For my mother’s first wedding, her father commissioned a maple bedroom suite: an armoire, a dresser, and twin beds, all in a French country style, with graceful lines like the lift and fall of willows, and resting on carved claw feet. Twin beds were not a common choice for the bridal chamber, and I have always supposed that by splitting the conjugal bed in two, my grandfather—whose own marriage had been riven by a precipitous divorce when my mother was just a little girl—was saying something sly about matrimony. Such was his wit and the rough joinery of his heart. In receiving this burdened gift, my mother accepted more than some items of handsome property, for her own marriage also ended abruptly when, having borne two daughters in quick succession, she was widowed by the mining fire that killed her husband, Tommy. For the next five years, she slept in one of the beds, while its mate, perfectly composed, lay empty, or rather, gave repose to a ghost. My mother then met and wed my father, and the maple bedroom suite came with her into what is fairly called a posthumous married life.
Thus it was that through all the nights of their marriage, my mother slept in her bed, and my father slept in his. But why did my father accept this arrangement, this division between husband and wife? Why did he agree to sleep in a bed made for another man, take his rest, his sojourn in dreams, on a laden reminder of his wife’s lost life, and look morning and night on a freighted decor? Why did he not insist that the twin beds be replaced with a new king or queen? There were practical reasons not to do so, of course, for the willow beds were beautiful and well built, and to get rid of them and buy their like would have been expensive. However, cost cannot have counted for so much in the reckoning, for my parents were always ready to spend on new drapes and sofas that took the place of what were, to my eye, perfectly good drapes and sofas. No, they could have replaced the two beds with one, and would have, as they replaced all the other furniture in the house, were it not for some potent obstacle: it was my mother who would not part with the beds and build anew. She said, in effect, “Let no man join what God hath put asunder.” She insisted my father accept love-laden, lovelorn furniture from a former marriage, and he, remarkably, did so.
My father’s acquiescence to the beds was possible, I believe, only as one clause in a larger agreement, an overarching marital strategy that was acutely practiced in the bedroom but applied more widely. You could call it hiding in plain sight. My father accepted the beds so long as no one talked about them or whence they came. Spend intimate hours nightly on the beds but do not speak of their provenance—that was the deal. Here we come to a point that is, for obvious reasons, of special concern to me. For out of this silent deal, I was born, and out of it grew my child’s sense of a self in a family. It was this deal, this tension, this bridge held up by counterpoised tensions, this incongruity of the obvious and the unspoken, the fact and the denial of the fact—not just with the beds but with all of my mother’s first marital experience—that created for me the child a secretive mystery to my family’s hidden past. And since in my formative years the evidence was there before me in plain sight daily, and yet silently denied by all, and since this strategy applied not just to my family’s past but to my family’s present, this bargain of oblivion created a secretiveness and mysteriousness that suffused my whole child life.
As for my father’s feelings, he could not simply acquiesce to the bedroom decor and lie quietly, deal or no deal. That is not the modus operandi of human emotions, and you don’t need a master of feng shui to explain it. In such a bedroom, tensions arise that must be diffused or contained. Emotional costs erased on one ledger show up on another. Sleeping in the willow bed did not solve the problem that dwelt in it, no matter how many nights my father spent there, not a thousand nights, not ten thousand nights and more. In my family, emotions are more durable than that. Their shelf life is basically forever. Ancient hurts thought to be forever buried in permafrost can emerge intact, like a woolly mammoth out of a melting glacier.
Sleeping in separate beds, my parents neither retired at the same time nor awoke together. It was as if a tectonic shift had forced them together from different time zones. On workdays, my father rose early and headed to the coffee shop for breakfast, leaving his bed unmade. There during the night he had waged a battle of heroic proportions against an unknown foe. The sheets had come unmoored from the mattress and been tossed so insistently as to become knotted. The blankets and bedcover were whipped and heaved into stiff peaks at the foot of the bed, while at the head his pillow looked punch drunk. As he dressed to go to work, atop the mix he tossed his limp pajamas, white with blue piping like the sheets. My mother’s bed, meanwhile, was intact, even as she lay in it. All was tucked in, untrammeled, smooth. If I got up early on Saturday, I would find a languid body there that did not move—my long, thin mother, sleeping on her side, head hardly dusting the pillow, as if she were a weightless flower, perhaps a stargazer. Slippers lay at the side of her bed like tiny obedient dogs, and when my mother began her day, she first put on her slippers and then painstakingly remade my father’s bed.
As for retiring to bed together at night, they did not. This disjunction was well settled between them and was not a node of conflict, at least so far as I was aware. However, there was once a telltale scene of my father’s trying to get them to bed together on a Saturday night. I had been left at home with a babysitter while my parents went out. When they returned, I was in the den down the hall from their bedroom, watching a movie, one of the tragic animal tales by means of which I liked to self-traumatize. Tipsy from the evening’s festivities, my father dismissed the sitter, got ready for bed, and, calling from the bedroom, urged my mother to join him.
“Marge, come to bed,” he called out, saying her name with a husky slur. I had never heard him say it in this way before. But instead of complying, my mother perched on the thin arm of a hard chair in the den, feigning interest in my movie. Never in her life had she stayed up to watch a movie with me. Never in my life had I been allowed to stay up and finish one. My father called out to her several times, first in rising tones, like a question, and then, as the minutes passed, sinking, with one last “Muhge.” She balanced unsteadily on the chair arm, tense, as if warding off something distasteful, as I would if presented with a loathsome item of food, lima beans perhaps, or okra. When my father finally fell asleep and snored, my mother moved off into the bedroom and her single bed.
If I step back for a moment and view matters with a sociological eye, I see that my parent’s marital bargain was related to but distinct from one commonly struck in their social circle, by which neither husband nor wife need grasp what occupied the other’s time day to day. The wife knew next to nothing about the husband’s professional life, and she, so long as dinner appeared when he came home hungry from work, so long as clean, pressed shirts hung in the closet, could go about her business as she wished. Though this much was true of my mother and father also, they differed from other couples who, despite separate daytime lives, retired to the same bed, as I observed each time I slept over at a friend’s house. The dimensions of the bed varied from the modest double to the grandiose king, but whatever the frame, husband and wife fit themselves into it. My parents were in this respect known outliers, and their twin beds became something of a curiosity in my social circle. When friends spent the night at my house, we would tiptoe down the long hallway to the master bedroom and stand in the doorway, looking at the beds as if we were visiting mummies in the British Museum, perfectly wrapped in matching spreads of pale green satin. The two beds, in the spirit of the old movie code, were separated by a night table that, compact as it was, might as well have been Canada.
From my observations I drew unhappy conclusions about the state of my parents’ marital enterprise—no, not conclusions, for my childish feelings were far more formless than that. I did not know what sex was—I knew or felt only that children came, like Bambi, from the vague association of male and female—and I was unable to deduce that my father must have crossed the chasm at least once, making the nocturnal journey from bed to bed and back again. And yet I sensed it, for otherwise I could not be, even while the distant beds bespoke a missing intimacy, emblematic of a whole arrangement. It seemed dimly to me a miracle or a mistake that I had been conceived at all, and this too was a part of the mystery of my green life, of myself as a child to my mother and father, and of my place in relation to my mother’s past.
My mother never spoke of her first husband or the years immediately following his death, certainly not to me or in my presence. I was told of the marriage in a most cursory way when, at the age of six or seven, I asked why my sisters’ last name differed from my own. No photographs of her first marriage were displayed in the house; nothing shown of the family group. There were two shots of my sisters as little girls, which sat in gilded frames side by side on my mother’s dresser. Their upper bodies—the rest of their persons having been cropped—were suspended against a backdrop of pink and blue sky. They had been touched up, their cheeks unnaturally rosy to match rosebud lips, eyes and hair darkened too precisely. Behind the photos of my sisters loomed an ornate mirror, part of the willow suite, which reflected my mother’s bed. Across the room, on top of my father’s taller dresser, sat a photograph of me perched on a grand piano. I wore a fancy dress, little white socks ruffled at the ankles, and black patent leather shoes.
All of these observations, all of my suppositions and wonder and the silence, brewed in me a strong curiosity about my mother’s past. Even to glimpse it, as on one occasion I was able to, was an epoch in my childhood. I was looking for a Halloween costume in the crawl space in the basement, and there I found a suitcase holding photos. They had been thrown into the case, the lid closed, and the suitcase shoved out of sight into the dark bowels of the house.
I pulled the case out onto the cement floor where the light was better. Constructed as if to withstand natural disasters, it was reinforced with steel. The exterior had a hardened, waxy finish, almost glazed a grainy yellow, with wide bands of black crosshatched on the top and bottom. The case was not locked, as I expected it to be. When I pressed the metal latches, they popped up as if new and freshly oiled.
Nothing prepared me for what I found inside: a tumble of images, thrown topsy-turvy into the case, of my mother in her former life, of my sisters as little girls in their father’s arms, suspended in time before I was born, an armful of small, square snapshots depicting a happy family to which I did not belong. In one black-and-white photo, my mother was holding my sister above her shoulders in a dappled sunlight. Mother and child smiled at one another, seeming about to break into giddy laughter for no reason but happiness with the moment. Photos of my mother’s first wedding and honeymoon were tossed into the jumble, many of these more formal, taken by professionals. There was my mother’s first husband, Tommy. Even in those few moments of looking, I saw that he was unlike my father. Perfect really, a perfectly beautiful young man. Husband and wife were lifted out of the bland frame of ordinary life and cast in the extraordinary glow of their tropical honeymoon, leaning toward one another under slender palms. Happiness radiated from my mother’s lifted, expressive eyes.
The flood of images made my heart race. I felt as if I were a robber, breaking and entering my mother’s memories, where I had never been invited. I half listened for her footsteps, afraid that her face, much more glum than the face in the photographs, might appear over my shoulder. There was so much to take in that I had never seen before, a home movie on fast forward, the frames speeding by like windows with silhouettes on a commuter train as it disappeared into a dark tunnel. Some of the photos were bent, discolored, piled together like the notes of a beautiful melody, scrambled and disordered. Yet they formed a story of romantic love and happiness, and that was not what I saw in my parents’ marriage.
Soon my fear of being caught overcame my desire to look further, and I closed the suitcase and returned it to the crawl space. When days later I stole back for another peek, the suitcase was gone. I never saw it again. By some means my mother had learned that I had tampered with it. She must have visited the suitcase periodically, perhaps regularly, and on one of her visits discovered it had been opened. Did I not return it to its exact location? Were there signs of intrusion? She must have known that I was the one who had broken in. Why didn’t she speak to me about it? We maintained a complete silence on the matter, as on so much else between us. I could never broach the subject, for it lay outside the carefully drawn lines of our relationship. I wondered what she did with the photos. Did she store the suitcase in some place so secret, so remote, so unassailable that no one would ever find it?
Inside the suitcase lived a mother and a woman entirely different from the mother and woman I knew. There resided a young mother with an easy smile who delighted in her young girls—carefree, soft, and vibrant. This, I felt, was my mother’s true family, to which I did not belong. The true family was the one that gathered at my house at Christmas, my mother, my sisters, and Aunt Virgie, Uncle Bob, and Uncle Harry, Tommy’s mother and brothers, who distinguished their own blood from mine by bringing lavish gifts for my sisters and drab things for me, and who burdened the day, making me an outsider in my own life.
The distance between my parents did not diminish as I grew up and left home, as my father retired, as they moved many times, passed into old age, and my mother declined into dementia.
In the final condominium, they occupied separate bedrooms, each anchoring one end of their quarters and separated by a long hallway. My mother resided with the old bedroom suite, while my father slept on a new single cherrywood bed picked out by him at Ethan Allen. After a long marriage defined by separation, they found no relief from each other’s company in the last years. My father was afraid to leave my mother alone, and she was afraid to be left. If he ran a brief errand, he could not be certain she would stay put inside. He might find her on the front walk in her nightgown, flailing her arms in fear, for she could not remember where her husband had gone, or when he might return.
Near the desperate end of my mother’s life, my father sometimes phoned me in the afternoon when she was napping, for then he could speak freely. His muffled voice was shaken, and he would say that he no longer knew the woman he had married. There were depths of despair in her that he had not known existed. “She says terrible things,” he told me, though he would not specify. Our conversations were brief, often cut short when my mother woke up from her nap. Even when she did not appear, my father sounded anxious, as if looking over his shoulder and hurrying because he did not have much time.
Then she died, from a brain hemorrhage caused by a fall. My husband and I drove down for the funeral, and after the service we accompanied my father back to his condominium to spend the night, wanting to provide some company as he began his solitude, though I did not know what to say, or how to help him. The pantry was empty and the kitchen bare except for copies of the newspaper obituary that lay on the counter. A plant in pink foil, already beleaguered when I had visited a month before, was stuffed into a trash can whose lid would now not shut. I had brought back from the funeral an ornate floral bouquet, which I placed on the table in the dining room. There, stacked on the table by my father, were a dozen old-fashioned photo albums and ornately worked leather folders. In them, carefully arranged in storybook binders, was the lost cache of images from the yellow suitcase, chronicling my mother’s first marriage. Her wedding and honeymoon were there, lovingly detailed in formal photographs, while informal shots preserved the short years of the family. It was their life as I had remembered it, blessed and happy. I was glad to learn that my mother had not eradicated it when she hid the suitcase from me forty years earlier. I felt, strange to say, a small triumph. The story of the suitcase and my mother’s secret unhappiness was the one I had been telling myself for a long time, and the story had come true. But now a new mystery arose. Was my mother’s unhappiness made endurable or deepened by visiting the suitcase?
As I looked at the albums and pondered, my father sat in his easy chair, staring at its sage green mate. With an edge to his voice he said, “Take one or two binders if you’d like.”
But I did not want any of the long-hidden photos. Even after my mother’s death, they did not seem mine to take. I closed the album and joined my father in the living room. There was only her seat left, and reluctantly I took it, facing the window where the afternoon light failed during the minutes we sat silent. Then my father spoke, and bitterness poured out of him. In all the years of their marriage, he said, my mother had never spoken of her first husband until dementia loosened her tongue, and out came his name.
“It was Tommy this and Tommy that,” my father said. “She pushed me away, told me she couldn’t bear me, had never been able to bear me.” She told him Tommy had been her only true husband.
Now, I felt, I could finish the old story. It must have been that my mother’s desire for my father was minimal from the start, and what little there had been had ebbed. My father had accepted her lack of passion, as he had accepted the twin beds. Did her hauteur sadden and disappoint him? I imagined so. Did he attribute her reserve to the love she still felt for her first husband? Probably so. My mother had been respectful in her behavior toward my father, at least until the end, careful to protect him from reminders of her former marriage. But a gulf existed between them that they did not bridge. She was not affectionate. They had held hands once in my presence—at least there was a brief clasp. I remembered that my father was steadying her after a stumble.
Now in the dusk he sat in the green chair, curtly laying out a long history of accommodations to my mother’s wishes. She had insisted he move into the house in Catasauqua where she and Tommy had lived. I had not known my parents ever lived there.
“Of course there were reasons,” he said. “She wanted to minimize the disruption for the girls. And there was some economic necessity.” A bed is not just the site of passion, I mused; it is where couples console one another, where they soothe headaches and souls, where they embrace against the world. It is where they share small successes and greater triumphs, quietly reliving the good of their shared life. This my parents had not had. They had not taken their disappointments and sorrows to bed and expiated them, taken their joys and celebrated them. Alone they had lain in their single beds, for better or for worse.
She insisted that her first husband’s relatives be included in holiday celebrations, my father was saying, though they never blessed the remarriage. Christmases were a curse. “Was she unhappy? I thought she was happy. What about all the trips we took? Your mother loved to travel.” He was musing disconnectedly. “Was our marriage a sham?” he asked, as if I were an impersonal bystander, not their daughter, as if their marital woes had played no role in my life.
“She said she hated me.” The hatred she felt seemed to have existed for years, reaching far back into the past. If words can touch skin, then my father’s words abraded my face.
“Daddy, it was the Alzheimer’s talking,” I answered. But I wasn’t sure. I only felt sure that we would have to forgive her, and I did not know if we could. I longed for her mercy, and my father’s mercy too. But there was no mercy. Not for me, nor my father, not for anyone who lies in the bed of an unjoined heart.
Out of the dark that had descended, my father said peremptorily, “You’ll sleep in your mother’s room”—as if it were just any room that held just any beds. Wrapped in his own spent bitterness, he seemed unaware of what he had given me to do. My husband and I retired to the bedroom together and closed the door. I opened the windows—who knew when last they had been unlatched—and smelled one of the final days of summer.
My father, as soon as he returned from the hospital where she died, had gone through her dresser, closet, medicine cabinet, papers, and jewelry, and called me to discuss the disposition of her clothes. Yet he had touched nothing since then. In their last year together, my father had not frequented my mother’s room, and she did not possess the wherewithal to maintain its function and appearance. An air of disrepair and neglect pervaded, from the loose toilet seat to the broken dresser drawer. Three pairs of glasses were strewn on the dresser, one missing an earpiece, another pair so wobbly it must have slid down her nose, and a third too filthy to see through. I stepped to the closet to hang up my jacket and tripped over a broken bed slat, tossed against the wall. In the closet her clothes were shabby and ripped, riddled with stains, buttons missing. Her shoes were scuffed, heels worn away, sides collapsed like a crushed boat. The fronts of her once-obedient bedroom slippers were torn, probably by her jagged, untrimmed nails.
Her bed was unmade, for the hemorrhage had struck before she could finish a task she had always performed faithfully. The other bed had no sheets. I found a worn-thin set that should have been thrown out long ago, and made it for my husband.
In the bathroom her pale yellow shower cap hung on the showerhead. One shrunken bar of soap, waxy tan in color, with the word lane faintly visible, sat in the sad dish by the sink. Her plastic hairbrush of shocking pink, familiar since I was a child, sat on top of the toilet, its black bristles clogged with vibrantly gray hair. Next to the hairbrush was her body powder puff and case, called Heaven Sent. Behind the little sliding door of the toilet cabinet was her lipstick, Mercy, in its green metallic case, worn down to the nub. I had never liked her lipstick. The color she favored, a tulip red, was too bright, drawing attention to her nervous mouth. I had disliked the tissues that lay about after she had blotted her lips. If I could have found a tissue on which she had blotted her lips, leaving a perfect imprint, I would have held on to that tissue forever. I was overcome with a desire to smear my lips with her color. But there was no color left to apply.
Inside the bathroom door, hanging from two hooks, were two of her nightgowns, one pink, one blue, like birds of silk. They were sleeveless, short, falling just to the knees. Both were stained with marks like an iron leaves when pressed too long on a blouse, or the print of a dirty hand on a wall. Not even dementia could help me understand how my fastidious mother could have worn such gowns. She must have had spills. My father had told me as much. Why did she not throw the gowns out? Did she not notice their unseemliness, or did she not care?
In the wastebasket were her medicines, out-of-date mail, and a torn-up letter from me written a quarter century ago. I fished out the pieces and tried to assemble it, but two sentences in, I stopped reading. It was apologetic, defensive, angry, and confessional, one of those letters bringing bad news, fear in my voice, fear of inflicting pain, inflicting pain. A few words made me sick at all the failures and disappointments I sent home. My mother had kept the letter for the rest of her life. I threw it back into the trash. I washed my face with the nub of soap and looked in her glass as the suds ran down my cheeks. My head bowed slightly forward and yet lifted to meet a face I couldn’t yet see. I took the blue gown down from the hook and put it on. It smelled faintly.
In these daily things of hers that touched my skin so intimately, that I held solid in my hands and saw so clearly, I felt a secret was hidden. Something plain that I wanted to understand was before me, and yet mysterious and evasive to my mind.
I knew no sleep would come to me in my mother’s bed. There were wrinkles in the bedspread and an indentation in the pillow. I folded the cover down to the foot, pulled back the sheets, and got in.
I had not wept, and still no tears came. Even after the box of ashes was in my arms, even after the burial, I felt—it must be—I would see her again. She had only lost her bearings, and we should not fear just because we did not know where she was or when she would return. I lay on my back, thinking of the old photographs, now ordered in embossed leather that told a story. Because I had stumbled upon the secret suitcase, I had intuited a connection between my mother at the end of her life and my mother before remarriage. Only in death was this woman, whom I had always sensed beneath the public persona, restored to me, here in the quiet of her room, where soon I heard my husband’s deep breathing in sleep. For my father, I supposed, the photographic record confirmed his worst fear, that her caustic words in the last weeks were more than the raving of her damaged mind.
But that was not the secret I sought in her lipstick, hairbrush, and slippers. I wanted to break them open to find what was concealed inside, peek under the bed to spy what was hidden there. Was it so simple as this, that I loved her and missed her?
My head just grazing her pillow, I suddenly lifted up on my elbows from her bed: I cared nothing for the old story. It was not finished. It had only left me bereft, my mother torn from me. I wanted to be draped in her, to smear myself with her smell, to rest my head against her head where she had last laid it.
An oracle had been given to me, and its burden was mine. Let no woman join what I have put asunder. I have made our bed, now you sleep in it. The mystery of my life had come back to me, and as I lay in her worn gown and eternal chamber, in it now were my mother’s love for her husbands, and there, as a sensitive faun beneath the willow, my mother’s love for me.
Marcia Aldrich teaches creative writing at Michigan State University. She is the author of Girl Rearing, a collection of linked essays published by W. W. Norton. Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays and The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women. Last fall her essay “My Mother’s Toenails” appeared in The Best of Brevity, and most recently her essay “The Bed of Metamorphosis,” originally published in Fourth Genre, was selected as a notable essay in the 2006 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology. She is completing a second collection of essays titled The Mother Bed.
“The Mother Bed” appears in our Winter 2007 issue.