The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Ann E. Porter/Cousin Helen's Baby

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Your letter, dear cousin, is before me, for I am resolved to do, what is somewhat unusual among our sex, answer it; that is, give a reply to all the questions contained therein, and, if possible, attend to the most important before I come to the postscript. You begin as follows:—

“How in the world am I to write this letter with my baby?” Well, it seems from your own statement at the close, as well as from sundry other unmistakeable signs, such as a few blots, paper a little “crumpled,” and a few extra flourishes, that you did actually accomplish the thing, and that, too, with the baby in the room, and part of the time in your arms.

“Impossible!” said Napoleon; “let that word be struck out of my dictionary.” Alas! we poor mothers often find in our pathway rugged Alps to climb, but, almost always, ingenuity and patience will work a way around the jagged rocks, or through the narrow defiles.

“Oh, this baby tending!” you next exclaim; and, from the heavy tread of the pen and the big admiration point, it seems to come from a spot deeper than the German gutturals; I conclude, even from the bottom of your heart, for you go on to say, “Oh! if these husbands, who can commence and finish their business at stated hours, and do everything by the clock, could know how tedious is the tread-mill path of one who has a troublesome, crying baby to manage, they would certainly try to initiate themselves into the mystery of baby tending, and aid us more.”

Really, Ann, I had supposed you possessed of different ideas of woman’s cares and man’s duties; or have you become an ultra woman’s rights partizan, or are you so clear-sighted as to understand Miss Fuller’s “Woman in the nineteenth century?” If so, my humble experience will be of little avail; for, as a wife and mother, I have trod a lowly path, and never dared step foot into the balloon of transcendentalism.

Again you say: “If one child is so much care, how can you manage five?”

Well might you ask, and I would answer, if you find that one, as you say, makes you half crazy, five will certainly send you to the insane asylum, unless upon the homoeopathic principle, “that which kills will cure.” But, the truth is, you lived in such a still, orderly way so long after your marriage, that the change seems more striking to you, and the care more onerous than it really is.

“But for a chapter of your experience;” and you shall have it; for, on glancing back upon what I have written, I find that it has a dictatorial air, which it ill becomes me to assume; and, to punish myself, I will give you a little sketch of my management with my first baby, that you may see I was far behind yourself in prudence and skill.

Need I tell any one who has been a mother, of the joy which one experiences at the birth of her first-born? It is like the glorious sunlight of morning after a night of storm and darkness; yea, like the rapture of heaven to the weary spirit, when she folds, for the first time, the young immortal to her bosom, and breathes from a full heart her gratitude to God. At least, such were my own feelings when my eldest, my precious child Arthur, was born.

I had read Grahame and Alcott, and a score of other writers upon the management of infants, and thought myself quite wise—certainly capable of criticising others—but now, all my wisdom forsook me, and I felt ignorant as a child. Our means were limited, and we were not able to hire just such help as we wished; but an old woman, who had had some little experience, was engaged, and so confident was she of her own abilities, that I yielded implicitly to her directions. When I remonstrated upon the use of pins, she exclaimed, “Lawful sake, ma’am! do you expect me to use these ere strings and loops? I never did afore, and you can’t expect me to begin now; besides, what kind er shape suppose your baby’ll be, if I don’t pin it up snug and tight now?”

Feeble as I then was, I could do little for myself or the babe, but I would sometimes quiet its cries by stealthily loosening its clothes as it lay by my side. My child was scarcely two days old before my kind neighbours began to pour in with their sympathy and congratulations. Too timid to refuse them admittance, and too weak to endure company, I suffered much, and yet the scenes were sometimes so comical I could not help laughing. Some days quite a number would call at once. Mrs. Higgins, and Aunt Lucy, and old Mrs. Gove, were in one day together.

“What a nice fat baby!” said the last, who had just entered; “for all the world the very image of its father”—(it had just been pronounced “as like to me as two peas”)—“and not a mark about it;—why my John has an apple on his forehead, and a strawberry on his great toe. I hope you’ve given the little thing some physic, Mrs. Bagly.”

“La, yes,” said the latter, bridling up; “I always gives caster ile the first thing—nothing better, you know.”

“And then, I suppose, you feed it some, till its mother has milk sufficient?”

“The little darling don’t suffer, I can tell you,” answered the nurse, proudly. “I take the top of the milk and sweeten it up well, and it has as much as it can take. Mrs. Wadsworth talked about leaving things to nater, but I tell her I guess nater would leave her if I didn’t stick by.”

“I hope, in all conscience, you won’t get any of these new-fangled notions into your head,” said Mrs. Higgins. “You’ll sartinly kill your baby if you do. Why our minister’s wife is half crazy with her book larning about babies. She washes hers all over in cold water every morning, and e’en amost starves it, too; for no matter if it cries ever so hard, she won’t feed it till the time comes, as she calls it, and that’s once in three hours. If she warn’t the minister’s wife, I believe the selectmen would take the matter up; but I eased my conscience by giving her a piece of my mind.”

“I didn’t say a word when she was at our house,” said the kind-hearted Aunt Lucy, “but I was a feeding it with apple pie—nothing in the world but plain apple pie, ’twouldn’t hurt a flea—when she come along, and, in her pleasant way, said, ‘I would rather the baby have nothing to eat, Mrs. Nutting.’ I was most scared, for fear I’d done something sinful.”

Arthur was now trying the use of his little lungs, and powerfully, too, much to the discomfort of the guests and myself.

“Can’t you give the child something to quiet it?” said Aunt Lucy. “Some catnip tea would be good.”

“Not half so good as piny root,” said Mrs. Higgins, “or some camphor sling.”

“Now, that reminds me,” chimed in Mrs. Gove, “of one injury that these temperance societies have done. Babies didn’t use to cry so when I was young; and I never thought, when I had a baby, that I could do without a decanter of gin. There’s nothing like it for the cholic; and then it would strengthen you up, Mrs. Wadsworth, and set you right upon your feet again.”

“That’s just what I tell her,” said the nurse; “but there ain’t a drop in the house, and Mr. Wadsworth says that he prefers not to use it unless the doctor prescribe.”

“Well, well, every one to their notion,” said Mrs. Higgins. “I’m not certain but soot tea will answer the purpose as well—that’s one of my favourite remedies.”

“I must go now,” said Aunt Lucy, as she rose to depart, “for my old man will be wanting his supper; but between sundown and dark I’ll run over with some arbs, catnip and sage, and thoroughwort. I reckon I can cure the baby.”

In the mean while I had exerted all my strength to hush the little sufferer, and he now lay asleep upon my arm; but I was covered with a profuse perspiration, and, as soon as the child was removed, fell back exhausted.

The next day, about the same hour, Arthur commenced crying again, and it continued so long and loud that I became thoroughly alarmed. Poor Mrs. Bagly did her best, but all in vain. I removed the pins and loosened his dress, but it did no good, he cried without ceasing.

“There now,” said Mrs. Bagly, “don’t worry any more, and I’ll give him something that will make him sleep sweetly.”

“Not camphor sling?” I said, inquiringly.

“La, no; now don’t be so scared. I’ll just go into the kitchen and take my pipe and let the smoke of the tobacco go into a bowl of water, and then I’ll sweeten some of that water and give it to him; it will make him so easy and still.”

This was something so novel, that I hardly knew what to say; it seemed a strange medicine for a babe, and yet she assured me that she had used it a hundred times, and that it was harmless. But the screams of the child continuing, I allowed her to do as she pleased, though I said, faintly—

“I hope his father won’t smell the smoke when he comes in to see the baby; he perfectly despises the weed, as he calls it.”

Mrs. Bagly stopped short in the middle of the room: “Well, I’m beat now! I never heard of a lawyer before that didn’t chaw, nor smoke, or, at least, take snuff. Why, Squire Tappan never come to see my old man, but he’d out with his box, and ‘Won’t you take a pinch, Mrs. Bagly?’ He was a smart man, I can tell you, and I believe it was the tobacco put the grit into him. He never spoke but he had a pinch between his thumb and finger, and it was scattered as thick among his books and papers as a French stew with pepper.”

“Well, well, Mrs. Bagly, my baby will cry itself to death if something isn’t done.”

“I know it, ma’am; it will certainly bust itself if it don’t have the smoked water;” and she disappeared to fetch it.

“Oh, dear,” I groaned within myself, “I wish Charles were here, perhaps he could aid me;” but he was gone to the next village, and would not be at home for some hours.

The nurse was not long absent, and taking the child in her lap fed it freely. Its cries ceased, and it soon fell asleep. With a feeling of relief I flung myself upon the bed, while she wrapped little Arthur in his blanket, laid him in his cradle, and left the room to attend to her duties in the kitchen.

I soon fell into a quiet sleep, and I know not how long I had lain, when a slight rustling disturbed me. I opened my eyes, and saw my dearest friend, Mary Porter, near me.

“Why have you not been to see me before?” I said, rather reproachfully.

“I have; but when you were asleep. I thought I must see you and the baby, so I stole in at that time, for I knew company would injure you, and I feared we would talk too much. There now, go to sleep again, and I will watch by the cradle—you must, or I shall leave.”

Seeing her resolute, I tried to obey, but I could not refrain from opening my eyes to look at her, it seemed so pleasant to have her near me. She sat in a low rocking-chair by the side of the cradle.

She watched for a while the sleeping babe, and then I saw her stoop and place her ear as if listening to its breathing; then, rising, she knelt over it, and taking one hand, held it for a moment and let it drop, then she did the same with the other. Removing the covering, she felt its little feet, and held them awhile in her hands. I thought for the moment she was rather childish. After again covering the child, she drew the curtains of my own bed close around me, and then, as I thought, removed the cradle farther from my bed, and left the room.

I wondered what this meant, and was about to rise and go to the cradle myself, when the door gently opened, and I distinguished the voices of Mrs. Bagly and Mary, though they spoke in whispers.

“Don’t make such a fuss about nothing, Miss Mary. Ha’n’t I had children? and don’t an old woman like me know more about nursing than such a young thing as yourself?”

“But look, Mrs. Bagly, for yourself,” and she lifted the babe from the cradle.

I did not wait for a reply, but sprang to my feet and took my child. “It’s certainly dead!” I exclaimed, as, with every muscle relaxed, it lay unconscious in my arms.

“Not dead, I trust,” said Mary. “See, its little heart yet beats.”

I tried to waken it, but in vain. It lay like one in deep stupor, and, as I believed, the stupor of death.

“We’ve killed it—poisoned it with that vile tobacco!” I exclaimed; and, in despair, I pressed it to my bosom and wept like a child.

“Let me take the baby,” said a kind voice, and looking up I recognised Dr. Perkins.

I held it still more closely, while I begged him to tell me if there was any hope. He took the little hand in his own, and placed his ear so that he could distinguish the breathing.

“I think that we can save your babe, Helen; but,” he added, in a tone of mild authority, “you are killing yourself; go and lie down, and I will see to the child.”

He was our family physician; one to whom, from childhood, I had been accustomed to look up with reverence. I yielded my precious burthen, and reluctantly obeyed. My husband came in at that moment and enforced the doctor’s direction, assuring me that everything in their power should be done for the child.

But what a night of anguish and suspense we passed! Morning found the doctor still there; for it was not until then that he was able to rouse the infant from that dreadful stupor, and then, for days, it hovered on the very verge of death. It was a sad lesson to a young mother.