, the music got louder, the guests got drunker and we got a little more careless. As a result, we missed approaching footsteps on the stairs. My older sister—always more careful and aware of danger than I was—suddenly hissed, “Someone’s coming.” We had only seconds to throw the coats we were wearing back on the bed, grab our little sister and run to the closet. My heart was beating like a trapped rabbit’s. I watched one of the guests pick up her coat from the bed, retrieve a handkerchief from her pocket and then—as we watched—pause and look around the room. Her eyes focused on the closet with the door ajar. We stood stone still. She couldn’t possibly see us. Yet she was staring at the closet door. Then I knew why. Body heat! Her coat was still warm!
If she blew the whistle on us, we would be punished by our strict British parents. It would be the wooden spoon or the ping pong paddle for our butts but worse, we would never be able to hide in the closet in our parents’ bedroom on party night again. They would be on to us.
We were done! The woman opened the closet door and peered into the dim light. We were about to troop out to face the music—she would most certainly call my mother upstairs to make sure we were put to bed—but that’s not what happened. Instead, the woman got into the closet with us and crouched down on the floor. She looked at us and put her finger to her lips.
“Marjorie? Are you in here?” It was one of the other guests calling from the doorway of the bedroom!
Marjorie didn’t say a word. She was one of us! We hunkered down with her, barely daring to breathe until the other woman had wandered off. When the coast was clear, Marjorie crawled out of the closet and stood up.
“Goodnight, kiddies”, she whispered. “And Mum’s the word!”
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True to her word, Marjorie never did squeal. After a few years, we lost interest in hiding in the closet at our parents’ holiday parties and adopted a righteous indignation about people who wore fur. My parents divorced; we grew up and moved on with our lives. But every holiday season, I still remember the three of us hiding in that closet.
Read more holiday stories here.
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