When I was a young boy, like all other curious children, I was attracted to my parents’ bedroom. Whether it was the larger than life bed made perfectly for bouncing on or the whispering darkness of the large closets housing my mother’s long sweeping dresses and my father’s perfectly ironed fancy shirts, I was always fascinated with all the mystery and magic that was held within the four walls of their master bedroom.
Coins hid beneath the neatly folded towels waiting to be stashed away in the hallway linen closet. My father’s large, shiny dress shoes lined the wall for me to hope from one to the other like I was in a military boot camp making my way through an obstacle course. Even though I was a boy through and through, I was very intrigued by my mother’s makeup vanity in which I would sit and powder my nose like a vaudeville actor about to take the stage. So many colors and tubes and wands of magical elixirs drew my attention on many trips into their room to wait while they dressed for a date.
But what attracted me most was different than most boys. Many would share stories in our middle school years of the raunchy girlie magazines they’d find tactfully hidden in a nightstand or under the bed on their father’s side. They’d boast about pages of women wearing next to nothing with large breasts and suggestively placed hands down panties of lace and silk. We all listened with our full attention to their harrowing stories of sneaking in to get a better look at the cover of video boxes and other adult items stashed away. And the best part was always when someone got too close and was almost caught in the act by their mother or father. It was in their narrow escape that we all held our breath, waiting to know if they would be caught and punished or if they would live to see another day of freedom.
When it came time for me to share stories of my adventures into my parents’ room, I shrugged and said I had nothing exciting to share. But that wasn’t true.
I never found scantly clad ladies or men taking advantage of large breasted women laying carelessly with their bodies exposed as if they were a Siren sending out an enticing call. Instead my discovery was a stack of comic books lying on the top shelf of a shoe condo tucked off to the side of my mother’s closet.
When I first discovered them as a young elementary school child, it scared me and drew me in simultaneously. The gory pictures of horrific demons and brightly illustrated superheroes both stunned me in their beauty and repelled me in disgust. The pages and pages of images drew me in and I found it hard to look away. I became afraid of the upstairs rooms at night and put my parents’ through many painful nightly battles at bedtime. I’d ask that they read another story or leave lights on throughout the hallway so that I could see the demons and aliens from my mother’s comic books as they came to life from the bowels of her closet.
My father’s poor haggard face still swims through my memory as I relive the nights that I cried for comfort and complained of monsters beneath my bed, all very real to me. My parents never stopped tucking me in and reassuring me that things were fine. My mother always kissed my forehead and held me close, reminding me that everything was ok and that they were always just around the corner, never far away. And yet I never stopped myself from leaving my warm, comfortable bed with my flashlight in hand to seek out the terrifying stories I knew were the origin of my nighttime fears. Those books, piles of them, called to me even though I never wanted to see what was inside again.
I tortured myself for single summer, flipping through the pages of stories laced with gore and violence and death. I’d sneak into her closet and claim a book to read. As I crouched down beside their large bed I’d listen to the sounds beneath me in the living room, checking to make sure they hadn’t caught on to my missing form from my room. I’d light the pages before me with a flashlight I kept under my mattress and I’d soak in every detail, making sure I missed nothing. It was like watching a train wreck. You didn’t want to see the carnage but you also didn’t want to miss a detail.
For months my parents would put me to bed and fight with me about the lights being left on or allowing me to sleep with one more stuffed toy. It got to a point where they started interrogating me and my sitter and grandparents, asking what I was watching or reading. Then, I cracked one night after a long drawn out battle of tears and frustration. I blurted out that I had found my mother’s Hellboy comic books and I was afraid of the bad guys comings up from hell to steal away my soul.
I remember the silence that followed my shameful confession. My heart steadily beat faster beneath my dinosaur pajama shirt as I waited for them to respond. Yet, as I sat there hiccupping with emotional exhaustion from arguing, I tried to read their expressions, to figure them out and know what to expect next. Were they upset? Disappointed? Ready to loan me out to a labor camp to break rocks? Were they about to start yelling at me? Would I be spanked and put to bed with a promise of no TV or freedom for a week? Maybe even two weeks?
Then they started to laugh. It wasn’t what I was expecting and I suddenly felt very afraid. My parents had snapped. My mother doubled over, clutching her stomach while my father placed a large hand on her back and wiped at his steady tears with the other hand. I didn’t understand and I wasn’t sure if I should laugh too or if I should just keep on crying.
After that night and my confessing to secretly reading violent things far above my maturity level long after I was supposed to be sleeping, the stack of comic books was suddenly nowhere to be found. I spent a few nights venturing from my bed, armed with my flashlight, in search of them, the craving to be terrified still aching within me. But I never found them again. And soon I was sleeping through the night without an issue and without any extra lights to comfort me.
It wasn’t until I started high school that I mentioned the comic books to my mother. One day, as we sat in the kitchen together, I asked her what had happened to all those issues of Hellboy after I confessed to reading them in secret. She smiled at me and shook her head, the memories of those long forgotten nights surfacing one by one. She told me they had been stored away for me one day. That they were always meant to be mine when the time was right.
I stared in awe. This wasn’t the answer I had been prepared for and I still didn’t quite understand. With her long fingers that played the piano almost as beautifully as she played the guitar, my mother brushed the hair from my eyes and kissed my forehead, promising me she’d tell me all about it after school.
That night, after football practice and dinner, I went off to my room to finish my homework in the steady quiet of my sanctuary. There, on the edge of my bed, was a box. It was taped shut and marked in black ink. “For Jacob” it said. Slowly I lowered onto the mattress next to the box, staring at it intently. I knew what it was. I knew what was inside.
Carefully, I lifted a loose corner of tape and began to pull, gently. As the last corner of tape came free, I reached over and opened the nearest flap. And there, in the slant of light filtering down through the flaps of cardboard sat the books I remembered and a few I didn’t. One by one I pulled them out and stacked them beside me on the bed.
Memories of the long forgotten nights in the dark flipping through pages of these comic books flooded back with an intense rush of emotions. The fear the demons created in me was palatable yet the love and trust in the heroes and heroines wrapped me in comfort. As I lifted the last edition and placed it on my lap, I realized my mother was leaning against the doorjamb. The mother that dressed up every Halloween and could cook a gourmet meal with anything she found in the kitchen.
There she stood, the same loving mother I’d known all those years and yet she looked different to me in that moment. I looked at her and suddenly I wondered what she was like at my age. I wanted to know her beyond her role in my life as my mom. I wanted to hear her stories and know why these books and characters meant so much to her. I suddenly wanted to know everything about her.
She smiled and chuckled to herself.
“The night you told us that you had been reading these books in our room,” she began, “we couldn’t believe it. All that trouble to get you to bed and it was because you were doing it to yourself. It was even more hysterical to us because I had been telling your father that one day I wanted these to be yours.”
Stepping into my room, she made her way to the bed. She walked around my duffle bag ready for practice tomorrow and a pile of clean clothes needing to be put away. When she made it to my side she sat down and leaned against me, playfully ribbing me with her elbow.
“We didn’t mean for you to find them then. We thought we were being clever keeping them in my closet knowing how afraid of the dark you were. But you foiled us and found them. I was worried you’d be ruined forever and wouldn’t want them when you got older.”
She watched me intently as I fingered the pages in my hand. I flipped steadily through from beginning to end, watching the flicker of reds and blacks and yellows and deep greys file past my eyes.
“So?” she asked. “Do you want them?”
I looked away from the glorious stack of action packed pages and nodded. Yes I wanted them. They were my inheritance! A part of my mom that would always remind me of those nights that she comforted me and tried to calm my fears. They would always be the key into the mystery of who she was beyond her motherly duties and a window into her interests I would never fully understand but would try to replicate in myself.
These stories and characters were us, our bond.
“Good,” she responded, smiling from the corners of her mouth to the lines at the edges of her eyes. “Enjoy!”
Standing she walked to the door when I called out to her, stopping her from turning out of my room. She turned to faced me with that calm waiting look that I knew so well. I stood and crossed the room to her, taking her into my arms and hugging her with a thanks. Her voice stumbled and she squeezed me tightly. Stepping back, I saw a mist circle her eyes as she drew a breath and held me out at an arms length.
“You are very welcomed, hun,” she forced out. “And don’t forget to use this.”
She pulled from her pocket a small keychain flashlight and placed it in my hand. Then, she cupped my face and looked straight at me. There, in the deep brown centers of her clear, bright eyes I saw myself. It was then I knew that she understood the pull of these imaginary worlds and characters. We were one and the same, two peas in a pod.
That night she gave me a part of her. That piece of her that kept her young and fresh, full of creativity and fancy. She gave me her inner whimsical child and made it ok for me to cherish my own larger than life imagination.
She gave me my inheritance.