When I was a child and we visited my grandparents, both sets who lived up in the mountains in small, humble houses which we accessed by a car that crawled slowly around inclining, twisting roads, I knew their standard of living was different from ours.
We had a bathroom and indoor plumbing. They did not. One grandmother had a well in which she would lower a bucket then hand turn a crank that would lift the bucket by rope. She used this water for cooking, bathing and washing clothes in a big galvanized tub. She scrubbed the clothes clean by rubbing them against a washboard, using homemade lye soap.
We had furniture that, for the most part, matched. Bedroom suits, as we called them, had wooden headboards and footboards with coordinating dressers and Mama’s and Daddy’s even had a vanity with a large round mirror and an upholstered bench. My grandparents all had bits and pieces of furniture, some of it rough-hewn and made by hand such as the rockers with cane bottoms and kitchen tables made from whatever wood they could find.
In the bedrooms of both little houses were beds with hard mattresses and black iron headboards and footboards. The iron was dull and starting to rust. Hand-sewn patchwork quilts, often several of them, were piled up so as to keep them warm in houses that lacked insulation and were warmed by wood-burning heaters. While we didn’t have air conditioning at home, we did have an oil furnace that blew cozy warm air into each room through floor vents.
Next to the outhouses, those old iron beds came to represent a level of poorness that, in my childish arrogance, caused me to lift up my nose and confidently promise myself that I would never have one in my house.
In the heavens above, the good Lord laughed.
When Tink and I married, two truck-loads of his furniture crossed the country from Los Angeles. Gingerly carried by the movers up the staircase and into a guest room was an iron bed, just like the ones possessed by my grandparents. As the bed was set up, I stood in the doorway, shaking my head in wide-eyed disbelief.
“All of my grandparents, poor as they could be, had beds like that. Why would you want that?” I asked.
Tink jumped to the defense of the iron bed. “I love that bed. I bought it in a store on Montana Avenue.” This is a street in Santa Monica where a bottle of water costs $8. “It was expensive.”
I laughed long and deep. Tink seemed miffed. “Why are you laughing?”
“My people had those beds because they couldn’t afford any better. They were passed down through generations. And now they’re selling them in fancy stores. I wish my grandmothers could see this. They wouldn’t believe it.”
A few months ago, we were visiting on the set of the NBC movie, “Coat of Many Colors,” which is the story of Dolly Parton’s poor childhood in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains. Shooting that day was a scene in a bedroom with her parents played by Ricky Schroder and country singer Jennifer Nettles. Schroder was undressing for sleep while Nettles crawled beneath a hand-made quilt in an iron bed like the ones my grandparents had, identical to the bed that Tink dragged across country.
I nudged Tink. “See that bed?” He had listened one day as Dolly and I discussed the similarities of our poor mountain families and we had talked about those iron beds. I told her about the one that Tink bought and she giggled in that sweet way of hers. This time, he chuckled, too.
Later, back at home, I passed our guest room and glanced in. Iron beds and hand-made quilts, once a symbol of the poor man, have become a sign of well-to-do spenders.
The Lord isn’t the only one laughing now.