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Grandma's Featherbed


By Jene Hedden 

Many of my childhood memories are just vague bits and pieces of long-forgotten places, shadows of smiles and the distant whispers of now-silent voices. But, occasionally, my mind drifts back to circumstances filled with exceptionally detailed recollections.

When I was a child, I lived for two school years in Green County, Kentucky. For one of those years, I lived with my aunt Trixie and Uncle Carl along with my cousin Sandra Sue. The other year, my mother and I lived with my grandmother Keltner, Uncle Douglas and Aunt Milladean Keltner. I think the year I lived with grandmother Keltner was 1952. I was in the second grade and attended a one room school. But that is another story for another day.

The year I lived with my grandmother at the home-place, my mother and I slept upstairs.  I don’t recall much detail about the room itself; only that it wasn’t completely finished.  It was just rafters, a tin roof and walls fashioned of boards nailed vertically around the room only a few feet high to where the sloping roof began.  There was no drywall or plaster on the walls, but they weren’t bare.  Old newspaper was glued to the wood…a common practice in those days. The room had no heat in the winter or cooling in summer, and when it rained, I could lie in bed at night and hear the raindrops falling right above my head on the old tin roof. To this day, I get sleepy when I listen to the soft sounds of rain on a metal roof.

But I want to tell you about the old bed I slept in. The wooden bed frame had both a head board and a foot board and was likely hand-made long before I ever slept in it. And I remember that it was so high off the floor, I had to have help or use an old ladder-back chair just to reach the mattress so I could sink in under the covers.

The bed was always covered with several colorful home-sewn quilts that had been seamed together with scraps of old clothes or feed sacks. I vaguely recall one winter night when my mother pointed out a scrap of fabric she recognized from her own clothing from many years before sewn into the design of the quilt that was keeping me warm.

My grandmother, aunt and mother made the quilts.  After the dinner dishes were washed and the table scraps thrown to the chickens, the quilt frame was unrolled and the women folk found the place where they had left off from a previous night to resume their needlework. Stitching the quilt required three layers of material to be sewn just so…the quilt top that was designed out of scraps, the middle layer of loose cotton batting and the bottom layer of muslin. The three pieces became one by joining them together with intricate and precise hand-stitching into a design that might not always be noticed by a seven year old boy.

The hand stitched quilt lay over a mattress filled with soft poultry feathers that had been carefully gathered over time from the poultry yard just a few feet from the house.  Sleeping on a feather mattress was challenging because when I crawled into bed, I sank six or so inches into the soft over-stuffed ticking, and it was hard to move. Even turning over in the bed was a Herculean task, so many nights this young boy settled in and never moved from the spot where he began his slumbering journey.  I particularly remember rainy nights, as I lay in a hypnotic state, my ears filled with the gentle patter on the tin roof while my body was held captive in the embrace of my goose and hen-feathered nest.

Although the attic room was not heated, the chimney that ran the full height of the house passed through it providing a small amount of radiant warmth through the field stone. But that warmth extended only inches into the lofty space, so I learned early on to place my flannel shirt, wool socks and dungarees across the foot of the bed near the chimney.  Then on cold mornings, I could reach down to grab them and dress under the covers. It was a major challenge to dress myself that way, but it sure was better than hurriedly throwing cold clothing on chilled arms and legs as I danced beside the bed in bare feet on the cold wooden floor.

My grandmother was “particular” about her featherbeds.  She had a cane stick that may have been used for “corporal duties” sometime in the past.  But, I only remember her using it to smooth the feather mattress, sliding it from top to bottom first on one side and then the other so that it was as smooth as the top of the dinner table. When the mattress was to her liking, with absolutely no lumps or wrinkles, she put the quilts and pillows back on the bed in their usual tidy arrangement. 

Grandmother’s featherbed rule required that once I was up and out of bed, I was not allowed to lie on it again until bedtime that evening.  Even if I were sick, returning to bed before bedtime required that my temperature had to be high enough…as assessed by my grandmother…to allow the breaking of the featherbed rule.

Of course, bedtime came early in those days.  After dinner entertainment was simple; working a jigsaw puzzle, reading a book or maybe playing a store bought game with one of the grownups for awhile.  Toys held little attraction for me after dark, because I knew what the mornings would hold. So, I would usually be in bed by seven-thirty or eight. Five a.m. would come too soon, and I would be needed at the cattle barn to accompany my Uncle Douglas while he milked the two or three cows that would be waiting and mooing.

As I look back on times long gone by, I realize how much I take the comforts of my life sixty years later for granted.  I assume I will be warm when I get out of bed in the morning.  I think nothing of flipping a switch for light.  I don’t need to chop wood on a cold winter’s day for cooking and heating, and I don’t have to milk cows at five a.m. to provide for some of the basic necessities of life.

Yet, those memories of nights snuggled deep in a feather mattress warm my heart on a cold winter night in 2016.  For life on the home-place was simpler then for a boy of seven. I was safe in the heart of my family. And I was warm and sleepy as I lay under a tin roof on a cold, rainy night cradled in the softness of Grandma's featherbed.


Edited by Paula Moore Hurtt