Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Life Stripped Down to the Basics

We went to Malabar Farm over the weekend, it's the home of the famous Louis Bromfield that he immortalized in Pleasant Valley. I was glad to finally be able to go, but was also somewhat disappointed in the condition of the buildings and the emphasis that is placed on everything being eco-friendly. I already knew that Bromfield had Pinko Commie tendencies, his dream was for the State to take over after he died to preserve what he had done. Well, his dream came true in the 70's and the State of Ohio had managed to run it into the ground; such is the legacy. There is a tractor outside of the visitor center that has a Police line around it and a hand written "Bees" sign taped to it. Why? Because hornets have nested in the tractor and they don't want to kill them. Hornets!!! Oh for crying out loud......

However, this post is not about eco-nonsense or even about Malabar Farm per se.
Though before I do get to what it's about I have a cute anecdote; the children liked Malabar and had a nice time though the bathrooms were gross, dirty and had no toilet paper so Abby opted to hold it. We did eventually find a "real" bathroom with flushing toilets, electric lights and a few chairs. Tabitha flopped down in one of the chairs and remarked on how nice it was, this is a bathroom mind you. And Abby's great comment about the famous Malabar Farm? Well, it too was said in the bathroom and was "are you allowed to go both kinds in here?" Oh dear, I laughed and laughed. :-D

While there we went to the pioneer cemetery, it's the original cemetery where the first settlers in that valley are buried. We like to visit cemeteries, I feel peaceful in a country cemetery. There was the stone of a little boy named Silas Baughmann, he was 4 years 8 months and 26 days old when he died. The old stones always have the life counted out in years, days and months, child mortality was so common that perhaps life measured out in this way made it seem longer. Or more meaningful. It's a poignant thing to see the stones and think about the people, that they were real, live people. Very much like you or me with hopes and dreams and fears. And they are long since dead and mostly forgotten, whatever was the biggest issue in their day is now relegated to a paragraph in a history text to be yawned over by today's scholars. I didn't always love history but at some point it became real to me and that has made all of the difference. I own just a few pieces of original children's clothing but each one is hand sewn, labored over by some Mother or Grandmother for a special little one and then packed away. I wonder about those women, who they were and what they were like. I'm so glad to be a woman, doing the things that are a woman's province, continuing to serve my family as women have traditionally done.

Though I am fond of many aspects of the past, there are some that I'm glad are behind us. I don't wish that I could live then, I am thankful that I live today. The birthrate in the 1850's was 5.4 children per woman for whites and for 7.9 blacks. The life expectancy was 39.5 for white men and women combined and 23 for blacks. 23. I can hardly fathom that. The infant mortality was 21.7 per hundred whites and 34 per hundred for blacks.

The chances that I would have nine healthy children in that era are almost nil. The illnesses that they dreaded: croup, scarlet fever, measles and others are so benign that we hardly bat an eye at them. Yet they were great stalkers of children. It was commonplace in the early 1800's to have a post mortem image taken of the deceased, many times for children it would be the only image the parents would ever have of their little one. The photographer would come to the home in these cases so that the bereaved family would not have to carry the dead child to the studio.

You can still feel this Mother's grief 170 years later. Life was more closely tied to the home then, births and deaths occurred there and were an expected part of every person's experience. We have distanced our self from both of these life events, relegating them to someplace apart from where we live. I think that we honor our ancestors and our heritage when we treat their customs and beliefs with respect and retain what we can. Just as we show respect to our language by speaking it properly, so too do we show respect to our foremothers by treating their little ones' memories with love and care.


  1. WOW. Excellent post. Thanks.

  2. You are right. We have no idea the losses those families experienced. I am so grateful for the vaccines and medicines we have now.

  3. It amazes me how we, as a culture, treat our past. Almost as if they had no value.

    I was born in South America, and there, our past is very much respected. Our ancestors lives are kept very much alive through retelling of stories. When one of our family member dies, we hold our wake in the house, not in a funeral home. This way we tend to say goodbye in a more personal matter.

    You can truly feel the sadness from both of the mothers holding their child. It is very a very real picture of how these ladies survived knowing that their children, which they held such hopes for, could be taken away from them so quickly.

    Excellent post Mrs. G.


  4. Post mortem images have always been so sad for me to view. The grief is so apparant and so striking. Now that I'm a mother, such images sends chills to my heart and makes me hold my own babies closer. Though we have advanced much, medically, since the mid-19th century there is always a chance everyday that something could happen to take one of our children from us. I thank God for the days we do have together, He alone knows the length of our days.

    We too love to visit old cemeteries! As David and I have remarked, they are very social places. :) So many people, so many lives, so many hopes and dreams and aspirations! It is fascinating to read their names and to wonder about them.

    And a "bees" sign for hornets?? Oh my. . .

  5. okay, crying a few tears in Heber City

    thanks for the reality check and for the memory of our foremothers in our hearts

  6. Maria, what excellent observations. I'm interested in hearing more about your bereavement customs if you'd like to share.

    Anonymous from Heber City, yup, me too. I can't fathom even wanting to go on living if I lost a child and yet they did.

  7. Great post! I love to visit old cemeteries too. My mom and I used to visit the cemetaries at the end of the Oregon Trail & catalog the pioneers tombstones (sometimes taking rubbings) and then research their lives at the library. It was always so interesting, and so sad to see a couple of families who lost 6 babies in 6 years. It never failed to amaze!

  8. This was a good post. I did not know that some mothers' only pictures with their children back then were pictures at death. How sad, but beautiful that they would take the time to sit there and hold their darling child for a picture.