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Flannel Sheets


Backward, turn backward, O time, in your flight,
Make me a child again just for tonight

Elizabeth Akers Allen

The World’s Greatest Granddaughters came to town this weekend. Their coming is always a glorious upheaval along the lines of a violent meteorological event.

The older will jab the doorbell in staccato fashion, an eldritch grin on her face. Then their mother, our daughter, will give them the go-ahead. This breaching of the outer defenses signals the mad dash and ululating cries—POPPYPOPPYPOPPYNANANANAPOPPYNANAPOPPYNANA!

Before old Poppy can extricate himself from his recliner by the window, they are on him like syrup on a waffle, squirming, jabbering, giggling, tugging (“Get UP, Poppy, get UP!”).

A mad scattering of cats and the weekend begins.

We like to get the sleeping arrangements out of the way (so we can haul out the toys and see what Nana may be planning). The Sheas are empty nesters, so our son’s old bedroom has become my study and our daughter’s old bedroom Diana’s. Not to worry, though, because we have a sufficiency of inflatable beds, and the girls are avid to help us set them up. These are far from the camping mattresses of yore, thank goodness. Not only are they covered with a velour-like material (and one is actually bed-height), but they also have little electric pumps to make inflation a snap. The girls take turns holding the switch down as up the bed swells like a rousing animal. When the bed is inflated, or almost inflated, the serious jumping can begin. Little Neanderthal kids probably jumped on the stuffed bearcat skins millennia ago, despite parents’ protests (“…and the doctor said / No more monkeys jumping on the bed!”). Beds are the link in this story. Beds, or more specifically bedding, are what hit me as I watched these girls tumbling like otters.

Come back with me. It’s 1947, I’m five years old, and we are going to Grandpa Shea’s for Christmas.

John P. Shea, my grandfather, was a tool and die maker in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, a town about 40 miles southwest of Boston on the Post Road. A skilled craftsman, he made a respectable living. When he married Mary Riley, my grandmother, he built a three-storey house at the top of a hill. The ground floor, where my Uncle Bill and his family lived, was #2 Forrest Place; the second floor, where Grandma and Grandpa lived, was #4; the third floor was bedrooms. We’ll get to those bedrooms.

Quite a house it was. Big and square, commanding the hill. The first and second floors had the same floor plan front to back: kitchen, dining room, living room, and big, screened porch. Off to the side were a bedroom, a bath, and a sitting room. I seem to remember pocket doors, the height of architectural spiff. It always smelled wonderful, and you could climb into Grandpa Shea’s lap as he sat in his big easy chair by the window.

We lived on the Post Road (US 1) also, but about 40 miles farther south, in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, right on Narragansett Bay, in a house that deserves a wonk, too, but not this one. Anyway, Mom and Dad and Steve—he would have been about eight—and I are off to North Attleboro in the new Chevy. Let’s throw in some snow, too, though not enough for highway drama.

I almost forgot to mention the aunts,* and the third storey makes no sense without the aunts. Mary was the only Riley girl to marry, and she had three sisters: Julia, Anne, and Genevieve. With a graciousness that was the rule rather than the exception in those days, I think, John invited the sisters to live at 4 Forrest Place. Which they did, even into old maidhood. My dad’s sister, Aunt Marnie, whose fiancé died in a car crash, stayed on at the house, too, though she had an apartment in Boston, where she worked during the week.

These four women had bedrooms on the third floor, which was just a central corridor with rooms off it, almost like a hotel. Grandma and Grandpa slept on the second floor by virtue of their standing in the arrangement and also perhaps because Grandpa had a game leg. It was enough for him to manage the stairs up from the street. The other thing to know about the third floor is that, for some reason, it was unheated, or barely heated.

It’s Christmas Eve, in the afternoon, and we have arrived. Grandma and Grandpa and the aunts—they all make a fuss over Steve and me, remarking how we have grown, (for some reason, a 40-mile drive was a rare undertaking in those days!). Mom and Marnie are chatting. The aunts also make a fuss over my dad, their nephew, youngest of the three Shea children.

Day journeys into night, Steve and I finally run out of steam, and we are all gathered in the living room. Yawns are discreetly stifled but the signs are clear. Mom announces our bedtime. We protest, of course, but feebly. Tomorrow is Christmas!

One of the aunts—was there a rotation they settled upon?—would have surrendered her room on the third floor. For the life of me, I can’t remember where Jule or Anne or Gen would have gone, either. Into some parallel universe for the night? But in the morning, while Marnie whipped us up grape juice specials, they would have returned, so no harm was done.

Flannel sheets.** They all used flannel sheets in the winter time (wouldn’t you if the heat were dicey?) and to Steve and me that was the most wonderful part of the night and maybe the visit, those flannel sheets. Clearly they were beyond the reach or the ken of the junior Sheas. Maybe Mom and Dad wanted to give us a Spartan upbringing. To this day I don’t know. But you snuggled down into those sheets in “the close and holy dark,” you squinched your eyes shut, and you felt all those people around you, keeping you safe. And those sheets keeping you warm as toast.

Happy Holidays, and Happy Holy Days, one and all.

*Dialect note: in New England “aunt” rhymes not with “cant” but with “wont.” Now you know.

**And now, when Poppy and Nana settle in for their long winter’s nap it is on—what else?—flannel sheets.



Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is shea@macinstruct.com.


 
                          





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