THE MYSTERY ROOM
Was this the box that contained
The Mummy's Finger?
All his secrets, all his tricks
were hidden in that room
By KENT HOLSATHER
As Halloween approaches I sometimes wonder if I will ever be as entranced with the awe of magic that I once felt as a child when my grandfather entertained my brother and me with captivating illusions and strange artifacts of questionable origins so many years ago.
The room wasnt very big but it certainly was a big mystery to me. It was added onto our grandparents house during the 1930s and was supposed to be a sewing room for my grandmother but by the 1950s Grandpa had taken it over and claimed it for his fortress of solitude. The rooms door was always locked when he was not using it and although he never said it, no one ever felt they had the right to invade his domain.
Our grandfather was a hard-working dairy plant manager by day but in the evening he would morph into a magician of moderately serviceable talents. With the end of supper he would sneak off to his room and return with a box of props for his show. The lights would go up as we applauded with anticipation. Grandpa would stand in front of us and perform all kinds of mystifying tricks.
Cards would suddenly appear from nowhere and disappear just as fast. He was excellent with the manipulation of coins. They would float across his fingers with a smoothness that could only have been achieved through hours of practice. He could make a glass of milk disappear while pouring it into a large manila envelope and he made string dance in his hand like it was alive.
All the tricks were great but the best was saved for last. He went back into his room and emerged with a box that contained a real mummy finger from 1000 B.C. He kept it in a large match box and when he slid the lid open we leaned in tightly to get a good view. Nestled in a bed of cotton and powdery white, the finger looked absolutely lifelike. We worked up the nerve to cautiously touch the digit and we quickly recoiled from its clammy feel. After a couple of minutes, he took the box back to his room. The performance was over for that night but there would be many more shows and many more encounters with the mummy finger.
My brother joined the Navy for a 30 year stint when I was in the fifth grade and by the time I reached 20, visiting Grandpa and Grandma proved to run a distant second to college, parties and girls. It was a rare occasion when I visited them but when I did, Grandpa still insisted that I see a new trick. I would oblige and sit respectfully as he attempted tricks that his old arthritic fingers would refuse to cooperate with. Coins would fall to the floor instead of tumble from finger to finger like they once did. I would ask to see the mummy finger but he said it was on loan to the Smithsonian; I had my doubts.
A few months after my 27th birthday, Gramps passed away and shortly after the funeral my Grandmother decided that the old house was too big to live in. The task of cleaning out all the rooms was almost overwhelming. We loaded up truck-loads of stuff over the following weeks and spent a considerable amount of time separating those things that would be kept and those things that would be tossed.
Room after room was cleaned out until all that remained was the old sewing room. It was locked as usual but Grandma knew where Gramps had kept the key. She came back from the kitchen where she had retrieved it from the back of one of the cupboards and handed it to me. I unlocked the door and pushed it open. The room was about 12 feet long and 7 feet wide but there was barely enough space to walk from the door to the back wall. The very essence of the mans life crowded out from every corner.
Grandpa grew up poor on the Iowa prairie and the death of his father forced him to be the sole bread winner of his family when he was 10 years old. He quit school after the third grade and worked to support his pregnant deaf-mute mother and his three younger siblings. He never was able to go back to school but his curiosity for the world and all that was in it drove his insatiable appetite for knowledge and he gleaned this knowledge from books, all kinds of books.
As I walked through his room they loomed from every corner and in some spots, nearly reached the ceiling. Books on Christianity, Hinduism, Muslim, Buddhism, Judaism and others lay stacked with hundreds of scientific journals and books of advanced mathematics and medicine. A cabinet on the far wall contained microscopes, telescopes and other optical devices that defied identification and a series of early radios and oscilloscopes perched on a shelf near the window.
As I continued my inspection of the room I came across a box that contained all of his magic tricks and several well worn magic books. I dug through the silk hankies and trick cards until I found the box that contained the mummy finger. I held it in my hands and turned it over.
There on the bottom was a hole that you could stick your finger in. The finger that laid in the box all powdery white was in fact, Grandpas. Come to think of it, we always knew it; the fun part was in the belief of the magic and the mystery. The only question that confounds me to this day is where he put all those coins he found behind my ear.
©2008 by Kent Holsather. The illustration is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted Oct. 27, 2008.
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