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Authors: Jodi Daynard

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BOOK: The Midwife's Revolt
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IT WAS FROM my mother that I
learned my medical arts. She was practiced in healing, and the women of our neighborhood relied upon her. She first learned them from a family slave, with whom she snuck off in the dead of night to watch slave children enter an unfair world.

Soon my mother was taking calls at all hours—to deliver a baby or nurse the sick or dying. I often went with her, although she never asked me to. Once you see a patient’s eyes shine with gratitude—well, if your heart does not break or your blood cringe, you are called for life.

I loved to bundle myself in cloaks and mitts and launch myself into the cold outdoors and the world of men. My father always grumbled from his room, “The whole town will think you’re a pair of witches! Heaven knows I do sometimes myself.”

I found my father fearsome, but clearly my mother did not. A true noblewoman, she had an innate sense of worthiness. Usually she just laughed at him.

But her flesh, oh, my Maker! Her flesh was mortal. It was on such an excursion as I have described that my mother herself first caught a devilish malady. Mrs. Whitcomb—wife of our local blacksmith—was in travail, and her throat was much inflamed. The baby, a healthy boy, lived, but his mother, burning with fever, died two days later. Laying her out, Mama grimaced and pushed me away. I was hurt, not comprehending.

Several days later I understood. She took to her bed burning with fever, her throat so raw she could not swallow. When I brought her tea, she would not let me touch her. My mother pointed to her bedside table. “Leave the tea there.”

A second day passed, and she was no better. I sent for my father, who was in New Hampshire at a trial.

When I came into her room after giving the letter to a servant, she was lying very still, her eyes wide and fixed on the ceiling. Oh, it frightened me! I reached out to her, but she drew her hand away.

“Send for the doctors,” she said. “I feel I am dying.”

I ran. No servant could run faster than I, certainly not Bessie, my mother’s maid, or Giles, my father’s manservant and a former slave, whom he had freed upon my grandfather’s death.

I was before the residence of Dr. Bullfinch by the Common within eight minutes’ time. He was at home and looked quite astonished at my sweaty face. He walked toward our house with maddening slowness, not wanting to call for the chaise.

“Can you not walk a bit faster?” I urged him.

At long last we arrived. My mother was alive but breathing shallowly. Her skin looked dried, yellow, and parched. She glanced at me wildly and reached out her hand, whether to repulse or draw me near I could not tell. In any case, Dr. Bullfinch shut the door on me. I knew he would draw out her blood.

Later that afternoon she was resting easier, and my brother, Harry, finally returned from his hiding place. I flung myself upon him like a wildcat. I loved my brother, but where had he been? At gaming and drinking, no doubt. He was fifteen and headed for nothing but ruin, our father said. He had recently refused a place at Harvard College, finding books “awfully dull.”

Harry wasn’t a bad boy, but his mind needed action, not books. In a few years, he would get his action: the Revolution and a privateer ship, upon which he sailed gaily out of Boston Harbor in search of treasure. At that time, he cared nothing for the Cause.

I beat at his chest, but he held me to him and tenderly stroked my hair.

“Lizzie, Lizzie, I’m sorry,” he said. “She’ll recover, I’m sure. She’s made of stone.”

These gay young men always think strong women are made of stone!

But she did not recover. The next morning, with Dr. Bullfinch asleep in a chair by her bed and my father galloping down Brattle Street toward our door, she expired this life.

I was new at loss then, not a master as I am now. I didn’t know how I should live without my mother. I spent hours locked in my chamber, refusing to speak to my father or brother. I was angry with both of them—for their belated presence at her death, and because rage was far more tolerable than grief.

I lived in near seclusion with my father for the next five years. He was often abroad, and in that time I read much of his library. When not reading, I spent my time chatting with Bessie.

Bored and alone a great deal of the time, I begged my father to procure me a tutor. Seeing no great harm in it, and with only the warning that I should not learn to speak in tongues, he agreed. The man came thrice weekly thereafter, in the mornings. He was an old, sickly-looking fellow named Mr. Trask. He had a balding pate and gray nose hairs. Yet I was delighted with him; he was kindly and expected no great genius from a girl. But with relatively little effort I learned to read Greek and Latin just like a boy. Upon hearing Mr. Trask’s report, my father said, “Well, it seems you’ve the mind of a man, Lizzie.” I knew this to be a very great compliment from him. But from that moment I also began to count myself a sort of freak of nature.
Of what use,
I asked myself,
could a man find the mind of a woman?

One Sunday in the summer of 1774, when I was but nineteen, I espied a new family in our meetinghouse. They sat two pews in front of ours and looked quite put out. I didn’t know at that time that their own church had closed. A decade earlier, my mother had prevailed upon my father to switch to the Congregational church, finding her own—and its perpetual prayers for the king—“dreadfully tedious.” My father, being only as religious as he needed to be, consented willingly enough.

This new family consisted of a rather pompous-looking man, a rigid but beautiful older girl with blonde upswept hair, and a restless boy who kept shifting his position beside his sister. Mrs. Boylston was not at meeting that day, and I later learned that she refused to go to the meetinghouse once her church had closed.

I heard the boy laugh at one point and turned ’round. This time, I saw him clearly: his face was bemused, his eye sharp, his fair hair pulled into a neat plait. He raised his eyebrows at me mischievously, and we both began to laugh so uncontrollably that we had to excuse ourselves.

That was Jeb.

The next day, he paid me a formal visit. I think I must have already loved him because I allowed him to stay quite a long time. My father kept coughing in his study, and Bessie, his spy, kept trudging noisily in and out of the parlor. But we chatted amiably away, paying them no heed, lost in our own happy meeting. Above all, Jeb had an ironic sense of humor and was delighted to discover someone who shared it. That I was a girl at first seemed a secondary consideration. But only at first.

We were soon engaged, and the Boylstons bestowed upon us the gift of our beautiful, yet green, Narragansett Pacer, Star.

When the actual fighting began the following April, my father found himself on the wrong side. Not in his heart, perhaps, but, as he was in the service of the Crown, he could not abandon his position without also abandoning his livelihood. He made the decision to return to England, and he wanted me to go with him. But I was engaged and in love and refused to leave.

“You must come, Lizzie,” he urged in most passionate tones. “There shall soon be nothing left here. What will I do without you?”

Indeed, our house was in disarray. He had packed as much as he could take on board ship, sold off some furniture, and let all but two of the servants go.

Though I loved my father, I was of an age to love a man more. Jeb and I were soon to be married, and I would not leave him. Nor did I wish to leave my patients, for by then I had a goodly number—the same women who had called upon my mother to deliver them of their babes and more. They trusted and needed me. Although young, I was already renowned for being able to remove a stubborn babe.

I had seen my mother many times reach into a womb and turn a babe or lift the head off the
os pubis
, where these little ones can lodge themselves like seals beneath a sea shelf. Reaching in and turning them caused mothers terrible pain. My mother hated to do it. Sometimes the womb cramped around her hand so firmly she had to withdraw and try again several times before she succeeded.

But the mothers survived, and, in the end, they were grateful to her. None of them wanted Dr. Bullfinch to attend them, what with his frowns, his hems and haws, and his big metal forceps that looked more apt to crush the skull of the babe than draw it out safely.

Between pain and harm, my mother taught me, lay a vast moral divide. Sometimes one must cause pain to avoid harm. This lesson was my mother’s great gift to me. After her death, I took a vow never to cause harm, if I could help it. I now reasoned that while I would cause my father pain, it would cause the women actual harm for me to leave them. My father and I reconciled ourselves to a parting that we believed would be of a few years’ duration, at most. If the Rebels won—an unlikely event, my father believed—those judges who knew British constitutional law might prove useful. If they did not—well, he would have done nothing wrong in the eyes of the Crown. In all, he was a fence-sitter hoping to climb down successfully on the winning side.

But Providence had other ideas. My father left for England, caught pneumonia on board, and died soon after his arrival. I hardly had time to mourn him. His death, so far away, seemed unreal to me. For days after I received word of it, I wandered the upturned house, marveling at the spirit I continued to feel there. His books were still on the shelves—I had taken but two, a single volume from his eight-volume set of Shakespeare and my mother’s beloved edition of the Sonnets. His desk still held his papers. A portrait of my fair mother, which he dared not take aboard a ship, still stood above the parlor mantel. For a while, I even allowed myself to believe that my father had not in fact died, that he was alive and well and that the message had been written in error.

Less than one month after Jeb and I moved to Braintree, my brother joined a privateer ship bound for the West Indies. He sent me a hasty word by messenger along with a curricle, and I bumped my way all night in that old chair to Boston Harbor, arriving at dawn.

I pleaded with my brother to the last. “Why not come live with us?” I begged. “There’s plenty to do right in Braintree.”

“Me, a farmer?” He laughed with a toss of his fair head. “I’d as soon be a midwife.”

I smacked him, and he laughed some more. Then I nestled my face in his breast. “I’m afraid. I’m so afraid I’ll never see you again.”

“Oh, you’ll see me, all right. I’ll be tan and hale, a stranger bearing gifts.”

“The Greeks taught us to beware strangers bearing gifts,” I replied tartly.

“Oh, Lizzie.” He sighed, casting a brotherly arm about me. “You really must try to be less intelligent. A handsome fellow has little use for a brainy woman.”

But before I could reply, it was time for him to board the vessel. I waved until I could see him no longer. I thought it probable that I would never see my brother again and wept my fill before arriving back at the farm.


NEAR THE ANNIVERSARY of my brother’s departure,
I was seized with cramps and a dizzy headache that made me puke. I could not go far from the necessary. Without, it was cold. Autumn leaves swirled about as if a storm were brewing. I was gathering the last of the pompions and gourds when I had to drop them upon the ground and curl up in pain. I called weakly for Thaxter, who, as usual during a crisis, was nowhere to be seen. Finally, with a break in the cramps I knew would be quite mercilessly short, I ran to the fields and found him having a smoke by our back fence.

“Take Star and go to the Adamses at once. Tell Abigail I’m ill and need help.”

I never liked to ask for help, but I knew my illness would soon grow worse. Indeed, I did not know how I would make it back to my house without soiling my dress. Arriving in my kitchen, I had just enough strength left to throw a pallet by the fire and collapse onto it. There, I lost consciousness. At some point later in time, I know not exactly when, I heard Abigail enter and call out to me.


“I’m here,” I replied weakly from my bed in the kitchen.

I heard her approach, then stop. No doubt she was taking in the mess. Tasks I had started lay unfinished where I had begun them. My loom stood undressed in the second parlor. Baskets of tow, apples, and corn were strewn about, rotting and gathering dust.

Abigail came at last to the kitchen entrance and peered in. I lay by a fire that had gone out long ago. I felt her stare at me for a moment, then heard her say, “You are quite unwell. Rest. All shall be well.”

I fell into a delirium that lasted a full week. At one point, Abigail told me, I sat upright in horror, for to me Abigail had become the living image of my dead mother.

I was not aware of her comings and goings, but I was later to learn that Abigail visited twice a day until the dire nature of my illness made her come one morning with her trunk and stay for several days. It seems she had sent the children off to her sister’s so she could nurse me.

I certainly owe my life to her. But, upon my waking after a time of grave illness, there was no tender scene, no expression of love and devotion. Instead, my first sight was of her tiny face peering down at me with an expression of disgust.

“Abigail? Dearest, is that you? How long have you been here?”

She ignored my question. “Truly, Lizzie, I am quite put off.”

I merely lay there, thinking she meant the stench of my sick-room.

“Let there be no mistake. It is not the dangerous state of your house that annoys me. I can forgive you that. It is your pigheadedness I cannot abide. You are getting a servant this week, and that’s that.”

Without waiting for a response from me—I was too weak to proffer one in any case—she set about removing my chamber pot, opening my windows, and scrubbing the kitchen floor. Indeed, she shrank from nothing, stopping only now and again to scold me—me, still sick and in my bed!—for having no help, and mine a bigger farm even than her own.

At one point in her cleaning, she reached over my limp body to remove a pot from the hearth. As my voice was not yet strong, I whispered to her, “You don’t frighten me, you know!”

And bending down with a fierce, hawk-like face, she said, “Well, I

Greatly cheered, I attempted a laugh, for had I been expiring, she would not have abused me thus.

BOOK: The Midwife's Revolt
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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