And so to bed
I was born at home.
My mother was a hippie back then. Growing barrels of pot on the roof, and part of the Community of the Whole Person – an amateur psychotherapy thing. She told a story once about how I’d been a grounding force as a baby, while she was doing a therapy session with a high, damaged person, and she’d been glad I was there.
My sister watched the birth, sitting beside the Great Dane.
There’s a picture of me a few moments after I was born – dark hair, angel’s thumb on my forehead – lying on a bloodied sheet on my parents’ bed.
To distract myself from the state of waiting after my own baby’s due date passed, I looked up “birthing chairs in history”.
These were made of the best quality wood a family could afford, passed down within families over generations. They were invented so that women’s beds (and often, their one good set of bed linen) were not despoiled in labour.
The quilt on my parents’ bed when I was a child had hexagonal floral patterns in beige and cream. During a phase where I hated going to a new school, in a new country, I used to lie on their bed in the mornings, cheek against that quilt, wishing I could stay there forever.
It was still dark outside, and their circular bedroom window was covered with frost.
I could see the stitches my mother had used to sew the hexagons together. Those loops of thread represented love and safety but were unable to protect me out in the world.
My maternal grandparents had a pink satin bedspread, with curtains hanging down from the bed to the floor. My grandfather’s pillow had sweet-smelling stains on it because he used to eat chocolates in bed, and sometimes he’d fall asleep while he was eating them.
Near the end of one version of The Odyssey, Penelope recognises Odysseus, her returned husband, only in the moment when he describes their marital bed.
It is the bed that Odysseus built by hand before their marriage, from the trunk of a single olive tree. He tells her how he made it right there in their bedroom, how he pulled the branches off the trunk, planed the surfaces, carved the posts and headboard. The bed was not carried into the room; the room was made around the bed. The marriage was made on it; their son was made on it.
My mother helped me choose my first marital bed – I can’t remember why – but I do recall feeling shy as I made my choice, as if I was revealing to her something about my relationship through the choice of the bed.
The one I picked reminded me of the bows of a ship, the headboard and footboard curving away from each other in different directions; it felt like a bed you could put on the ocean and it would take you safely across the seas. It was a bed that could weather storms. The mattress I selected quickly, sheepishly bouncing up and down on it a few times when my mother was looking elsewhere.
There was some misunderstanding when I was paying. My mother was giving detailed delivery instructions (we were staying with her until we could move into a rental) and the salesperson somehow thought she was giving him her email address. On the sales receipt, he wrote it down as: [email protected]
While my grandmother was in labour, a nun sat beside her reading a book, through all 15 hours of her contractions. This same nun stopped the baby (my mother) coming out with her elbow, so the doctor could get there in time; he didn’t get paid unless he was in the room when the baby was born.
After the birth, she wasn’t allowed to get out of her hospital cot for six days. “On the seventh day,” she liked to say with a biblical flourish, “we were allowed to dangle our legs over the side of the bed.”
The poet Adrienne Rich described what it’s like to go back to bed after tending to a baby, “starkly awake, brittle with anger, knowing that my broken sleep would make next day a hell … I remember thinking I would never dream again (the unconscious of the young mother – where does it entrust its messages, when dream-sleep is denied her for years?).”
An amazing question: where does the unconscious of the young mother who never enters dream sleep entrust its messages? Where are they sent? Do the messages cease entirely? Or do they build up in the mind like heavy snow against a door, not letting anything in or out until the melt comes?
“Don’t write what you know,” a writer I admire says. “Write what obsesses you. The things you’ve been lying awake stewing over in your bed.”
Edith Russell was a fashion reporter assigned to room A-11 on the Titanic. When she felt the first bumps as the ship collided with the iceberg, she and a few others went up to look, and were delighted to see shards of ice on the deck, and even contemplated a snowball fight.
As the ship began to creak and list sideways, she went back to her room, neatly hung and folded all her clothes in her wardrobe, tidied up the dressing table and made her bed.
Ancestors and descendants are born to and taken from us, blue and naked.
When my grandmother was in her long decline, my mother was gripped by a fierce depression.
“I’m dying!” she cried one night from her bed.
“No, you’re not,” I said to my mother carefully. “Your mother is.”
Her mother died at home. She was tucked in, her knees making little mounds beneath the quilt.
Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell are collaborating on an experimental novel about motherhood.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2020 as "And so to bed".
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