As a preschooler, he built elaborate forts out of cardboard construction blocks. And one of the best memories he shares with his two brothers is the time when they constructed a camouflaged fort together on the forested slope of a nearby city park. One brother was posted as lookout while the other two built the floor and walls with fallen limbs and leaves. When their construction was complete, they'd hide in their fort and watch visitors to the park go by without themselves being seen.
Lately, I've been overwhelmed with that feeling of wanting to burrow, to quietly hide away in a spot of my own, compact and comfy, hidden. There's an undeniable charm in finding a place that's just the right size in a wide and unwieldy universe.
My sisters and I spent countless hours beneath a living room table when we were very young. It was a heavy library table with an oval slab of wood as its platform and two thick pillars connecting the bottom to the rectangular top. We divided it into three rooms one outside each of the two pillars and one deep in the middle. We dragged our plastic dishes inside, laid out doll blankets and set up house.
Many years later, when my first child was about 4 years old, she played beneath the same table at her grandmother's house. My mother had moved to a new state, a new house, and the table was still a kid magnet. My daughter and her friend Nicky staged puppet plays from beneath it, hanging sheets over the front edge.
Same daughter, another time: Our family is living in Hawaii, at the top of a mountain on government property. The neighborhood is crawling with children. There is a playground on a dusty field at the top of the hill. Beyond the playground, a thick forest where lizards dangle from branches and exotic birds shriek.
One day my daughter takes me by the hand to show me the place she has found. On the very front edge of the forest, but hidden from street view, she and her friend Adam have carved out a private space. They've covered the dirt floor with flat leathery leaves and she has scattered plumeria blossoms in a circle, defining the edge of the outdoor room. There is a place for me to sit -- I can't remember, was it a rock? a log? -- and from where I sit, too big, too tall, I can see droplets of water shimmering, the sun refracting through the jumble of leaves above my head.
I remember an upstairs closet in an attic hallway. I am in junior high now, and my little sister, still in elementary school, mostly just bugs me. But sometimes, when I come home from following my friends around, I climb the stairs to where I know I will find her. She has claimed the closet and filled it with a city of paper dolls. The slanting ceiling forces me to stoop as I enter the little half door. A single lightbulb dangles from a cord overhead.
My sister has taken cardboard boxes and turned them on their sides to make paper doll apartment buildings. We invent elaborate scenarios of romance and intrigue between the slim, fashionable women and the jaunty men. The dolls can't do much else, so they change clothes about a hundred times a day. My sister and I speak for them in strange, artificially high-pitched and low-pitched voices.
In the house we lived in until just six months ago, my son had a nice bedroom but chose to sleep in a narrow hallway tucked into the eaves of the third floor of our tall house. A narrow cot fit against one wall, and shelves an arm's length away held everything he needed. He curtained his area off, and every morning I bent over and crawled into his cozy cocoon to wake him up for school.
In our new house, he doesn't like his traditional bedroom with its standard double bed, windows and a closet. He wants to turn the small garage out back into his den when the weather turns warm. It's dark and cozy and smells like concrete and motor oil. I tell him fine, knowing his primal need to burrow. He will turn it into a space uniquely his, hidden from plain sight, just the right size in a wide and unwieldy universe.