The night was mine

WHEN I was a child, I was put to bed as soon as the clock on our mantel chimed 8. My mother told me, ``Time to climb the wooden hill.'' It was strange, I thought, that each night our stairs changed into a wooden hill, but there were many mysterious things about lying down in darkness. I don't know why my mother tucked me in so tightly that I could barely turn over. Was she protecting me from the dark? Did she simply want me to ``stay put'' after a strenuous day? I don't know, but immediately my toes rebelled. They might smother if they couldn't find at least a small air hole.

So I'd slowly slide the foot farthest from where my mother stood toward the other edge of the bed, wriggling my toes against the sheet and then out through three layers of winter blankets. (It would have been cheating to use my hands.) Sometimes my mother noticed, asking, ``What am I ever going to do with you? I haven't even turned out the light and your sheets are pulled all haywire.''

I tried to put off the moment when the light was clicked out. There were no night lights in our house; they weakened your character. I knew full well that my character was already stuffed with places soft as marshmallows. Each moment that I could keep my mother's attention was a victory for light. First I allowed Mom to tell me anything on her mind, helping along any gaps in her comments by a follow-up question: ``You were talking about Aunt Mary. Why does she throw water on cats?'' (I knew she did this because David Mills and I had meowed under her window until it was thrown open and a basin of water dashed down on us.)

The real test came after Mom had finished everything she had to say. I waited until she had kissed me, until she moved toward the door. I searched for one of those questions that would catch her interest, making her turn back toward my bed without touching the light switch. I asked her whether she thought God laughed and was glad that she did. I explored the possibilities of leprechauns immigrating to America. Then, hesitantly, I might offer her my latest nightmare, ``Mom, what should I do if the giant wants to eat me up again tonight?''

But the dread moment of darkness always came, though the door was left open a crack so the glow from the hall could seep in. I'd strain forward listening for anything scary scrabbling inside my closet. Quiet. I was safe for the moment. My eyes gradually got accustomed to the dark and I could think whatever I liked. The night was mine.

Sometimes I wriggled out of my tight sheets and dove into my covers. I played with strict rules: no bending the knees, fall straight, face down. A trick of this difficulty always required many attempts. In response to the demand from the living room, ``What's going on up there?'' I had worked out a perfect alibi.

I'd reply, ``I'm just falling asleep.''

Other times I'd creep out past my sister's door and down the first step, so I could join the wonderful world that stayed up late. I hoped to overhear fascinating things that were not discussed in front of the children. At least once I fell asleep on the stairs. My father carried me back to bed.

Yet for all my rebellion against the tight sheets and my dark room, I vividly remember the night my mother was giving a party and never came up to tuck me in. Finally I walked all the way downstairs in my hand-me-down nightgown, angrily announcing to my mother and her guests, ``How can I get to sleep when I haven't been kissed.''

I did not want them to laugh. I did not want my mother to say, ``I thought you were old enough to go to bed on your own,'' from all the way across the crowded room. But she left her guests, climbed up the wooden hill, tucked me in, whispering, ``I still like to be kissed good night.''

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