FictionOctober 22, 2013
An Unexpected Gift
In Jodi Daynard's novel The Midwife's Revolt, main character Lizzie Boylston inhabits a richly-imagined world of women enduring the tumultuous years of the American Revolution. The book opens with Lizzie confronting the harsh reality of widowhood after the death of her husband in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. By that December, Lizzie is feeling despondent about her self-described "loveless, lonely, barren state." In this excerpt, she goes to bed on Christmas Eve with a heavy heart. The next day she receives a visit from her friend and neighbor Abigail Adams—whose own burdens include supervising the family farm and raising children alone during husband John's long absences while attending Congress in Philadelphia. The visit proves an unexpected gift, providing Lizzie the infusion of strength one draws from friendship and the affirmation that she is by no means alone in her wartime toils.
“I could not bear going up to my cold chamber, whose fire had gone out, and so pulled a pallet by the kitchen hearth. I removed my bodice, petticoat, and stays, and lay in my shift to burn on one side and freeze on the other. I turned myself periodically, like a roast of meat on the grill…
“When I awoke, alone in my kitchen at dawn, it was Christmas morning, 1775. I rubbed the glass and gazed beyond my heat-fogged window. The fields shone with brilliant, blinding whiteness. It had snowed.
“I lifted myself up with a heavy spirit. It was freezing cold, and I had not slept well. (It is not good to begin a winter’s day exhausted, as Nature takes no measure of one’s readiness before demanding Her tasks.) I moved to boil water for my coffee and spoke to myself with a firm tone. I told myself that I must stop sighing the lack of many a thing I sought. By many measures, I was a rich woman. I had a farm, a loom, a horse, two cows, and a servant. I had wood for fires, sheep’s wool for hats and mitts, milk for butter, porridge, and cheese…
“It was soon midday, and I had fallen asleep after taking a small meal of bread, butter, and ham. The stomp of boots by my door woke me. I had lain down in my petticoat and bodice with no stays. My hair was loose, and I hurried to wash my mouth with some saltwater and put my fingers through my hair, knowing all the while it was a hopeless situation. I greeted Abigail at the door with a crooked smile.
“‘Come in,’ I offered. ‘It is very cold today.’
“‘It is.’ She nodded. She did not take her eyes off me as I led her into my warm kitchen… Abigail frowned. ‘You look strange this morning, Lizzie.’
“‘Thank you,’ I said wryly. ‘Care for some real English tea? It was a gift of my horrid sister-in-law.’
“‘Oh, I would! So long as John is not about.’ She cast a quick glance around, as if I might actually be hiding him behind a door.
“‘Fear not. If ever he honors me by a visit, I shall serve him good patriotic blackberry tea.’
“She sat at the table, noticing the pallet by the fire and the tragedies open upon the floor. Her pale blue eyes noticed everything—quickly too…
“‘You have been looking very carefully at me,’ I said. ‘You see, I am astute enough to perceive your observance of me. What do you find, I ask?’
“She placed a hand on mine. ‘I find you alarming. Like those people left in forests to be raised by wolves.’
“At this, I let out a decidedly unladylike snort. ‘No, indeed. Though I lay awake half the night, it is true.’
“‘Thinking what thoughts, may I ask?’
“‘That I must stop my self-pity and get on with the godly task of helping others.’
“She smiled enigmatically. ‘That is indeed a Christian thought on this holy morning. But so hard to live up to in practice, I find I often resolve to stop pitying myself, but am rarely successful...’
“I went to the fire to fetch more hot water. ‘The thing is, philosophical consolation is all I have. I cannot change my state. I cannot change my relation to it.’ I did not say, ‘loveless, lonely, barren state,’ but it is what I thought.
“‘And you must keep that philosophy, Lizzie. But sprinkle upon it the flavor of the everyday. I mean only to warn you that it is human to feel lonely and sad and to pity oneself.’
“We were silent for a while then, each lost in our own thoughts. Abigail was no doubt thinking of John’s imminent departure. In eleven years of marriage, they had lived together about half that time. Finally, she asked, ‘It was you last night outside my window, wasn’t it?’
“‘Yes,’ I admitted, ashamed.
“‘And why did you not stay? We would have welcomed you, Lizzie.’
“‘I didn’t wish to intrude. You looked … happy.’
“‘One is most inclined to generosity when one is happy, is one not?’
“I felt her mild rebuke keenly. ‘Well—’ I began.
“‘Well, nothing.’ She stood. ‘I must go. But I—we—would like it very much if you joined us for Christmas dinner. My father will be with us, and the Cranches.’
“It was an offer too tempting to refuse.
“Oh, the memory of that dinner has lasted me many years: children ran everywhere, and Richard and John, still young and hale, carried on a most fascinating conversation about what kind of Government we should have in the event of Independency.
“‘We shall have it!’ Adams shouted, tongue loose with cider—or so I thought. When I knew him better, I would know he always spoke loudly, and with great passion. They spoke of bicameral and unicameral systems. Adams argued overweening power over another and that, at all costs, one must have a separate judiciary to balance the executive—or was it the other way around?
“We were all so merry, and with the din of children all around us, we women listened to this most historic of discussions with scant attention, for children were asking for meat to be cut and drink to be passed…
“When I had kissed Abigail goodbye and shaken John Adams’ hand, knowing it was futile to refuse the offer of Mr. Cranch’s chaise, I departed, feeling as happy and full of life, friendship, and hope as I had felt lifeless, alone, and hopeless the night before.”
Jodi Daynard. The Midwife's Revolt (Newton, MA: Opossum Press, 2012), 89-93.
Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance. To learn more about the Museum's plans for a national museum in Philadelphia that will tell the complete story of the Revolution, click here.
Read the Revolution is produced thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: exploring the human endeavor.