The Family Nest
Even in the musty Catskills cottage my parents rented during the summer I was coming of age, their bed was the place we went to heal. Even as tiny satin ballet slippers hung from the mahogany headboard and a pink chenille spread covered it, like a sticky sweet frosting, this lumpy mattress was where we found succor.
My mother, an interior decorator, smoothed the spread’s fluffy bobbles, even though it wasn’t to her taste. The afternoon sun came through the window, forming a salmon-colored trapezoid where the cat would sprawl to clean herself, then claw at the bobbles before having a nap.
One day the cat, Heidi, disappeared. We thought she’d been run over by a truck, or had fled life in captivity. Heidi returned a week later, looking cocky and unapologetic. It was just in time because summer was over and we had to return to the city.
My mother’s Brooklyn bedroom was furnished with the French Provincial antiques and Brunschwig & Fils fabrics she chose for her clients. The 1960s-era TV fit in a cabinet that also contained my father’s entire wardrobe and was tucked in the corner during the day. My father watched the evening news and talk shows from a chair with wooden legs like the limbs of a lion while my mother read in bed, framed by an armoire.
On days when we weren’t feeling well, we’d pile in under the tufted blanket with her in the morning, making the case that we were too sick to go to school.
One early autumn morning, the cat crawled into bed between my mother’s legs and gave birth to a kitten, Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane didn’t look anything like her tortoiseshell mother. The kitten was gray and fluffy, with a bushy tail. During her Catskills escapade, we surmised, Heidi must have had a tryst with a squirrel.
My brother liked to take the little kitten and throw her at the grass cloth. “Sticks like magic,” he’d say as she clung to the stringy wall.
There was a white flokati rug at the foot of the bed where Murphy, the black cockerpoo, farted in his sleep.
When I was 15 and suffering from menstrual cramps that no amount of Tylenol could relieve, I’d crawl into bed with my mother where it was like a return to the womb. Together we dreamed under the downy duvet.
A few years later, when my parents traveled, my friends and I hosted parties in my parents’ bed. We washed our hair with Herbal Essence Shampoo and lay our wet heads on the pillows. We’d clean up afterward and my mother never let on if she knew.
When my first son was a year old my parents took him overnight. In the unfamiliar environment he could not fall asleep. My mother put the flokati rug between her bed and the wall, and a gate at one end to enclose it. She set her wide-eyed grandson in the pen with Murphy where they played until both fell into the arms of Morpheus.
Soon my second son came along and when both boys would stay overnight, the first thing they’d do upon waking was crawl into bed with their grandparents. The comfort of my parents’ bed welcomed another generation—all aboard!
In time, my parents retired to their country house, much more stylish than that primitive cottage they’d rented in the Catskills. During the day their brass bed was covered with colorful quilts, throw pillows and a stuffed leather pig. It was only a double bed, and so a decade later, when they moved to Florida, they upped the ante to a king-sized four-post model. These were the twilight years, and this bed was covered, during the day, with an antique lace coverlet and embroidered shams. It was so prim and lacy I was amazed that they’d actually sleep in it, and it was an ordeal making that bed every morning. But my mother loved her bedding, so formal, as if it represented a grand achievement.
It was their final bed together. When my father became bedridden, the hospice staff brought in a hospital bed. A nurse came to spend the night and take care of him, so my mother moved to the Murphy bed in the guest room. It was where I would sleep when visiting and it was very uncomfortable—narrow and with lumps. She didn’t complain; we had no idea how long my father would last.
Now it was the night nurse, sprawled on my parents’ king-sized bed. It was her job to stay awake, but with nowhere to sit, her long dark legs curled into the fetal position as she pillowed her head in her arms. I had seen her picture on Facebook, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned “In the Mood for Love.” I didn’t let on to my parents that I now knew what the night nurse was thinking about as she lay in their bed.
During the day, we sat on the edge of the bed, singing to my father and reminiscing about the best moments in our lives. When visitors came, they, too, sat at a corner alongside the bedpost. Priorities shifted. My mother no longer bothered with the lace bedding—we were now using basic sheets and comforters that the nurses could change and launder throughout the day.
When the hospice staff came to remove the hospital bed, the oxygen tank and all the medical equipment, my mother moved back to her room. She looked tiny in that enormous bed, and kept to the right side, where she had always slept when my father was there.
My mother’s illness began when a medical procedure went awry, and she had to spend weeks in the hospital. She was uncomfortable and could not sleep. The doctor told her she didn’t have much time left, and she pleaded with him to let her go home, to her own bed. An entire team of medical personnel tried to convince my mother she could only go home with a hospital bed. In the end, my mother prevailed and the doctor allowed her to spend the rest of her days cradled in her favorite linens.
Once home, under the covers—the term “comforter” fully applied—the nurses sent me on an errand to get a gown they could easily slip off, but my mother insisted on her favorite pajamas, which she wore to the very end. Why shouldn’t she be comfortable?
I got into bed with her and read her books. We watched movies on my laptop. I napped with her. I wanted her to feel the way I had when she had assuaged the pain of my menstrual cramps. Visitors came, and the two of us greeted them from under the covers.
I was cooking dinner when the nurse announced my mother had taken her last breath. I dropped the wooden spoon, ran to the bedroom, crawled into her bed to hug her one last time before the nurse dressed her in lacy white clothes for her final trip out.
When we were packing up the contents in order to sell my parents’ home, I had to make a decision about what to do with the bed, with its ornately carved mahogany posts. My brother, who’d had to help move it to make room for my father’s hospice bed, said it would be best if we weren’t there the day the Vietnam Veterans of America came to pick it up, but I stayed anyway. As the burly men carried it out to the truck, I bid farewell to that ship, sailing off to another sea.
Ilene Dube is a writer, artist and filmmaker. Her short stories, poetry and personal essays have appeared in Atticus Review, Corvus Review, Huffington Post, Kelsey Review, Foliate Oak, The Grief Diaries, The Oddville Press, Unlikely Stories and U.S. 1 Summer Fiction. She writes about the arts for Philadelphia Public Media, Hyperallergic and others.