7: Other People’s Beds

7: Other People’s Beds

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

  
Other People’s Beds

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.
~Seneca

Fourteen years ago, after my husband Mort died, I spent my summers living in other people’s houses, traveling to places where, by invitation, I found myself in a mountain house in Virginia, a lakeside house in Maine, a clapboard cottage at the foot of the Berkshires, and a musty-scented dwelling on Fire Island, overlooking the sea. It was a summer of social gatherings; cocktails at sunset on verandas that spilled over the edge of lush gardens with flowers exploding in color against a pink and orange sky, where finding a patch of cloud was a startling, unwelcome intrusion on an otherwise perfect afternoon.

The rest of the year I worked hard, teaching my classes, meeting my weekly column deadlines and working on my next novel. Friends had offered their homes as healing retreats after the death of my husband. And so, still numb from my loss, I took them up on their offers. I packed an overnight bag and headed off, feeling emotionally wobbly and slightly off-balance.

“You’ll stay with us,” my Virginia friends implored. “We won’t take no for an answer. June in Virginia is lovely.”

Other friends who own a summer house in Maine asked me to join them in August.

“Houses are meant to be shared,” my Lenox, Massachusetts, friends told me in July. “You can hear the music of Tanglewood from our terrace.”

Listening to Mozart waft through the crisp evening air was hard to resist.

Then, there was Fire Island where my children spent their summers. I had an open invitation. Before I knew it, I was filling a suitcase with summer clothes and easing into the role of the rotating house-guest, spending time with my gallery of friends, who introduced me to the rhythm of their summertime lives and the myriad of activities that went along with it.

All that summer, I hiked high up into the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to commune with nature and its animal inhabitants, some of which, obviously sensing my reticence, had the good sense to leave me alone. A garter snake slithered by me as I leaned up against a tree trying to regain my composure. My usual stash of bottled water was replaced by fresh water from mountain streams. Here, all pretenses were dropped.

Similarly, the Maine trails whose silence was stirred by bird sounds and rustlings gave way to a silver lake shining in the sun, punctuated with little boats against a landscape of green and purple mountains, providing postcard-perfect settings at every turn.

Fire Island was damp and overcast when the ferry delivered me into the arms of my squealing grandchildren. The afternoon threatened rain as I trekked the beaches and watched as streaks of sunlight tried hard to work their way through the storm clouds. Fire Island is beautiful in any season, and when the winds became fierce, we found seclusion indoors, alternating between games of Trivial Pursuit with the adults and Chutes and Ladders with Andrew and Caroline. One afternoon, I found myself engrossed in play while the parents took leave and put me in charge of four children all under the age of seven. By 5 P.M. I was exhausted. I took them all for treats. We ate ice cream in the rain.

And then there were the naps, where we retired to our respective rooms without the pressure of schedules or the cacophonous ring of telephones or television sets blasting annoying commercials. Reclining on other people’s beds to finish a book seemed at once both comforting and strange. Sleeping on sheets that bore no resemblance to my own—pillows that didn’t caress my head exactly right, were unfamiliar to my touch yet oddly inviting. Blankets smelled differently, and mattresses, unaccustomed to my body’s contour, dipped and peaked as I tried to find a spot that felt secure under me. These were constant reminders I was not home. Once again, the tug of my loss gnawed at me at every turn.

But, friends and family filled the void of loneliness and provided solace during those difficult times. I moved among them all, enjoying their food and partaking of their hospitality. I was grateful that my grieving was accepted, and that I was being nurtured. I did not need to put on airs. Those yellow summer afternoon, filled with light banter and conversation, warmed my soul.

“Do you prefer cold lobster or leftover poached salmon?” were the most difficult decisions of the day. Invitations to take the boat out for a spin, run into town or walk a mile up the road to the general store was about as complicated as it got. It was a time of borrowed books, smearing sun block over a child’s shoulders, dining al fresco, and skinny dipping in the lake in the black of night.

And then, like an unexpected intruder, the winds began kicking up earlier than usual. Sweaters replaced halter tops and the first subtle whisper of autumn was felt. Thoughts of new beginnings took hold as summer began to wane. It was time to put away the porch furniture and throw an extra blanket on the bed at night.

And so, I officially bade a fond farewell to those summers: to sand in my shoes, damp hair that curled exactly right when exposed to sea air, and to the sounds of motorboats putt-putting me to sleep. My legs bore a slight coating of suntan. Mosquito bites were reminders that we lingered too long on open patios. Children’s voices echoing in the evening air still reverberated in my ears: “Can’t we stay outside and play a little longer?” Mental snapshots of my grandchildren jumping the waves and building sandcastles, eating corn on the cob, and catching fireflies in discarded jelly jars filled my memory bank for months to come.

Lying in other people’s beds reminded me I was not alone. Loss had been buffered by a season of friends, and I had a chance to begin to heal. But, in the end, it was my bed that knew me best. Nothing could replace the lure of familiarity. Arriving home, my cat, Annabelle, curled up next to me, and feeling safe, dared to close her eyes. She had traveled with me, but only now, like I, felt at home. A faint hint of my favorite shampoo’s aroma now lingered on my pillow. I ate crackers in bed (my late-husband’s pet peeve and I giggle at the thought of his disapproval) without the fear of getting crumbs on other people’s blankets.

2008: Another summer had come and gone. I am re-married now and home in our house, Mark’s and mine: the place of intimacy, where I can relax and be completely myself. I stretch and curl up in all the right spots, as I drift off to sleep on an early December night, recalling the bittersweet memories of summers past, and all the future summers spread out before us, yet to be lived.

~Judith Marks-White

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