Aunt Mida's Bed
- By: Elizabeth Tibbetts
We marched around the small downstairs, poked through the cellar, jumped over the brook, and ran off into the woods. But we were not allowed to roam upstairs in our great aunts’ house. We could go up to use the bathroom and come right back down. I would sit as long as I could and study the room, then scrub my hands with a sliver of soap, and dry them on a linen towel edged with crochet. Mom said the aunts counted squares of toilet paper and embroidered initials on their sheets, which they stacked separately so they wouldn’t mix them up.
One day Aunt Mida took me upstairs and let me look in their bedrooms. The two aunts were a pair to me, two sides of a locket, unmarried sisters who lived together their whole lives, wore sensible shoes, and snacked on Saltines with butter. I’d never thought about them being separate people, though they looked and acted nothing alike. Aunt Corrine had a bosom, spoke softly, and wore her heavy auburn hair wrapped around her head. Aunt Mida was quick as a spider, white-haired, and snippy when children were naughty.
But this day I noticed how different their bedrooms were. Aunt Corrine slept in a cream-colored iron bed. Her dressing table with its low mirror, the stool, and a cane-seated rocker were all freshly painted to match, so that the furniture looked as light as meringue in the dim room with its north window. Aunt Mida’s room was the opposite. Light spilled in through windows overlooking the street, and the headboard of her bed and the mirror-back on her bureau, both taller than she was, were dark wood. Carved flowers and vines twisted across the headboard. This bed called to me the way the woods behind the house did, as though mourning cloak butterflies, which slept beneath the pines’ bark through winter, might fly out from behind the wooden flowers. It looked like a bed for me — not for an old maid aunt with age spots on her hands. I wanted to climb in, pull the line-dried sheets up to my chin, and fall asleep in it every night for the rest of my life.Aunt Mida died when she was ninety-one and I was twenty–two, and the bed came down to me, along with the matching bureau. I imagined the bed had some thoughts about leaving its neat Victorian life for mine, which included a peeling, third-floor apartment on the poorer end of my street. But I was relieved to own something so solid, beautiful, and rooted in my past. Every evening it was as though I climbed into a well-built boat where I could float safely through the night no matter how hard the day, no matter where I was headed. Years came and went, and the bed moved with me even when it meant tearing out stairs to maneuver the massive headboard to the next bedroom.
Last week, more than thirty years after the bed became mine, I took it apart, wrapped the pieces in sheets, and, with help, carried it downstairs and then up to the barn’s second floor. My tall husband and I no longer fit it comfortably like a pair of tucked shoes in a box. So we bought a queen-size, and, sadly, there’s no other room in our small house where the old bed will fit.
The old bed is an Eastlake that Aunt Mida inherited from her grandmother. On the back of the headboard, black letters read Armida Sawyer, Milbridge, Maine. The bed sailed by schooner when Aunt Mida and her family moved down the coast in 1906 to one rented house, then another. The bed continued on to my grandmother’s street, then into her spare bedroom. And when she refused to come home with her new baby until her husband’s meddling sisters moved out, the bed moved out, too.
At last it settled in the brown house the sisters bought that was so close to my grandmother they could still see everything she did. And now none of them are alive.
When I think about the hands, back in the 1800s, that lathed and cut the wood, pieced and sanded, carved the flowers, when I think about the women and men who’ve slipped out of that bed to start their days and crawled back in to rest up for another, and the times they’ve lived through, the bed seems a living, breathing, dreaming thing, much older than any human — a safe, mute holder of memories. So I hope it doesn’t wait long in the barn. I want to build a room big enough to set it up again, so that my grandchildren will be able to look up at those flowers and ask me to tell them the story of a bed that sailed by schooner.
- By: Elizabeth Tibbetts