Growing up in the House of Punk Sleep – “punk” was my mother’s favorite synonym for anything “weak” or “below par” – I shared a room with my middle sister, who’d wake me up every morning by bouncing on her mattress. It squeaked something awful. I’d shout, “Mummy, Mummy, she’s doing it again!” but when my mother stormed into the room, my sister, naturally, was “sound asleep.” “You know I had a punk night,” Mother would say, referring to her recurrent insomnia. “Please stop this nonsense!”
When we moved to the second House of Punk Sleep, my middle sister roomed with my youngest sister, who was then a toddler. They had their own issues, which I didn’t care about because I finally had my own room. Soon I’d even have my own white French Provencal bedroom set composed of a bureau, a writing desk and the pièce de résistance: a canopy bed. It had a double mattress, which in our house was considered huge – everybody else slept in twins – so it became known as “the Big Bed.” With a white eyelet canopy that nearly touched the ceiling, it was fit for a queen, even if a queen might have looked at its smallish dimensions and demanded, well, a “queen.”
Living up to that bed was a lot of pressure. Like my mother, I was an extremely light sleeper. Anything would wake me up, including my father’s snoring, which I’d hear loud and clear through the wall. My grandfather, who lived with us and had tinnitus in both ears, could hear it too; but since he rarely slept more than five hours a night, he didn’t really mind. He’d amuse himself by doing any number of inventive things, including re-writing opera librettos. I once caught him attempting a yoga posture decades before it became popular. It was two o’clock AM, and he was struggling to get his lily-white legs into the lotus position.
While I slept fitfully in the Big Bed, I spent glorious hours daydreaming in it. I imagined that I was Julie Andrew’s understudy in Camelot, and that I married Paul McCartney, or if Paul wouldn’t leave Jane Asher, then William F. Buckley, who, despite his conservative politics, totally fascinated me. I’d watch “Firing Line” for the pure pleasure of observing his facial tics. Other times, sprawled across the bed, I’d talk to my best friend about my plans to eventually leave suburban Boston for London. I was going to be an actress, join the Royal Shakespeare Company and marry either Paul or Harold Pinter – by that point, Buckley, even with his patrician accent, was too American.
The Big Bed supported the most extravagant plans, even as its mattress became increasingly lopsided because it supported only one person – me. The right side carried the imprint of my body, curled in a fetal position, while the left side remained flat and smooth and perfect. After I left for college, my middle sister inherited the Big Bed, and then my youngest sister. They continued to sleep on the right side, fitting their bodies into my original contour. Meanwhile, my grandfather died peacefully in his twin bed, beneath a reproduction of Duccio’s “Madonna and Child.” One by one, my sisters moved away, and my mother, to escape my father’s snoring, eventually moved into the Big Bed. She’d always coveted it and now it was hers. She, too, slept on the right side. To do otherwise defied gravity.
My mother has been sleeping in my old room for about a decade now. She’s nearing 90 and still has insomnia. My father, who just turned 89, still snores. They’re struggling to remain independent, while coping with a cascade of health issues. In the past year, my father has had multiple operations and has fallen several times during the night. My mother is the lone vigil-keeper, yet she wouldn’t think of leaving the House of Punk Sleep. She loves it.
The last time I was home, I noticed that she’d lost a lot of weight. She looked so tiny in the Big Bed, like the little princess in The Princess and the Pea. I flopped down on the other side of the mattress and within seconds I was rolling toward her. Soon we were both lying in the impression made by our collective bodies over the years – four different women, four separate lives. I couldn’t help thinking that my mother’s life was slowly winding down, the Big Bed no longer an incubator of big dreams. “I’m so tired,” she said. It was all I could do to hold back tears. “I just hope I can plant my pansies,” she added.
“Pansies?” I said.
“Yes, for the window boxes. I can’t leave them empty. It’s spring!”
And so the next day we went to the nursery and planted pansies. That was our dream. And it was Big.