Magical binoculars

The first picture I ever saw of a naked woman wasnít in National Geographic Magazine; it was on a calendar tacked to the wall of a machine shop I visited with my father when he was having a die cast for his burglar alarm. We went to a wide variety of such shops when I was growing up, because each of my fatherís inventions (most of which were both useful and decades ahead of their time) needed prototypes.

But the burglar alarm was the one that he loved the best.

When I was growing up in Glencoe, I discovered a closet at the foot of the basement stairs in the house on Jackson Avenue. I only went into it once. Not because Iíd been forbidden to go inside, but because, so obviously, it didnít belong to that era of Samuel Reubenís life that was encumbered with five children, unprofitable apartment buildings on Chicagoís South Side, lawns to mow, and bills to pay.

The closet belonged to his youth. Exploring it, I came as close as I ever would to owning a pair of magical binoculars through which I could peer into my fatherís past.

My bewitchment started with the mirrors.

On the bottom shelf of the closet, less than an inch from the floor, were stacks of sturdy cardboard boxes filled with very, very thick mirrors. Some were rectangular, some were square, and all were of sizes either small enough to fit into a purse or large enough to hang over a bathroom sink. By thick, I mean heavy. Dense. My father had invented these mirrors decades before I was born, and despite their ample angularity, they were jewel-like and exotic, unlike any other mirrors I had ever seen. On a few, the silver backing had frayed along the edges, and on others, black spots of erosion marred where my image was supposed to have stared back at me, unblemished and serene.

Their colors were a prism of delight. A few were a shade of blue so secretively deep, they were almost black. Others were more suggestive of some color than of none, but were not quite any specific color at all. There were mirrors so beautiful an emerald green that they seemed to be plot elements in a fantastic story that nobody had told me yet; and there were mirrors so intensely pink that I couldnít help but wonder if seeing the world through rose-colored glasses was a characteristic passed along in the genes.

The rest of the mirrors in the closet, as intriguing to me as pirate loot, were individually wrapped in soft brown paper, and I probably would have unwrapped all of them if I hadnít discovered, on the shelf above, small, wooden boxes containing brass printersí plates.

Deciphering the reverse lettering, I realized that they advertised jello.

Not just any jello.

Kosher jello, a recipe for which was devised by my father, Samuel Reuben, the inventor.

Jello, at that time, was made only with pig products, and most Jewish families, being kosher, could not eat it. Had my father ever gotten around to marketing it, the demand for his gelatin would have been astronomical, since he had figured out how to produce it long before anyone else.

But, of course, he didnít. He got bored with it, forgot it, and turned his attention to something else. I never forgot it, though. And I can still remember how convincingly the virtues of kosher jello were extolled in backward lettering on those beautiful, beautiful brass plates.

Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit

Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben.

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