Porcelain (Part 10)

belladonna courtesy biolibde

belladonna courtesy biolibde

The jar that she withdrew had been prepared several months ago, which she knew mean that it was now very potent, well past the minimum dose practices that homeopathy advocated.  Dr. Martin had told her to always have a belladonna solution prepared and ready, but to not let it sit for more than two months.  He regularly sent her new herbs with which to prepare tinctures and she was usually faithful about making new ones, allowing them to mature for several weeks and then discarding the older solutions.  During the last few months of Olivia’s pregnancy however she had skipped several of these rotations, believing that it may be necessary to have very strong medicines available as her daughter came to term.  She had seen some very rough births over her many years and was determined to have remedies that could aid her daughter regardless of Olivia’s personal beliefs about the matter.

She remembered the day that she had prepared this particular tincture, a stormy morning about three months ago.  During its preparation she had told Olivia the story of the last time she actually needed to use a belladonna solution.   It had been several years ago, the final time she had seen her brother Michael alive and shortly before she left Maine to follow Olivia to Hiawatha.  He had arrived at her house complaining of a headache and several days later this had worsened enough to confine him to the only bed in the house.  She had given this up to her brother after finding him writhing in pain on the floor of her sitting room. Up until that point he had been staying at the Price Hotel and visiting with his sister during the evenings, an arrangement that allowed him to prospect for business with the local Indian’s during the day.   Michael fashioned himself an Indian trader although he had little to show for it after years of chasing various tribes around the eastern seaboard.  Concerned about his increasing pain, and knowing that he frowned upon the medicine they had grown up with, Olivia’s mother had slipped the tincture into a cup of tea.  Relief had followed, although Michael voiced his suspicion before he left about how his cure had been affected.  She had hugged him goodbye and told him not to worry so much as he likely had just gotten over it by resting.  Olivia listened intently to the story, although she interrupted several times to lament the time her mother was wasting preparing remedies with little proven benefit.  Her mother had a lifetime of proof, some of it validated by cures affected on her daughter,  although that seemed to matter little to Olivia.  As she worked they alternated, the mother telling her story and the daughter lecturing on medical advances.

She had prepared the solution so many times that she hardly looked down as she worked.  Taking a belladonna plant from the rough cloth bag she kept them in, she placed the entire dried stalk into the mortar, several of its neatly tapered leaves and faded purple flowers peeking above the rim.  As she reached in and crushed it with her hand she could feel the brittle black berries as they broke off their stems.  Reaching for the pestle, she ground the plant for several seconds, just enough to ensure it was broken up sufficiently to release all of its medicinal qualities.  Once that was done, she placed the crushed pieces into a small jar and then filled it with grain alcohol, placing a small bolt of cheesecloth over the top before sealing it tightly with the lid.  After that it was placed into that far corner of the cupboard where it rested and gained potency until it was needed.

That time was certainly now, as Olivia’s cries continued and she could hear the bed banging on the floor as her daughter thrashed around.  Unsealing the jar, she quickly tied a string around the cheesecloth to keep it attached to the opening, then decanted several tablespoons of the liquid into a tea cup.  She was under no illusions that Olivia would drink a secret solution as her brother had, and the tincture was too strong for that in any event.  Carrying a teaspoon and the cup, Olivia’s mother returned to the bedroom where she found her daughter standing at the foot of the bed, naked now but wrapped in a sweat-soaked sheet and wailing.  No discernible words were being spoken, just anguished cries of pain.  Setting down the spoon and cup, she slowly went over and guided her back, where she slipped a fresh nightgown over Olivia’s head and then helped her sit down on the bed.  She waited a few minutes for her daughter to quiet down and then she recovered the cup and carefully scooped out a spoonful of the medicine.  As she turned back, the wailing started again, fear flashing in Olivia’s reddened eyes and she shouted a refusal to cooperate.  Her mother took advantage of her opened mouth, spilled the medicine under her tongue and then dropped the spoon so she could hold her daughter’s mouth closed with both hands.  A struggle followed, one that was won by the mother when Olivia reluctantly choked down the solution of belladonna.  Five minutes later she was much quieter and had stopped moaning, easing back onto her soaked pillow, which her mother quickly replaced.  Just as Olivia was falling back asleep another dose was tipped under her tongue, and then her mother was finally able to attend to the infant.

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 9)

It was just past three a.m. when she went in for her hourly check on her daughter.  Up to this point Olivia had been sleeping comfortably, her breathing shallow and unlabored.  As she slowly eased the door of the bedroom open, Olivia’s mother could see that this was no longer the case.  Her daughter was flinching in her sleep and sweating profusely, the pillow underneath her head already visibly stained and wet.  A check with her hand on Olivia’s forehead confirmed that she had a fever.

Despite her concern, Olivia’s mother sat down in the rocking chair next to the bed and thought for a few seconds about exactly what to do.  She certainly had her own instincts about how to care for a person with a fever, however she also knew that her daughter thought much of that knowledge was longer valid.  Perhaps there was some value in all of the new medical information in which Olivia believed.  Her thoughts were interrupted by the faint cry of the infant from the other room, after which she noticed that Olivia had begun to toss and turn in her bed although she still seemed to be asleep.  She also was starting to mutter words, unintelligible but increasing in volume.  Deciding that there was no time for anything other than what she already knew, Olivia’s mother shook her daughter’s shoulder in an attempt to wake her up.   She could feel the fever’s heat even through the heavy nightgown Olivia wore and the sweat was staring to soak through the garment.  Unsuccessful in her initial attempts, Olivia’s mother started to slap her daughter’s face, lightly at first and then more sharply, until Olivia’s eyes suddenly snapped open, glistening and colored red, as she cried out in pain.

“Shhh daughter, I’m right here.  You have been tossing and turning in your sleep.”

Olivia buried her face in her hands. “Such an ache in my head.  Help me.”  She moved her hands and pressed them against her temples, continuing to moan and rock gently back and forth.  “Why are my hands so cold?”

Quickly her mother took her right hand and was shocked by how cool it was, a marked contrast to the high heat coming off of Olivia’s skin.  She had seen this several times before and only hoped that the general delirium which often accompanied a fever such as this would not manifest itself in her daughter.  This hope was quickly dashed as Olivia started to shake rather violently and cry out.

“The heat, oh please help me, the heat.  It reaches up and burns me, reaches me from the darkness, dark hands reaching for me.”

Grabbing her daughter’s shoulders in an attempt to get the shaking to stop, the old woman mustered all of her power as she pushed Olivia back down toward the bed.  When her head was finally back on the pillow she cried out again.

“The fires are near, the furnaces are open, thousands of degrees of heat that melt the bones and raise the white towers of light.  Help me, I am so cold, bring me to the fire to warm my bones.”

Olivia’s eyes now fluttered open again, more red than before although they seemed focused and alert.  Placing her hands over several parts of her daughter’s body, the mother realized that all of the body, except for the hands and feet, was extremely hot and starting to turn a pale pink.

Reaching for the water pitcher on the nightstand, she spoke.  “I’m getting you some water Olivia.  It will help cool you down while I get a remedy in the kitchen.”

Olivia screamed.  “No water!  No water!  You must not put the fire out!  It burns me and warms my bones!”  Closing her eyes again, she started to thrash around, repeating the words over and over again, her voice cracking as she screamed.   Realizing that perhaps she had not seen such a serious case of a high fever as this one, her mother left her wailing and thrashing in bed and hurried to the kitchen.  As she passed by her own room, the infant began to cry louder, a faint echo of Olivia’s screams.

Reaching the kitchen, she quickly opened the cupboard nearest to the stove and removed the battered metal tin from the top shelf.   Within this tin were the various components for the kind of medicines preferred by Olivia’s mother, the homeopathic remedies with which she had grown up and which were reinforced by Dr. Martin in his letters.  Placing it down on the table, she lit the lamp on the table before returning to the cupboard.  The cries of her daughter and granddaughter were increasing as they seemed to be locked in a competition to get her attention.  The infant she knew was likely just hungry or wet and would need to wait until she tended to her daughter, for whom she was gravely concerned.  Adjusting the lamp to burn more brightly, she reached back into the darkest corner of the cupboard and withdrew the tightly sealed jar that contained the belladonna tincture.

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 8)

The remaining days of her pregnancy passed for Olivia in what she would later recall as a dream-state, a seemingly endless series of similar days, marked by her mother’s repeated insistence that she remain in bed as much as possible.  Dr. Martin was not mentioned by name, however Olivia suspected that some of the advice her mother was giving her had come through him.  Although she rarely went outside during those days, she did still wait on the porch every day for Stan Waterman to hand her the daily mail, and she had seen several letters addressed to her mother in Dr. Martin’s heavy block printing.   She of course did not know their content, and her mother did still seek personal medical advice from the man, however her belief was that he was prescribing her advice from afar.   For that reason Olivia resisted much of what her mother advocated as the best course for her as she came to term, including her insistence that no doctor needed to be present at the delivery.  They spoke about it for the last time just four days before Olivia gave birth.  Her mother had begun by asking Olivia if she knew Mary Coswell, a midwife in the Hiawatha area who had a solid reputation both for delivering babies that lived and for taking good care of their mothers.

“Let’s not argue about this please.  I know you believe that somehow you, me and a midwife, Mary if you will, are going to deliver this child ourselves, however I prefer to have this baby the modern way.”

“Yes I know Olivia, and I don’t want to argue either, it’s just that so many babies have been born the old way, the usual way you know, without any doctors or drugs, and I worry that all of this new medicine is going to cause you harm.”

“I’ve read about it and asked questions, be sure of that.  They say that now you can deliver a child with almost no pain at all.  Well, at least none that you feel or remember.  It’s the chloroform that does it.”

Her mother groaned slightly and briefly covered her eyes with one pale hand.  “That word makes me feel sick Olivia, it doesn’t even sound like a good thing.  It’s scary.”

“But it works.  They have been using it for some time now and it’s safe.”

“You know, missing all that pain might, well some might say that it takes away from the experience, takes away some of your true motherhood.”

“Really mother?  I thought we decided not to argue.  Calling me somehow less of a mother because I plan to skip all of the pain of childbirth is going to get us into an argument for sure.”

“Well I wasn’t saying that exactly.  There is the other consideration you know.”

At this Olivia glanced over and realized that her mother had, at some point in the conversation, picked up her Bible which she now had resting on her knees, one finger tapping the cover.  Olivia looked away.

“Not that.  I will not talk about how much pain we are all supposed to bear because of Eve’s sin.  The doctor is coming mother and I will have the chloroform.”

The tapping on the Bible continued for ten more minutes, after which her mother rose and went into her bedroom, skipping their usual cup of tea before bed.  Olivia smiled slightly to herself before rising to go to her own bedroom.

It was the early morning four days after that conversation when she awoke, knowing that the time had arrived for her child to be born.  She managed to get to the sideboard in the kitchen before the pain of a contraction caused her to yelp and lower herself to her knees.  Several minutes later her mother had managed to pull her up and get her back into bed, after which she went to the neighbors house and asked Fran Dover to send her husband for the doctor.  Olivia heard the whole conversation though the bedroom window, which faced the Dover’s kitchen,  and gave her mother credit for honoring her wishes.

chloroform gas device courtesy loyno.edu

chloroform gas device courtesy loyno.edu

All went well and normally with the delivery, and while the administration of chloroform gas to her daughter via a strange looking medical device made Olivia’s mother very nervous, it did seem to take away most of her daughter’s pain.  It also meant that she was not alert when the baby finally did arrive, which was a blessing as far as her mother was concerned.  It took most of the energy she had to not break down into tears herself, and there was no doubt that Olivia would have been far worse.

The baby was carefully cleaned and checked, then wrapped in a soft blanket and handed to Olivia’s mother, who rose quickly and carried the young girl out of the room.  Placing it down onto her own bed she had the doctor assist her in moving the cradle Olivia had purchased, and once it was in her room she moved the baby to it and then softly sat down in a chair next to the cradle.  She rested one hand on the edge and hummed under her breath, her eyes slowly filling with tears now that she was alone.  She heard the doctor clattering around, picking up his things and speaking aloud to a still unconscious Olivia, giving medical guidance for her recovery.  He had wanted to share it all with Olivia’s mother, however she had brushed him off after he assisted with the cradle, and now he apparently was at least not going to leave any of it unsaid.  After finishing, he stopped again to ask Olivia’s mother is she had any questions, however she quietly replied that she knew how to take care of a woman after she gave birth.  The doctor motioned toward the child however that was retuned only with a cold stare from the old woman so he left, banging the door too loudly on the way out.

The night came and Olivia’s mother remained in the chair, silently crying.

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 7)

Olivia’s pregnancy progressed without much incident other than a sharp pain in her left side that was so intense that it kept her in bed for two days.  Her doctor, despite prodding and poking far in excess of what Olivia’s mother deemed appropriate, had been unable to determine if there was anything actually wrong with her, and in the end declared that the child must have a heel or elbow jammed up against her side.  That was nonsense, as Olivia knew exactly where her baby was at the time, however the doctor seemed content to believe it and the pain went away before much more of an argument could be made.  It had led to the one disagreement which occurred between Olivia and her mother during her pregnancy, one that started as soon as the doctor had made his pronouncement, closed up his bag and scuttled off down the street in his usual nervous way.

“You should be using Jeb Martin, he saw me through having you and all the rest of your brothers and sisters.”

“Mother, there is no way that I am going to have Dr. Martin anywhere near me or this baby.  You know he’s a homeopath and his type aren’t recognized anymore.”

“That is such nonsense Olivia and you know better than that too.  He’s taken care of you, well took care of you I guess, all through your years of growing up, and you certainly don’t have anything to complain about in regard to your health.”


“And he’s taken care of me too, through all of it, still does although just through letters, advice that I ask him for from time to time.  There is nothing wrong with the medicine he practices.”

Olivia looked away for a moment and rolled her eyes in an effort to restrain herself from being too blunt.

“He may or may not know what he is doing mother, and I won’t argue the point about whatever care he has given to you or me.  I guess I truly can’t complain about that.  These days though, all that homeopathic medicine just is not thought of very well, and good folk won’t have it around them.  I’m not going to have some doctor of ill repute pressing his hands on me and deciding what is right for me and this baby.”

“The only people giving doctors like Jeb Martin a reputation of ill repute are folk like yourself Olivia who take the time to believe it and spread the nonsense around.”

Olivia rolled her eyes again, however it was much less effective than before.  “It’s because we have new knowledge mother, not everything that used to be correct and proper still is.”

“Nor is everything that is currently thought of as correct and proper necessarily true either.”

“And it wouldn’t matter anyway as I seriously doubt that Doctor Martin can care for me properly from all these miles away.  Unless you’re suggesting that we haul him out here to do so?”

Olivia, who during most of this argument had been looking out the window toward the street, turned her eyes now to look directly into those of her mother, a look that seemed to convey that if nothing else was true that this last point was certainly well spoken.  Her mother remained silent for long minutes, her gaze locked with that of her daughter.  Finally she coughed slightly and spoke.

“Of course he won’t be coming out here Olivia, however it wouldn’t hurt to ask the man his opinion about this latest trouble you have been having.  Perhaps he has some idea of what it may be.”

“I said I won’t have it mother and I won’t.  Doctor Tyler said I will be fine and I expect that I will be.”

That had been the last word spoken about the matter of homeopathic doctors and although the idea of a second opinion would look good in retrospect it was a matter that was closed at that moment.

The pain had lessened on the second day and was gone by the morning of the third, leaving Olivia in a much better mood.  There had been no other issues and no other arguments and it was the Tuesday which marked just thirty days to her due date when her mother had presented her with the dress.  Although largely a matter of fact, no frills type of a woman, this particular occasion caused Olivia’s mother to spend a few extra moments setting up things to be memorable.  She had awoken Olivia at eight by bringing in a tray containing a light breakfast of fruit and toast along with a steaming cup of tea.  It had caught Olivia by surprise however she had held her tongue, finishing the meal and bringing the tray back out to the kitchen before going into the sitting room to join her mother.  Setting down her cup of tea, she took the seat on the sofa nearest to the old woman and then sat in silence, moments which seemed to be poignant to her mother.  The time had slipped by, Olivia sipping tea and her mother rocking slowly back and forth, humming under her breath and smiling gently.  Finally, when Olivia had drained the cup and placed it down with a sharp, empty click against its saucer, her mother had stood up and taken her hand, guiding her to the old straight back chair that looked out the front window.  After sitting her down and patting her hand, a gentle command to stay where she was, her mother had gone into her bedroom and returned with a small package wrapped in white linen.  Olivia had taken the offered gift and opened it slowly, finally drawing out a simple but well-made white dress.  It was cut full at the bottom and had a slightly drawn in waist along with frills on the shoulders and neck and lace on the cuffs.  A bonnet, which also had frills on the edges, was folded by itself within the package, as was a short note written in her mother’s exact handwriting.  The dress and bonnet and been enough to bring a few tears to Olivia’s eyes, however the note caused her to get up and embrace her mother, who offered an awkward but tight embrace in return.

“It’s simply wonderful mother, it must have taken you, well I know how long you have been working on it, but so much effort and skill must have gone into it.  The work is so fine and it is just beautiful.  My baby will look so perfect in it.”

“Your daughter my dear, your daughter will look perfect in it.  A perfect dress for a perfect daughter.”

“I do hope you are right.  I do want a daughter.”

Her mother had replied simply by patting her hand and then stroking the hair back from her face.

Porcelain (Part 6)

looking west on shawnee from seventh courtesy of hiawathapics.com

looking west on shawnee from seventh courtesy of hiawathapics.com

Six weeks later Olivia knew and stepped out of the kitchen door on a Saturday morning, again with a cup of dark coffee, and told her mother.  She had thought this was going to be the worst of it and was shocked by her mother’s calm response.

“Funny how some things work out daughter.  A moment in time is all it takes.”

Olivia had no reply for that and just sipped quietly at her coffee.  Her mother looked over after several minutes and saw that she was also crying, tears that she refused to wipe away running down her cheeks.  Standing up, her mother walked over and offered Olivia her hand.

“Come with me.  I want to show you something.”

Her mother led her into the house and then into her bedroom where she pointed to a long, flat chest under the bed.  Olivia let go of the hand to kneel down and then pull the chest out, having to tug hard at it several times to get it to move.  It was well made of oak with brass fittings and the top of it was carved with her mother’s name.  Olivia had seen this chest before however had never been allowed to open it.  Following a wave of her mother’s hand she finally did so, catching the sharp smell of moth balls mixed with old wood as the heavy top was lifted up.  The things inside were as you might imagine them; stuffy and old, faded and musty, care-worn and well-tended.  Each item struck a chord of curiosity in Olivia, and she felt a strong urge to ask questions.  Why is this black dress with the lace collar in here?   Who is the soldier in this picture?  Why are you keeping a broken bell?  She wanted to ask, however a quick look at her mother made it clear that this was not going to be a journey of universal discovery.  Most of what was in the chest would remain in the old woman’s mind and heart.

“Take out that red box and underneath you will find a cloth sack with a purple string.  That is what I want to show you.”  Her mother had taken a seat on the rocking chair which sat next to her bed.

Olivia did as her mother asked, handing up the cloth bag and then sitting on the floor at her mother’s feet, a memory of childhood story time fleeting past her eyes.

“I kept this not just because you wore it as a baby, but because it was made by your great-great grandmother.  She had originally made it for my mother right after she was married to your Grandpa Silas, however it ended up not being used.  So, when I was about to give birth to you, she gave it to me.  Once you grew a little bit and this fit you, well you wore it often my dear.”  Saying this, her mother struggled briefly with the string that closed the top before opening the bag and pulling out a white dress.   It was of a style not used anymore, having too many gathers and a drape that was no longer the fashion.  It was elegant and durable although its faded color and occasional faint spot told of both its age and its hard use.  Olivia reached up and touched the dress, feeling its worn, smooth fabric ripple across her fingertips.

“Why was it never used?”

Her mother did not immediately answer and Olivia continued to play with the edges of the dress.  There were some tattered seams and a small tear in the front hem, a re-stitch of one sleeve and missing button on the back.  Olivia tried to place her younger self in this dress, however she had no pictures of herself back then and found it difficult to imagine.  Realizing that her mother had not answered she looked up to see a pained, far-away look in the woman’s eyes.  The touch of Olivia’s hand to her arm brought her eyes back down and she reached out to run her hand along Olivia’s check.

“That child did not make it out of it’s birth bed my dear.  It only lived one day and after that, despite all the other children she had, my mother just could never look at that dress again.  That girl, my older sister, should have been her eldest and the start of her family with your Grandpa.  It took them five years after that before they had me.  I have to tell you daughter, that day she gave me the dress, well it was quite a moment let me tell you.  The topic of this dress had been a forbidden subject for years, something my father wouldn’t even discuss when a family member would bring it up.  Forbidden all those years and then one day my mother just walked into our living room  and handed it to me.  Your Aunt Martha was there and almost gagged on an apple she was eating.  I guess my mother had finally gotten over it, or having me starting my family with your father had made it possible to pass it along with well-wishes.  I dare to say that she still worried a bit during the first few days you were alive, but when you proved to be so very healthy she relaxed and seemed happier than she had in years.”  Her mother paused and rubbed her hand over the front of the dress.  “It’s a mixed memory I guess, sadness and happiness.  Its, well, bittersweet I guess.”

“Mom, I’m sorry, really I shouldn’t have asked.  I know that you don’t talk much about your past and I should have left it alone.”

“It really is okay Olivia.  I brought it up I guess by showing you that dress.  Cracked open the story book so to speak,” and she offered her daughter a wan smile that did little to reassure Olivia.

“Let’s just drop it Mom.  Thank you for showing me this dress.  Is it something I could have to give to my baby?”

“No dear, I don’t think so.”  It sounded final however Olivia looked up and realized her mother had recovered and was truly smiling now.  “I think I would like to make you a new one for that child.”

… to be continued