Thursday, March 10, 2005

A Small Town Boy
1844

The fourth of July had come and gone and Harriett sat on the steps of her parents’ home. She breathed a long sigh and gazed up at the chestnut trees that surrounded the farm. It was a shame she was not young enough to climb them again. Her brothers had whittled little soldiers out of the chestnut and hickory twigs after the storms made large ones fall. The redder chestnut soldiers were the British that their father had fought when he served as a Sharpshooter in the War of 1812.
Her mother had said it wasn’t so long ago that her pa had come home from the war and they had moved from Kentucky. The farm in Washington County was all she had ever known and the grass was soft in the barn, especially in October, after all the harvesting was about done. She thought for a brief moment what married life must be like if you lived away from your parents. She only had one sister and two brothers younger than her. She and the youngest brother were the only ones not married of those still at home.
She got up and pulled a wisp of hair away from her face, lifted her skirt a bit and went into the house to start some beans on the stove. The boys had stoked it well before they went out to the fields. That was good, because at this point, Harriett couldn’t lift too much. They all learned that after hearing their mother talk about how hard lifting was when she had been pregnant with the one just after them. Harriett chuckled to think of that, since her mother had given birth fourteen times in sixteen years. With family coming to help with farming and babies all the time, it seemed there was always a full house.
She took a deep breath and lifted the heavy pot filled with string beans from the garden, laced with a piece of salt pork and some of the shelled beans that her pa liked so much. She set it on the stove and shifted the burner so that it would simmer while she made the dough for biscuits, finished up the ham that had been in the oven all morning and finished baking some cookies for the children she was sure would be coming. It seemed awfully quiet with her mother gone and the younger ones out in the fields helping Pa. Well, it could be said that none of them were really young anymore. Farming made one feel older, she often thought when saw her older sisters who had married men who ran offices or sold dry goods and the like. They got away when they had their babies. It wasn’t going to be that way with her, she knew.
Her ma had taken her to an aunt’s house as soon as they had known she was with child and they stayed for a few months. She came back dressed in mourning and her mother had spread the word that she had gotten married, but her husband had been killed. Then she could reveal she was pregnant without fear of any gossip. She was sure her sisters knew, even though they all lived far away and certainly the aunt she had stayed with knew. But the child’s father would never know because she knew he was indeed dead. Pa had shot him and buried him under the soft grass in the barn. The intercourse that had occurred hadn’t been at all pleasurable the way some of her sisters had suggested, but then it wasn’t agreed upon either.
She put it from her mind and stirred the beans as the tiny bubbles broke on the surface and the steam rose with its salty scent. She went out to the garden behind the house and picked a dozen ears of corn and took them inside. She shucked them as she hummed a little song, then put them in with the ham. She put the biscuits on a pan and set them aside. The cookies were just about done and she wished she had just two more hands so that it could be done all the more quickly. As she took the last cookie from the pan, her mother walked in. Behind her was Aunt Emeline with her baby, Adeline, who was just barely a year old. Her son had stayed home, being seven, he could help his father and the hands on the farm a bit. Emeline carried Adeline’s diapers and other baby things that she knew would be needed by a littler baby than hers. She was the one who had given Harriett the necessary shelter earlier in the year. Adeline squealed with delight to see Harriett again. She had tended the baby a lot while she stayed with Emeline and John.
“Hello there, Addie,� Harriett said as she chucked her under her chin.
“Hello, Harriett. How are you coming along?� said Emeline as Adeline squealed again with a big smile.
“Good. I feel a lot of quickening. I think it could be any time now. By our reckoning, we think maybe the twenty-ninth. Only a week. You think you can stay until then?�
“Of course. The men will be able to carry on without me. Besides John’s brother lives near him and his wife’s a good cook - she’s also got no babies to tend to. John and Joseph will appreciate a quiet meal for a change, right, Addie?�
“Well now,� Harriett’s mother, Esther, interrupted, “I see you have dinner near done. Cookies for Addie? “
“Well, I did think Joseph might come, too. And the boys helping in the field might like them, Ma. They’re a little sweet. Things should be done in a bit. If you want to clean up, you might want to fill a bucket at the pump out back.�
The women knew that Harriett was always organized and would be able to tend to a little one by herself. Of course lots of women had and it would probably always be that way, they had agreed until men had stopped making war. It seemed when one war was over, men in charge kept finding ways of sending the soldiers, both young and old into more battles. And the women and little ones usually stayed behind. Sometimes the men came back, like John Roberts, but sometimes they didn’t. She set up the tables across the piles of wood in the back and laid out the food. She put the pots and pans straight on the table, knowing that nothing could hurt those wood slabs that served as tabletops. The bell that Esther would ring in a minute or two would sound out a note clear enough to be heard far back in the fields. Then Pa and the boys would come back to the house and wash up long enough to eat dinner and get back to work. Some of the boys, Harriett knew, would sneak a biscuit or a cookie to eat while they were in the field and sometimes even one of the sheep managed to get one of her biscuits. So she brought out the pots and the baskets full of biscuits and cookies and set them on the table.
Esther rang the bell clear and loud and minutes later, all the men and boys came scrambling in. They laughed at each other when they saw the dirt that managed to fly up into their faces. Some of them looked like the slave boys down south. They mugged around a little, teasing each other, then at a solemn command from Pa, they proceeded to clean up and gather their dinners together. They all sat and Pa gave a short blessing before they ate.
“Pa?� Harriett said.
“What do you want, Harriett? I’m eating my beans at the moment.�
“I’m sorry, Pa. It can wait till you’re done.�
“It’s no problem, Sweetie. Just tell your pa what you want.�
“Well, Pa, I was a wondering if Emeline and Addie can stay until... Well, my time. They’d sleep in the birthing room until I deliver, then they could stay in my room. Wouldn’t be no fuss.�
“Why, sure, Harriett. Whatever made you think they couldn’t? Your ma woulda lit inta me with a hickory stick if I’da said no. Did they bring their things? I know I heard Addie a little while ago.�
“Yessir. I’ve got some blankets and things brought from the attic already.�
“You shouldn’t be running around so. You’ll be turning that child on its head.�
They laughed just a little and her pa looked at her with sad eyes. She smiled back with the same look in her own eyes. They both knew that this was going to be harder than any other birthing in the Roberts household and not just because Harriett would be at home. It would be the memories of how she came to be a mother that would vex her for the rest of her life - or the child’s.
“Thank you, Pa. I’ve got to help Ma clean up the dishes so you can get back to work. You have anybody carding wool this year?�
“Well, I think Joseph said he’d come over and try to for a few days. Your ma is hoping we’ll get enough to spin out so’s that she can get someone to weave some blankets and shawls for you and the... baby.�
“I hope the winter isn’t going to be too cold.�
“You and me both. Now git going.�
They went back to their work, Harriett picking up the bowls that the boys had shared and rinsing them at the pump and Pa heading back out to the fields to get that last bit of corn before sunset. She glanced at the barn again and remembered the force of the unknown man's body when he had taken her into the barn, laid her on the grass and had his way with her. She’d heard her sisters and cousins giggling and sighing about how warm and sensuous a thing sex was, but she would probably never know the true feeling. A stranger had taken her first and nothing would be the same as her relatives. She could have a fantasy about a missing husband, but it couldn’t comfort her because the truth would always be there. A sigh escaped her and she took the dishes into the house.
As she began to dry them, Addie toddled into the room. “Addie! You’re beginning to walk!�
The tiny girl had her arms out like a comically awkward bird and took flatfooted steps back toward the door. Harriett ran to catch her before she fell over the sill and pulled her to her breast. Then she felt a stream of warmth go down her leg.
“Oh, Lord! It’s happening! Ma!� she shouted as she put Addie down again, a bit farther inside the door. Harriett began to feel the pains. She bent over to lead Addie further into the house and saw she was leaving a tiny trail of watery blood behind her. She grabbed a spoon and beat on one of the pans she’d brought in. Emeline came running, thinking something had happened to Addie and found Harriett curled up on the floor with Addie sitting beside her.
“It’s time,� Harriett gasped through the pain.
“Hold on, Dear, I’ll get your ma!� Emeline said as she grabbed Addie up off the floor and went back outside. The women came running back in and got Harriett into the birthing room. Everything got put into place and, as the pain eased, Harriett said, “I’m ready, Ma.�
Hours passed, and each pain made Harriett think she would die, but finally it came time for the birth.
“Push, Harriett, push,� her ma said. “You have to push it out. Here it comes. There’s the head! Here come the shoulders. That’s it, one, now the other. Now here comes the rest! And it’s a boy!�
Her mother tied off the cord with a piece of wool yarn and cut it. Then she put the baby to Harriett’s breast and told them both to rest. The baby’s loud cries said he wouldn’t rest just yet, but after a few moments he began to nurse and all was quiet. The women brought in some towels that were wet and warm and washed the little boy off as Harriett slept. He was quiet and he looked up at all the faces around him, or so it seemed. The he went to sleep, holding to the blanket of Addie’s that had been laid over him.
When they woke the next morning, there was some porridge for Harriett and she ate it quickly while the baby nursed at one breast. Then he was shifted to the other and she had a piece of bread that they had left for her. The little one stopped nursing after a while and snuggled into her to sleep some more. Esther looked into the room and asked Harriett if she had finished her breakfast and needed anything. She told her mother that she seemed to be doing fine, but a tear rolled down her cheek.
“Ma, what am I goin' to do? I don’t know what I can do with him. I’ll have to get some work, because I can’t depend on you and Pa to support us and keep the farm running, too.�
“Harriett, don’t worry. That little fellow won’t make a whole lot of difference around here and once he gets a little bigger, we’ll start using him as a farmhand.�
With that, they both smiled a little, because they had no idea how big the baby would get or even if he would live past his first few years. The optimism her mother showed gave Harriett a little more hope.
“What do you think a good name for him would be?� Harriett asked her ma, as she turned to go out the door.
Esther turned back around and peered at the baby’s sleeping face. “Well, he is a handsome little fellow. I don’t know. What do you think, Harriett?�
“I was thinking maybe I’d name him after the man who’s running for the vice-presidency along with Mr. Polk. Pa’s always talking about how he’d vote for them. And he’ll get our last name along with it. When he grows up, it’ll sound very refined. George Mifflin Dallas Roberts. What do you think, Ma?�
“Sounds just fine to me. I’ll go to the courthouse and register his birth tomorrow. Now you rest while he is.�
With that, Harriett sank back down into the pillows, holding George Mifflin Dallas close to her heart.

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