Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Birth of George Washington - 1737

The Birth Of George Washington
Pope Creek, Virginia

February 11, 1732 (old style Julian calendar)
February 22, 1732 (Georgian calendar)

Mother- Mary Ball Washington
Father – Augustine Washington

Mary Washington; who gave birth to a baby and named him George Washington

Alice sat quietly beside the bed of Mary Washington. Outside the room, morning was spreading across the sky; the dark grey of night rising and slipping away.  The winter silhouette of the oak; strong and confident, stood watch at the window, leaves blowing in the February wind.  She could hear the noises that marked the start of day; the chopping of the wood, the soft humming of a familiar hymn, the opening of a door, a rooster crowing.  The two had passed the night together, lost in the slow rhythm of labor.

Watching them, being there, you could have imagined them sisters; woven from a fabric tightly bound with the mysteries and treasures of girlhood.   Their breaths in unison. Their fingers intertwined.  Their knowing of one another an unspoken understanding.

They were born, however, not of one mother, nor of one country nor even one land.  They were born into the sweeping changes of migration; Mary’s family by choice and Alice’s through the bonds of slavery.

 So that no matter the intimacy of the birthing room, no matter the gratitude or prayers spoken and heard, no matter the vulnerability exposed or the fears comforted, Alice was Mary’s sister’s slave and in the laws both common and civil could be no more.

That these lines were crossed and questioned and fought against would be true but no where greater than in this early morning moment so raw with the common bonds of birth.

Alice was Mary’s half sister, Elizabeth Bonum’s slave, and had been sent to wait with and help Mary with her birth.  It was their way to share the slaves who were good at birthings amongst the tidewater plantations.

 Alice was a respected midwife. It was hard work but it meant the freedom to visit amongst the slave communities at the different plantations and to be treated better than some. 

Alice’s mother, who had taught her to be a midwife, had been at Mary’s birth over in Lexington. Had caught her, wrapped her up and suckled her from the same breasts as  Alice.

Mary’s father died when she was three and then her mother when she was only twelve.  The two slaves were all the people she had left and so they went with her over to her sister’s plantation and stayed with her until she married.

Mary opened her eyes and stared out the window.

“I’ve got to get up, Alice.”

Alice lifted her gently to her feet.   The wood floor was cold even with the fire burning most of the night.  The wide pine boards let in the light of the rooms below.   

“Is the baby here yet? “ they would call. 

 As if she would not let them know or they would not hear a cry or be sent scattering to get things ready or the master sent to see the new child.

Mary was quiet.  She leaned on Alice and walked towards the comfort chair that Augustine had bought for her. 

“Sit awhile,” Alice whispered.  “It’ll help the baby move down.”

Mary closed her eyes and gripped her knees; her long brown hair loose and covering most of her face.

“I’ve been thinking about my mother, she whispered.  “How she birthed me. How she did all of this too, just like I am now. Oh, Alice, I wish she was here with us.”

Tears slid down her flushed cheeks and her mouth bled from biting her lips. 

“Why does everyone I love always die? Why Alice, why?”

Alice brushed back her hair and fixed it in a long braid soothing her, stroking her forehead.

“Your mother loved you, Mary.  And your father too.  I knew them and worked for them.  They loved you and would have loved to see this baby. “

Mary gritted her teeth and looked at Alice with desperation.

“I don’t ever want to leave this baby an orphan.   Not ever.”

“Hush now, Mary. You are a strong woman.  Your not going to die just cause your own parents did. It’s not like that.”

A contraction came and sent her into a silence that gave no room for thought.

“Walk awhile now.”  Alice instructed. Around and around the bed.”

 Outside Augustine was sending word by horseback to his wife’s sister that she should come and be at the birth.

“Ride fast.”  Augustine called. “ Mary will need her. “  This was Augustine’s second wife and they had only been married eleven months now.  He had three children from his first marriage and was anxious to hear the cry of a healthy baby and see his wife well and happy.

“She will make a fine wife for you and a good mother for your children” advised his friend, George Eskridge, who was named Mary’s guardian in her mother’s will.  They had met in England where Mary was visiting her brother, Joe.  He first saw her on a horse; tall and proud with a determined look in her bright blue eyes.

Augustine knew he needed to find a new wife and mother for his children.  She played nicely with her sister’s children and was practical and kind.

“Come live with us at Pope’s Creek,” he had begged her.  “Be my partner in all things of this life both bad and good.”

Mary had considerable land of her own and by joining the two plantations they would increase their influence and she would, at last, be master of her own home. Her parents had left her considerable land but she had not been trained to manage or care for it in such a way as to make it profitable.

She rode her own horse to the wedding on a silk saddle her mother had left her in her will.  She had insisted on riding it to the wedding instead of taking a carriage.  Augustine came from a respected line of Virginian farmers and statesmen.  They were prominent in the community and in the church.  Her own mother had come from England as a servant in her father’s household.

A marriage to Augustine Washington was a move towards a stable and respectable life; a life without further abandonment and loneliness.

There was a knock at the door.  A woman from a nearby farm was here.  Mary raised her head and shook it, begging with her eyes for privacy.

“Please Alice. No one else. Just you and me. Please”

Birth was a social time and an excuse for women to visit with one another during the long hours of labor.  Alice had seen rooms so crowded you could barely move to catch the baby. She had also seen birth slow down and stop with too many people in the room.

Alice knew that if she let one woman in there would be more. They meant well but it was Mary’s choice.

“In a moment.”  Alice told the woman behind the door.  “I’ll call for you when I need you.”

The woman behind the door did not mind.  It was easier to wait in the kitchen and enjoy the gossip of rural Virginia.  Soon the word would spread and more women would come.  A birth was a chance to have the day off and enjoy the company of women.

Alice was happy Mary wanted it quiet. It would go better this way.   The birthing smell was filling the room so she did not expect it to go on too much longer.

Mary had her fears like all women Alice had sat with.  Most were afraid at some point with a first baby that they would die but Mary was more afraid of leaving her children orphans than of her own dying.  She was missing her mother.

Alice sat close; rubbing Mary’s back with sweet oils when the pains came, singing soft hymns of faith and encouragement.

Outside the hawks drifted through the sky that has turned blue.  Below they could hear the geese gathering on the river.

And then Mary, heavy with breathing, made her first long, low pushing sounds.

“I need to use the chair again.  Oh, Alice. I’m sorry to make you help me up again.”

But Alice only turned her over and helped her sit up on the bed. 

She opened the door and called for more warm water.

“No more people, Alice, no more people, please.  Just us.”

Alice opened the door just enough to get the pot of warm water and bowl for the afterbirth and then quickly shut the door.  Some would be disappointed to not be at the birth but it could not be otherwise. 

The two women sat in the bright winter sunlight that warmed the room.  The contractions that had been coming one on top of another slowed down and moved further apart. Mary nodded off to sleep and Alice slept with her.  The contractions would wake them and draw them back into the day and when it ended their sleep returned.  This rhythm going on without time until like all things it changed and shifted and a great force could be felt there in the room. Mary’s eyes, her grasp, her voice changed and grew in strength and determination.  The calm resolve of a night of contractions burst into a moan filled with the pressure so familiar to the birthing room.

Mary pushed.  Alice begged her slow down but with only this one push, the first signs of a head appeared. A slow emerging of hair and scalp like the sunrise over the river. Small at first than round and perfect.  Alice touched the head gently and offered up her prayers passed down from Africa and massaged Mary gently, held her to keep her from ripping.  Watched that small head rise up and out of her.

With the last push, Mary let out all the emotion she had kept inside for all her life.  A cry of a child left orphaned, the cry of loss and hope all combined as her child turned its head to look into the face of his mother.

Alice helped his shoulders slip out from beneath her bones and held him up for her to see. 

“Mary, Mary…open your eyes now and greet this baby boy.”

Alice wrapped him quickly with the skill of an experienced midwife and handed him to his mother.

Augustine was at the door followed by a crowd of women.  Now she opened the door.  Her work; their work was done for now.  Of course the work was in the mothering. Alice knew this but now was the joyous time. 

Augustine sat beside Mary on the bed and wondered at this wide-eyed baby boy with his hair still damp and his skin still white with the cream of birth.  The baby held his finger tightly.

“George.  We’ll name him George after our good friend, George Eskridfge” who has been our friend and guardian. 

“Welcome George Washington”, whispered Mary.

Soon Alice shooed everyone out while she deliver the afterbirth and brought it to a friend who buried it for her on a hill above the place where the creek and river came together.  She told her the right prayers to say.  If he started to argue that it was women’s work, she shushed him firmly and sent him on his way.

The older children tiptoed up to see their baby brother as her sister rushed in disappointed to have missed the birth.

Alice went then to the slave loft over the kitchen for food and rest.  They could call her if they needed her.  She lay back on the straw mattress and whispered the new baby’s name “George Washington” She could smell him still on her clothes and hands. She breathed in the small of new life; the perfume of  midwives.  “George Washington. “  She said again before allowing her self sleep.

 Inside the house, George, having nursed for the first time, shut his eyes and drifted with a sigh, into the special sleep of the newly born.  Elizabeth tried to take him from Mary but she would not be separated from this, which had been so much a part of her.

“Soon enough he will leave his mother’s side.  Soon enough little George Washington, but today it’s the two of us as it has been all these months.”

Post script and travel notes:
When I visited George Washington’s Birth Home, I was struck with the lack of “birth” and the lack of Mary Washington in the birth house story.  It is a lovely site but in the visitor’s center we mostly learn of George’s father’s military and political history and very little of birth or family.  When I asked about the birthing mother at the birth home, they said they knew very little and that Mary was “difficult” in her old age.   You can visit her home in the town down the road and see her life there during the revolution.   This story, which is indeed a story, is based on what I could find out about birth on a rural plantation and the life of Mary Washington.  We do not know who her midwife was but I try to use this birth story to appreciate the work of the women who were both enslaved and midwives.  The birth is based on my experiences with laboring women.  I would love to see our historical "birth" homes focus on the lives of women and their midwives.  

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