The Bed and I


“When I was sick and lay a-bed,

I had two pillows at my head. 

And all my toys beside me lay

To keep me happy all the day.”

                               from Land of the Counterpane by Robert Louis Stevenson


On the rare occasion when I was sick enough to stay home and miss school, my mother would allow me to spend the day in my parents’ bed.  It was a double bed with an iron headboard and footboard, done in fancy scrolls to mimic the more expensive brass variety. 

Since my mother was a frustrated interior decorator, (who now gets to live vicariously through her furniture designer granddaughter) she painted it with an antique-gold paint to jazz it up. 

Getting to loll in that gilded bed, though achy with the flu, was a treat.

My mother would bring me Cream O’ Wheat for breakfast and hover over me throughout the day, feeling my forehead and fussing.

And then there was her reliable cure-all…the silver bullet of medicine…God’s gift to mothers everywhere…the magic elixir:  a jar of Vicks VapoRub. 

My mother is now 91 and I attribute her longevity to her liberal use of Vicks, applied to any area of skin or orifice above the waistline.  It didn’t matter that the label on the jar warned against using the product internally.  Pish, tosh!  That was for sissies. 

Mom put it up her nose, in her mouth and globbed big dollops of the stuff into the water of the vaporizer that spewed steam out at me all day and night during respiratory illnesses.

Her refusal to acknowledge the warnings about something she insisted was beneficial also surfaced once during a family dinner years ago. 

My brother, an adult by then, told her he couldn’t eat a particular Mexican dish she’d prepared because he was allergic to cilantro.  She told him “you’re going to eat it and you’re going to like it” and spun on her heel to return to the kitchen. 

I guess we were all lucky that Vicks didn’t turn up somewhere on the menu. 

To keep me entertained during my stay in the gilded bed, my mother would dig through our huge comic book collection in the den closet and bring me some choice Donald Ducks or Uncle Scrooges.  Also, there were many well-thumbed copies of Reader’s Digest to…well…digest. 

They were immensely better than the sad thing being passed off as the Digest now.  The old Digests of the 1950s actually had interesting stories and condensed books.  My mother-in-law sends us the Digest, so I went through a recent copy and ripped out every ad for pharmaceuticals or weight loss aids just to see what was left.  It was pretty pitiful.  

Enough to make you sick, if you weren’t already.

The best time I had while ill was when I was around twelve years old.  My mother had acquired a copy of the book “The Egg and I” by Betty MacDonald.  (A 1947 movie based on the book starred Claudette Colbert, Fred McMurray, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride.) 

The story was about a husband and wife who start out their new marriage on a chicken farm in Washington state, although neither one of them has had any experience with farming or chickens.

I love to read aloud, so my mother sat at the foot of the gilded bed while I read to her.  Ma and Pa Kettle were the stand-outs of the story, with their kitchen filled with kids, chaos and roaming chickens. 

(Kind of like mine with roaming cats, but we won’t go there.) 

One of the Kettles’ many children was a daughter they’d nicknamed “Tits,” but Ma insisted it stood for “sister.”  For a twelve year-old this was heady stuff and high humor. 

We both rolled around on the bed with laughter throughout the time it took to finish the book, between applications of VapoRub and the shaking out of the sheets so my dad wouldn’t have to sleep on toast crumbs that night. 

Laughter is almost as good a medicine as Vicks.

My mother still has that bed, although she has slept in it by herself for the last eleven years since my father died.  A few months ago she gave it another coat of antique-gold paint because it was getting worn and patchy in a few spots. 

The bed seems so small now, nothing like the luxurious bed of my memory. 

And I recently replaced one of her ancient, satin-edged wool blankets that dated all the way back, some fifty-odd years ago, to spending sick days in that bed as a young child.  The blanket had become so tattered at the bottom it was almost like tissue paper, it was so thin.

Surprisingly, I experienced a twinge of regret at disposing of the wretched thing.  I had some good times lying underneath that blanket with Ma and Pa Kettle, Donald Duck, and my mother. 

And a jar of Vicks, of course.  


20 thoughts on “The Bed and I

  1. Ah, a wonderful memory, beautifully told. Whenever I was sick (and it was a lot), I stayed in my parents’ bed (my dad would be banished to my room to sleep), listening to the radio all day. It was heaven, especially snuggled up next to my mom at night. Of course, there was Vicks, the trusty sidekick, but nothing compared to my mom’s words and kissing my forehead, telling me I would get well soon. I always (well, almost) believed her.


  2. Oh my God! No wonder you and Mary Lee are friends–you are a total delight. I also mainlined Vicks during winter illnesses, and damned if it isn’t one of my favorite smells, even now.

    I loved the way you describe lolling in the big bed, sick but not so sick that you wanted to die, comforted by your mother and the comics and cream of wheat.

    We live in the Rocky Mountains, and winters are harsh here and full of sniffles and coughs. Not surprisingly, I rub the Vicks on their chests, cuddle in close, and inhale.

    PLEASE come guest post for me! I love your spunk!


    • Thank you, TKW! I have to admit that I do still like the smell of Vicks. My Dad was a Mentholatum man himself, but I don’t think it had that certain “oomph” that Vicks has.

      Thanks for the kind words and even kinder offer of guest posting! Mary Lee is a hard act to follow. 🙂


  3. Took me right back home to the fifties. I’m sad with you about the satin-edged blanket. They all used to be like that, and they could get painful if somebody tried ironing those satin edges…they’d melt a little and get razor-sharp. Okay, maybe that never happened in any other household but mine.

    But, I do remember when Reader’s Digest was worth something. When the last of the Greatest Generation has left us, do you suppose they’ll fold their tent and go?

    Hugs to mom.


    • I think Reader’s Digest left us a long time ago, only they don’t realize it yet. Now it’s become a wan cousin of the supermarket tabloids, I’m afraid.

      Ironing?! When I need to do that I lie down until the feeling passes. 🙂


  4. Melissa – Your recent post about Vicks VapoRub and your mother’s “illness” routine made me think of my childhood. My mother didn’t use Vicks, but always had Mentholatum on hand. This was used just as Vicks is, and also as a lip balm and on various itches and scratches. For cuts she used Iodine, Mercurochrome, or Merthiolate. My brother Robert and I often had debates about which one hurt the most when applied. It usually hurt more than the original injury.

    If I had an upset stomach, she would put a drop of peppermint oil onto a teaspoon of sugar. This was supposed to help but I’m not sure it did. She would also let me sip Seven Up for an upset stomach, and fix non-alcoholic eggnog after my nausea passed. I don’t enjoy either drink now because of their association with being ill.



    • Richard, how wonderful to hear from you and I do hope you’re doing well!

      I had the same problem with the soft drink Bubble Up, which my folks gave me when I had an upset stomach. It pretty much ruined me for anything similar like 7-Up. Once you make that association…

      And Merthiolate! Oh, don’t get me started. We use to beg for the Mercurochrome when we had scraped knees. “Not the Merthiolate, not the Merthiolate!!” haha

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Always a pleasure to hear from a fellow Downey-ite!


  5. Only above the waist? Honey, put that stuff on the soles of your feet and they’ll be softer than they’ve been for years! I can’t remember why I tried it–something to do with a cold, I think. Whatever–it didn’t work, but oh, are my tootsies smooth. Have to wear socks, of course. (Always a good bedtime look!) Trying to think where else I might put it…!

    When I was sick as a child, I used to move the radio by my bed and listen to Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club and Arthur Godfrey.


    • She didn’t repaint the whole thing, just some touch-ups here and there, but yeah, it is nice she’s still interested and able to do stuff like that. Last week she hauled out an oil painting she’d started maybe fifteen years ago and finished it. She was pretty proud of that. I was too.


  6. This is a beautiful story. We’ve got to hang onto the precious moments spent with our moms. They can soften us up when we lose our patience with them and they can remind us that we were loved no matter how much a trial we were. Thank you for this. I miss my mom.


  7. What a sweet story, and so wonderfully told. My mother also employed Vicks for just about any ailment, although never in the mouth that I can recall (and I’m pretty sure I’d remember that). I read Donald Duck comic books, too; actually any comic books were welcome when I was sick. And I agree completely about Reader’s Digest. Remember when you’d never find a mistake in there? They seem to have replaced their editors with advertising salesmen. But thank you again for writing this. I hope the laughs never stop!


  8. Thanks! You’re right about the Digest and advertising. You should have seen the stack of ads I had after I ripped them out of that issue.

    Donald Duck comic books back in the day were really quite educational. They had interesting plot lines, especially when Huey, Dewey and Louie were involved with their Junior Woodchuck scout group. And I always loved the way Uncle Scrooge would swan dive into his pile of money. (Do you think Donald Trump does the same thing?)


  9. Oh gosh, I remember having Vicks smeared all over my chest whenever I was ill. The smell would stay in the room for days and go sort of… I dunno, sort of cardboardy after a while.

    Love the post! And particularly love your sense of humour!


    • My mother would not only “grease” my chest (always giving me fits of giggles) but she would also put a rag around my neck to retain the fumes and direct them to my nostrils. I’d forgotten about that!

      One time my folks concocted a sort of oxygen tent for me by putting a card table on the bed at the head of it and draping flannel sheets over the whole thing, with me inside. Then they piped in the vaporizer to make it all steamy. And yet, I survived childhood!


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