All of them were small and narrow, Emily Dickinson beds situated in modest rooms. Once I journeyed to Amherst, Mass., solely to see Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, to breathe the sacred air. As luck would have it, I had come the wrong day for tours and was left on the stoop of the Homestead, breathing the spring air. There I pondered the 300 feet to the Evergreens next door and the well-worn path taken by Emily and her best friend, her sister-in-law, Sue.
The next afternoon Emily’s door was opened and I joined a group in a downstairs parlor where we endured a half-hour talk devoid of poetry. Finally, we were led up the stairs to the landing where Emily had stood, out of sight, above the chatter of company down in the parlor we had just left. She had little use for chatter, preferring to send a short poem, perhaps a few flowers down to the company. Lagging behind the group, I ran my hand along the banister and listened to Emily’s voice.
Had I not seen the Sun
I could have borne the shade.
But Light a newer Wilderness
My wilderness has made—
Who was the Sun of her longing, I wondered. Was it Sue over in the Evergreens? Was it one of the young lawyers who took up residence in the house on Main Street? Was it Judge Otis Lord? Or was it the Lord himself she desired, wrestling with him her whole life in both Care and Misery? In one breath she cried Wild nights—Wild nights!/ Were I with thee/ Wild Nights should be/ Our Luxury! In the next breath she called herself Bride of the Father and the Son/ Bride of the Holy Ghost.
This was the woman whose bedroom I entered. Here the sun had come to rest on a basket similar to one Emily had filled with cookies for waiting children. Here was her small writing table. Here were the drawers she had stuffed with 1,775 poems. And here was the bed, small and narrow. Across the foot of it lay the sturdy army blanket Emily had knelt on to do her gardening. I inched forward, wishing only to touch the cloth, which I managed to do before the guide screamed, loud and shrill. Something about eroding the fabric.
When the guide took Emily’s white dress out of the closet, I begged her to slip off the plastic bag so we could all see the dress firsthand. I took the measure of the white dress that day in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom and knew for a fact the dress would fit me. As we left, I took a long, last look at the narrow bed and knew that would fit, as well.
When I was a young woman, I entered a convent and was given a small white bed in a large white dormitory. At night we disrobed under white nightgown tents, our earthly garments falling in a pool at our feet. Twenty of us lay in identical beds, each surrounded by thick white curtains to form a small white space called a cell. When the lights went out, black bats darted from hideouts, swooped over our heads and then beat against permanently closed windows. A stalwart band rose from the white beds and banged away at the bats with energetic brooms and mops, all in the grand silence. This was slow to return over the sleeping cells, the scattered brooms, the inert bats.
In due time we donned white wedding gowns and walked solemnly to the altar where we made our troth to the everlasting God. White veils covered our faces and our futures.
Ever after, it was the same bed in every convent we lived in.
Once I slept under a small window 100 yards from the railroad tracks. Another sister had to pass through my bedroom to get to hers, a dark, closed-in porch with a close-up view of the church wall. From my night bed I watched travelers eating and drinking in well-lighted dining cars, a blur of hands lifting forks and champagne glasses. Some nights I dreamed about the lives these bright people led, the beautiful homes they left or were returning to, the singing rooms, the laughing children leaping into their arms, the tall, smiling husbands.
Other nights I could not watch, sunk into the mattress with pneumonia. All during the dark night, the superior’s hands adjusted the mustard plaster heavy on my chest even while my neighbor coughed in the cold porch and the train rumbled by. I saw Anna Karenina, distraught and love-sick, ground to bits under the steel wheels.
Over the years, I was sent to serve in distant cities. I slept in large, old-fashioned, gabled rooms with stars for company; and I slept in more modern, efficient rooms. I slept in airy places overlooking lakes and in attics overlooking street fights. Always the bed was the same, single and chaste, provided in every convent by the pastor.
Their provisions were more than adequate, a far cry from Teresa of ávila’s straw bed in a whitewashed room, her cork mat, water pitcher and crucifix. We kept the crucifixes above our beds and, like Teresa, invoked St. Joseph at one door, Our Lady at the other. On Saturday nights we danced with tambourines and drums.
When the convents closed, we carried the single beds with us into apartments and houses. But that does not mean I do not know what a double bed feels like. Sometimes when I am out of town, a considerate hostess will favor me with a wide, double bed for the night. I slip in, glide smoothly into the middle and swing arms and legs like a snow angel. Then I go diagonal, stretching luxuriously from corner to corner.
When I was seven and home recovering from a tonsillectomy, I overdid things and woke in the dark night hemorrhaging from nose and mouth. My father drove to the hospital like one possessed, while in the back seat my mother cradled me in her arms, mopping up the blood with one towel after another. After a while the doctors managed to stop the flow and then put me in a small bed with bars for the night. My mother bent close, filling my whole world, and kissed me. Then as I watched in terror, my mother slowly receded into the darkness, both of us crying, with arms that stretched and stretched but could not touch.
That was the beginning of small beds and loved ones receding.
When I returned home, it was back to the double bed I shared with my sister. There was an imaginary line down the center of that bed and no transgressing without hell to pay. And so it was that I mastered the art of sleeping narrow without falling to the floor.
It has been quite another thing to master the art of loved ones receding.
The Poetry Bursts Out
And still, every morning I rise from my single bed to “serve the dear neighbor,” as the Jesuit founder of my community enjoined. I may sleep in a small bed, but I come from big productions with blazing lights and colors. My father called it tante mosse, much ado about nothing. I teach poetry in an elementary school, where I blow the lessons up into theater and dramatize the children’s least remarks, the poetry bursting out of the words they write. The children float out of their seats, not unlike snow angels. With arms straight up like flagpoles, they wave small hands in my face, “Call me. Call me.” Only they don’t say those words. What they say is “ooo-ooo” with great urgency and joy because they have a line of poetry on their lips, a surprise word to tell. It is a heavenly thing when a roomful of children rise and sing “ooo-ooo,” and I want to take their hands and rise with them and, of course, I do, ooo-ooo-ooo.
Every day I rise, sometimes to love and wild delight, sometimes to grief and devastation, not an ordinary day among them. One morning I stand with my sister and brothers and place a white pall over our mother’s casket. Slowly we wheel her body up the church aisle, past her favorite pew, straight to the altar of God into whose hands we commend our mother. She rises with the angels. I lie in a stupor of grief on the single bed and remember that childhood one with bars.
Another day I walk arm in arm with the priest friend who has come to help celebrate the 50 years I have tossed and turned, worried the sheets, prayed, wept, dreamed, listened for the voice of God and actually sung in a single bed. The retreat house chapel is packed with smiling friends and family, while the best saxophonist in town plays Ruth’s love song: wherever you go, I will go. The celebrant and I are laughing in the aisle because up next to the tabernacle stands a full-length mannequin wearing the white gown I wore in that long-ago chapel. And the dress still fits.
All of this time I have been a bride married to amazement.