The earliest bedroom is corner-mounted in a brand new post-World War II house built of native Kentucky limestone. Your mother has arranged a maze of chests of drawers and beds for her three little girls — so close in age they seem part of one big whole — to offer them equal amounts of relative privacy. The effect is of a nest, a tiny space barely big enough to turn around in, where you hide the things you don’t want to share. In winter, it is cozy and dark. In summer, a large and very loud electric fan fills the window frame, blowing hot air out by day and sucking cooler air in by night. The sisters place their mouths near the whirling blade, their lips just brushing the metal cage, and sing into it, their voices transformed into thin, high vibratos, like Snow White in the Disney movie. At night in summer, the stars outside that bedroom window look as if they are within reach. A magic beanstalk could reach them, surely.
Houses were fascinating objects of imagination and beauty. Mothers collected House Beautiful and House and Garden magazines, and daughters clipped floor plans and color photographs of spotless rooms with their blunt-ended school scissors. This daughter spent a good part of one year drawing her own floor plans, connecting rooms with tiny pencil-drawn stair steps, putting in features she coveted: casement windows, secret entrances, window seats.
The family moved from the limestone house into another older, prettier one with a damp basement and a steeply banked back yard. Outside her bedroom window, a fine old oak tree with cleaved trunks and sturdy branches, an oak substantial enough to house a hidden room built of pillows and cardboard boxes. There, every afternoon after school, a cream-filled Krispy Kreme doughnut and an hour or so leafing through the latest Archie comic book. From her perch, a secretive bird’s eye view of passersby on the street below: squabbling siblings nudging each other, a boy looking for something to thrust a pointed stick into, tired mothers walking home from work in their thickly padded white nursing shoes.
More houses, more towns, and in each place the bedroom, where one could most be oneself. Here was where you ran to cry out loud, where you decorated the walls with items whose preciousness only you understood, where you endured boredom, where you posed in front of mirrors, where you waited out illness, where you snuck out the window or blew contraband cigarette smoke through the slats of the Venetian blinds.
That first marriage bedroom in a featureless apartment, a king-sized bed with no headboard and a flimsy particle board door. Others follow in succession every three to four years, and a pattern emerges: the bedroom in the treetops. The bed the children climbed into and under, clutching their blankets and sucking their thumbs through nighttime terrors. The bed where they were all conceived, except the one who came from a far-away continent. In your last marriage house, he built a nest beneath the eaves of the attic: an army cot surrounded with camouflage netting.
Divorced and single at 40. The bedroom becomes yours again. Soft butter yellow. A quiet place to sit. A window overlooking the street. Lovers pass through but do not stay. The sheets remember night sweats. You remember identifying your escape route in the instance of a night intruder.
More bedrooms, more years. Sleep has become a rare and cherished commodity out in the middle distance and the phantom of night intruders has vanished along with the children. The bedroom becomes more a living room with a bed, a room filled with books and paintings and comfortable places to sit. The last one, your favorite bedroom yet, is connected by a short wooden door to a glassed-in sun porch where, in the early part of the last century, someone likely slept to fight off tuberculosis, breathing in the thin Colorado air. You have furnished it and filled it with treasures, the things you don’t feel like sharing. It exists on the border of inside and outside — part room and part porch.
One sleepless June night you leave your bed for the futon on the porch. In the dark, you throw the windows open and let the cool night air cover you. You sleep well, and when you wake up the next morning, the green crocheted backdrop of thousands of leaves patterns the morning sky. For a second that feels like it could become an eternity, you don’t remember where you are.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.