I don’t know who named the coldest bedroom on the farm after a country so very far away from Wallingford, Connecticut, but I like their dry sense of humor. The room earned its reputation. We all slept there at one time or another, reluctantly repeating the bone-chilling experience of our ancestors. Modern conveniences in other parts of the house never reached this Siberia.
When they were growing up, my mother and her older sister Lydia slept in Siberia – the upstairs bedroom on a southwest corner of the farmhouse. Lydia and brother Francis were the leaders in the family – my mother the good-natured follower. The two girls called each other “Sis,” and in photos from that time were often dressed in identical outfits. I picture them climbing the dark stairs together toward their bed in Siberia – two small dark-haired girls in white nightdresses carrying candles to light their way.
But I have another image of my mother. It’s about seventy-five years after the sisters go up the stairs together, and I’m on one of my twice-yearly visits to Whirlwind Hill. My mother, by this time, has developed a bedtime routine to rout the ghosts of Siberia. She cannot stand to be cold.
We sit in the den and watch a television show. We’ve spent a long and often trying day together, and I’m ready to be alone. My mother stalls and puts off her bedtime. When the show is over she disappears into her room and comes back smelling of Pond’s Cold Cream and carrying her pink brushed-cotton lined pajamas and a flashlight. I wish she had put on the pajamas in the bedroom, but she says she wants to do it here – in front of the television where it’s warm and light. She gets her hot water bottle from the hook in the kitchen closet and fills it with water. She doesn’t exactly fill it. She’s particular about things, and the bottle needs to be just the right temperature and just the right weight.
She stays with me a while longer, then gets up to go, clutching the warmth of the red water bottle to her chest and shining the flashlight into the darkness. I long to be by myself, but suddenly I don’t want her to leave. I feel how frail she is when I hug and kiss her good night, and as I watch her walk away I can see how she’s aged. It’s the first time I realize how final the going will someday be, and my heart fills with loneliness and love.
On Wednesday: Cigars