In the beginning, no one had a closet. Maybe a cupboard, cabinet, or an armoire…but no closet. About 450 years ago someone invented the closet. That person was probably a housekeeper, or tidy person or someone like your grandmother. The earliest closets were very small rooms in very large palaces, castles and mansions. There are words in Latin and old French for closets which essentially mean ‘a chamber that can be locked’. Whether called a chamber, cella, conclave, armoire these were very, very private places to store valuables or a large closed space to sit and pray. Since closets were described as ‘private places’ is why the word closet also has the connotation of secrecy.
It was after the Middle Ages people created secret chambers or hidden closets that could not be easily detected. These secret chambers were not to hide valuable treasures, but mainly to hide people from wretched enemies.
Most likely there’s a closet in your life you avoid. Maybe it’s dark and smells funny. Or it’s too big and looks lonely because that’s where people toss things they don’t want. Or it’s the one that needs organizing that will never occur.
Closets can be very scary places with creaky doors, sinister cave corners and contain strange things. Sometimes they’re dim and you can’t see all the way inside. You may wonder if you reach back into a corner something will nip your fingers or squeal in fright at the sight of your hand.
Sometimes people throw things into a closet when they are in a hurry. Some people do it all the time so piles of shoes build up into complex fortifications mixed with soiled laundry, shoe boxes, and bent hangers which create serious obstructions to Laws & Order of Closet Kingdom. The fortifications of so many random things are hiding places, lumpy mounds that move or whisper.
In the attic there are different kinds of closets often built under the eaves, so they are either very hot or very cold depending on the season and time of day. In very old houses there may be special closets in the attic, these are built mid-room, lined with cedar to keep out moths, dainty silverfish and some think, Time. These closets are sturdy, dry, cool and dim. A single light bulb with a long pull chain sheds watery sepia light on the contents.
There are often Treasure Closets in attics. Various valuables and junk reside in these closets…., sometimes for decades. A jaunty military uniform, wedding dress, India silk shawl, hats, high button shoes, long kid gloves, fine leather cowboy boots, feather boa, old fur shawls with beady eyed animals head-clips, black tuxedo turned dark gray green with age, maybe a fez, a Chinese robe, Japanese sword, woolen Tam, studded belt, ballet slippers, molding scrapbooks filled with dim sepia photos…
All the kinds of things that are precious forgotten memories, finery bought on faraway vacations reside here, consigned to oblivion. Christmas wraps, stacks of books, boxes of old letters and papers, cigar boxes full of medals and strange coins. These are the best of closets and if you are very quiet and sit still as a mouse, you can hear these closets sharing stories, sighing with delight as they recount parties, wars, romances, and travels around the globe.
It’s happened on occasion, when parents leave the house having deposited some frilly girl or frump to stay behind with the children, the very littlest child will rush away and sit in their closet. The sobs of grief heard coming from the closet-child are not because the parents departed but because they described the strange person left behind as “The Babysitter”! Everyone knows the littlest child is certainly not a baby. Having suffered this humiliating insult, solace can only be found playing with toys and grieving in the dim private quiet closet AWAY from the frump or frilly girl, who at the moment is frantic with fear because she can’t find the child.
In the basement there are old cabinets filled with dark dusty things, their sagging doors never close properly. They crouch in the darkest corners and are rarely visited by anyone other than a scurrying mouse followed by the predatory cat or a sleepy salamander. In very old houses these closets smell of coal, although the coal burning heater has long since departed replaced by a fired electronic system that twitches and heaves under it’s heavy load. Slitted narrow windows set at ceiling height stream pale light through their dirty glass into the spaces where these old cabinets and closets creak and moan. Sometimes these windows seem to squint malovently into the dank basement chamber.
Basement closets are “The Forgotten” little used and ignored, filled with orphaned things that fill the far reaches of shelves gathering dust and grime. The Forgotten closets are lonely, but safe, until some bright bulb is turned on and a precocious new home owner decides the turn the basement into a movie theater, or pool room or extra bedroom with a cute sitting area for the Nanny.
In the garage closets are locked — Off Limits! to children. Inside these industrial grade chambers are hard cold metal tools, sharp things, mysterious brown bottles full of smelly stuff of the garden, vials of mysterious gooey substances, old paint cans, dried out paint brushes, spools of wire, garden pots, fogged vases and many things destined for the goodwill store or garbage. Closets in the garage clatter and are noisy compared to their more sophisticated cousin closets filled with linens, soft clothes and frilly dresses.
“Quick, hide in the closet” is a caution that has been spoken many times. The word “Quick” is the clue that secrets, danger and discovery are nearby. You hid in a closet once….you were still as a cat waiting for a lizard….not moving and barely breaking…hiding deep within your closet.
Closets are museums to the order and disorder of our lives, memories, hopes and dreams. Closets are not simply storage places, they are the soul of our lives….they carry our scent, hide our secrets. This is not the tale of secret closets, but of Closet Secrets.