A Letter to My Childhood Bedroom
I’ve wondered what this night would be like for almost my whole life. The last night in my childhood bedroom.
And, finally, after 44 years, here we are.
My parents moved into this house in 1970, a little over six months before I was born. They married in 1968 and, at first, lived in a townhouse off 29th Street in Harrisburg, near my paternal grandparents. Originally, they wanted to find a house in Harrisburg’s established 1950s-era neighborhoods (like Lenker Manor, where my mother grew up), but the twenty percent down-payment required for those homes proved a barrier to entry.
One day, while out for a Sunday drive in whatever stylish, zippy, and unsafe-at-any-speed car my father was driving that particular year, inevitably with the windows down, Burt Bacharach on the radio, and a scarf protecting my beautiful movie-star mother’s perfectly coiffed hair, they chanced upon the newest phase of a housing tract being developed by a former farmer.
The majority of the development consisted of 1950s/1960s Wonder Years-style homes built on streets named after the developer’s children and family members. The homes in the newest phase were larger — two-story split-level homes in designs en vogue at the time, with two-car carports, larger yards, and siding options in white, light blue, gold, maroon, and avocado green.
And all of it only required ten percent down.
My parents plunked down that ten percent in June 1970, chose the gold siding, and moved in during the autumn of that year.
After I was born in April 1971, they brought me here.
Throughout the subsequent years of my life — and even when I was living in such near- and far-flung places as Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Lille (France) and Paris (yes, France) — this has always, always been my home.
And, for most of that time — in colors ranging from sky blue to Remington-Steele-office-grey, to mid-century blue — this has been my bedroom.
But that wasn’t always the case.
Throughout my early childhood, my bedroom was upstairs, and this room was simply my playroom — an extra room off of our family room, where my toys were strewn across the cold gold and white 1970 tile floor. I would come here when my mom was ironing in the family room, or H.R. Pufnstuf was over and I could somehow figure out how to get downstairs (without really understanding what or where “downstairs” even was). Other times I would play in here (or on the floor just outside) while my parents lounged in cable-knit sweaters in front of the family room’s crackling fireplace to a soundtrack of Un Homme et Une Femme like the soft-focus cover of a 1970s K-Tel love songs compilation. But memories of those days are only vaguely-formed, flickering flashes, like the mess on the floor and a board game played in the closet with Elin, a brief-next-door-neighbor, when we were both small enough for the closet to seem like a spacious and magical secret room.
My brother was born in 1976 and my sister in 1977, but I remember that it was around the time my dad took me to see the first Star Wars movie at Middletown’s Elks Theatre as being the event around which my parents told me that I would be moving downstairs to “a big girl room.”
I was six.
Lying in bed that very first night, it was a little scary – I was downstairs alone, it was dark and quiet, and I was cocooned partially underground behind the drapes of my sole window, itself shielded from the moonglow by its position behind our front shrubs. But the thing I remember most was my inexplicable understanding and solemn acknowledgement that, while this was the first night, there would ultimately be a last. When would that be, I wondered? What would that be like? How old would I be? What year?
Such precocious existential ruminating may seem weird, but it was not unfounded within the young Arnold kids. Once, my little sister insisted on keeping a box of drawings and art projects she did in early elementary school (labeled her “Pentagon Papers” by my dad) because she had the forethought to know the contents would make her happy on some awful future day when we had to clean out the house. (Note: they did). At any rate, those first-night questions have haunted me over the years, especially as my love for this room grew inversely to the ticking away of my time left in it.
There are so many memories in this room. And, now, sitting here in my room, on this long-dreaded night, there is so little time to capture them all on so few sheets of paper.
My parents always let me decorate the room however I wanted, so my wall décor morphed from weird circus and Scooby Doo on Ice pennants to Star Wars posters, before my life changed forever when I discovered the poster included inside Shaun Cassidy’s debut album. From that moment on, I couldn’t get enough of TiGER beat (purchased for me by my mom [cough, “pusher”] in the magazine section of our grocery store as she had her own very storied history of teen idol fandoms in the ‘50s). My walls were soon covered with more posters of Shaun Cassidy, plus Erik Estrada and Jimmy McNichol. (I’m proud to say that, even at age 7, I knew Scott Baio was gross).
But then I saw Rick Springfield.
From the first time I saw his dreamy face on Dick Clark’s New Years’ Rockin’ Eve going into 1982, my world became All Rick Springfield, All The Time. If I wasn’t ogling his pictures, reading about him, daydreaming about him, talking to my friends about him, writing notes about him, or waiting for his song to come on the radio so I could tape it with my cassette player… I was forging his signature all over my notebooks and perfecting my air guitar on “the stage” (i.e., the narrow part of the family room between my room door and the bathroom, facing the fireplace) to Side A of Working Class Dog.
That was, at least, until I discovered suave, stylish British men in suave, stylish tailored suits doing suave, stylish things in tropical locales (Duran Duran) and Los Angeles (Remington Steele). I became completely obsessed with the TV show Remington Steele in the ways that only a thirteen-year-old girl can be. I mean, there were scrapbooks. There was fan fiction. There was a blue-on-white vinyl bumper sticker on my door that said “Steele Away,” autographed pictures from both stars on the far wall over my desk, and episode advertisements clipped from TV Guide all around both my dresser mirrors. I spent countless sunny summer afternoons lying on my bed reading my Pierce Brosnan Fan Club newsletters and Remington Steele fanzines.
“Try this for a deep, dark secret…”?
While I was in love with Remington Steele, I totally wanted to be Laura Holt. The year my dad thought he’d foil my annual December tradition of snooping for my Christmas presents in my parents’ closet by locking them in his darkroom… I responded by using my laminated school radio station press pass to swiftly pick the lock.
But, always, there was the music, whether it came from a Donny & Marie record player, a transistor radio, a handheld cassette recorder, or a Sanyo boombox with two tape decks and detachable speakers. Turning it on was the first thing I did when entering the room, and turning it off was the last thing I did when I left. I could (and can) name that song — and its artist — in one note. And there is no pain in the world quite like the pain of crouching on a thinly-carpeted cement floor for four hours holding a cassette player up to a speaker to tape songs off a year-end count-down.
Locally, there was WKBO, then WFEC, then WINK104 and some station around 97 on the FM dial, until, finally, around 1987, I simply gave up on all that and listened only to my cassettes of morose, black-clad British bands with synthesizers and amazing hair.
I experienced all of the ‘80s — and its music — in this room: Blondie, the Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Prince, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, the Talking Heads… and all of those British bands with synthesizers and amazing hair. For the past 37 years, a pin-up collage of them has been on the back of my bedroom door.
It will be the last thing I take down.
Today, as I say goodbye to this room that has been so important and special to me for so long, I’m 50 years old. I live in New York City where I work for a global music distribution company with the man who produced Blondie and the Go-Go’s. I’ve been kissed by Rick Springfield, hugged by Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon, and had Oreo cheesecake with Laura Holt (no lock-picking was involved).
My younger self at pretty much any age would be beyond PSYCHED at how it all turned out.
But right now, in this moment, I’d trade all of it to once again be that semi-scared six-year-old, lying in this room for the very first time pondering this moment.
Because all of those dreams started right here. This room shaped the person I became. And, so shaped by this room, leaving it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my entire life.
Thank you so much, bedroom.
For keeping me safe and warm and for giving me a space to grow, learn, and listen.
Please know that I whole-heartedly love you forever, and “however far apart it seems… we’ll always be together in electric dreams.”
Oh man, all the pinholes I left behind on my bedroom walls and door, I can sooooo relate. I love, Love, LOve, LOVe, LOVE your story! Thank you so much for sharing it with us!
Fun essay, fun memories. I decorated my room very similarly but just a few years earlier. My room was in Chicago and was bright yellow, and my decor included Parker Stevenson, KISS, and mainly the Bee Gees, plus some Beatles and Michael Jackson and some of my own artwork. I had the Sanyo boom box with detachable speakers too, after my Panasonic unit died. I wish I still had some of the mixtapes I made. My dad sold that house when I was 30, but my room had been a guest room for nine years by then.
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How did you decorate the walls of your childhood bedroom?