May 3, 2022

On the weekend I dismantled a low wall I’d built of pressure-treated planks to retain our vegetable garden in our back yard, in Toronto. The wall had bowed out badly and looked ready to collapse. I thought about a trip to the lumberyard to buy new planks, but then I decided I’d rebuild with the material at hand. I pulled out the nails with a hammer and pounded them straight again. I backed out the screws with my Robertson screwdriver, my power drill being at the cottage.

All this effort with a manual screwdriver made me recall a strange period of my life when I became obsessed with building my own bed(s!) This pathology lasted a decade, off and on. Why, during university and long afterwards, every time I moved to a new apartment, did I go to the lumber yard to buy two-by-fours and plywood, and wood screws, and construct my own bed?

The answer, I think, lies in my earlyish childhood. At age 10 I lived with my father and his merry gang of hippies on a farm they rented near Osgoode, a suburb of Ottawa. We spent the summer organizing a Renaissance craft fair, which took place Labour Day weekend. In June my father pointed to a pile of lumber and said, “Build yourself a house.” Which I did.

The next summer, at age 11, I again built a house, this time on a farm in Plantagenet, in Eastern Ontario on the Ottawa River. A few years later, back at my Mom’s house where I lived the rest of the year, my mom and stepfather one summer told my two elder sisters and I the same thing: build your own houses for the summer. I reasoned, “I’d better build something lasting; this keeps happening!” Plus I had become skilled with handsaws and hammers, and with reusing wood by backing out and straightening rusted old bent nails. I built an A-frame with an aluminum roof, still erect 35 years later.

I built my first bed, per se, in a second-floor bedroom of a drafty, hulking brick house that friends and I rented in Fredericton, on Brunswick Street across from the graveyard. We called the place Punk Manor, in honour of the era. I designed a wooden aerie, on stilts, with a ladder to climb in, which left lots of room underneath to store stuff or put a desk.

I then laid off bed-building for a few years until I landed in Ottawa, post-university, for a job. I shared a house with three women. I schlepped to the lumberyard and carried some timber home, screwed it all together and made a bed for the royal boudoir.

A couple of years later I lived on Queen Street West in Toronto – and built myself yet another bed. In retrospect it seems crazy, driving in 50 or 75 screws by hand, but now it occurs to me that I think I felt unimaginably wealthy, compared with my childhood when all I had was discarded used lumber from demolition projects to work with, and rusty bent nails, to have the money to buy smooth-planed fresh boards and shiny new screws. I behaved like a bird, building a new nest every season.

Then in Montreal I built a bed in my apartment in the Plateau, when I worked at the Gazette. I’d by this point scrapped the flamboyance, and impracticality, of stilt-beds, and built beds at about hip-height. In Montreal rent was cheap, plus I had a good job, so I could afford a bedroom large enough that I didn’t need to save space by fashioning a bed with living space beneath it. My Plateau bed was notable for its insertion into a curved alcove of three windows above the street.

I built my last bed on Jeanne Mance Street in the Mile End, near the St. Viateur bagel factory. Fun fact: I don’t remember dismantling any of these contraptions upon departure from the various apartments. These were not beds that one could move.

Anyway, once I moved to New York I’d gotten bed construction out of my system, though ironically the illegal sublet into which I moved in the East Village had a bed very much after my own design. Yes, you guessed it: a loft bed with space for a desk beneath.

These days in Toronto I sleep in a Mission Revival wooden bed built by local Mennonites. I completed the garden wall repair. I reused the old wood, adding only a piece of medium-density fibreboard that workers renovating our kitchen had left on our back porch. In a world beset by climate change, in which visionaries beseech us to reduce, re-use and recycle, it feels virtuous to not need a trip to the lumberyard.