Mattie was never truly mine. That knowledge must have filled me as quickly and surely as the milk from her breasts. Although my family “owned” her, although she occupied the center of my universe, her deepest affections lay elsewhere. So along with the comfort of her came the fear that I would lose her some day. This is our story. You will wonder if it is true; I can assure you it is, though my parents wish it were otherwise. This is as true a story as has ever been told: the story of my love for Mattie, and, I suppose, her love for me in return.
April 14, 1837
Mattie lay curled around the warm shape of her son when the unwanted messenger knocked. She stayed on her pallet, reluctant to end this precious time, and listened to the sound of quiet snores coming from Poppy, her grandfather. She gazed at her young son, pressed her nose close against his soft neck to take in his sweet baby scent. She gently wiped the glistening sweat away from his damp forehead and gave him a tender kiss upon his temple. Another intrusive knock struck the door. Mattie got up.
Cradling Samuel so close that she could feel warm puffs against her breast, Mattie shuffled across the packed dirt floor to the door. Though she expected this visitor, had anticipated a knock for weeks, she had dreaded this moment. Once she opened the door, her life would forever be divided into before and after.
Mattie slowly pulled the rough plank door open and saw a lithe silhouette in the moonlight. There stood Emily, a girl with pale, hazel eyes and skin the color of tea with milk. Mattie had seen her before but did not know her well. She appeared to be no more than twelve. In contrast, twenty-year-old Mattie’s skin was dark as roasted coffee beans. Her jet-black hair, twisted into two tight braids that framed each side of her narrow face, was covered by a dingy white cloth wound tightly round her head. Her strong arms were scratched from tobacco. Dark eyes, big and round as caramel candy, took in all the comings and goings of the people around her.
Without introduction the skinny girl at the door mumbled, “You got to come now. The baby gonna be here soon.” With her news delivered, she turned back to the Big House.
Mattie called after her, “I gotta pass Samuel over to my poppy.”
“Be quick about it. They expectin’ you.”
As Mattie crossed to his pallet, Poppy sat up to receive his great-grandson. Tears pushed hard against the back of Mattie’s eyes. She kissed Samuel tenderly on his round cheek. “I love you,” she quietly poured into her son’s tiny ear and pressed her lips for a final time against his bald head. Her lips pulled tight inside her teeth, she carefully passed Samuel into Poppy’s outstretched arms.
“Remember, Rebecca gonna feed him when he get hungry,” she pressed out, though her grandfather was well aware of the plan.
She stared into Poppy’s eyes and hoped he understood all that she did not say. She wanted to be assured that her son would be well cared for, that he would be told she had not chosen to leave him, and that when she returned he would know that she was his mother. But Mattie said nothing. She did not scream in protest or plead for more time for her son to grow older. Instead she turned away in silence, blinking back tears as she left her home and abandoned her son. She had no choice. She had to be strong, get through this separation, and return to Samuel as soon as possible. Whether that would be in months or years, she had no way of knowing.
Mattie shivered as she followed the dim light cast by Emily’s oil lamp. They walked toward the Big House, a direction she had learned to dread and which she rarely traveled.
“How long she been havin’ pains?” Mattie asked as they passed the small brick cook house.
“Most of the day, I think. She start screaming after dinner.”
Mattie asked, “Her water show yet?”
“Don’ know,” the girl replied as they reached the rear of the building.
They entered through the painted door and climbed up the worn back stairs to the second floor. Mattie stepped carefully behind Emily along a soft, colorful rug. Going down the smooth white hallway past several polished doors, Emily stopped in front of the last door on the left.
“They waitin’ in there for you,” Emily informed Mattie, pointing at the door. Mattie watched the girl’s mouth open wide in a yawn. Then Emily turned and made her way down the corridor.
Mattie’s heart beat fiercely as she stood alone and uncertain in the long hallway. Suddenly the white door flew open. She jumped back in time to avoid being trampled by a figure rushing out. Warm air tinged with the smell of sweat wafted out of the room. Hesitating at the threshold, Mattie peered into the dim chamber.
A petite white woman with skin the color of heavy cream lay in a large bed. Eyes closed to the world, she moaned loudly. Her damp, dark hair stuck to her sweaty, swollen face. The woman’s face contorted as she cried out in pain. Her eyes squeezed so tight that her lashes were buried tight, and her mouth was pulled so hard that her lips were hidden in the cave of her mouth.
“There you are,” proclaimed one of the two women hovering around the bed. The large white woman with narrow blue eyes and gray hair pulled into a severe bun pointed to a chair in the corner of the room. “We are not yet in need of you. Complications…” She trailed off without a complete explanation. “Go, sit in the chair, and do not do anything to upset your mistress.”
Mattie moved into the room as quietly as possible and made herself small to avoid drawing the attention of the large, red-faced man looming over the foot of the bed. She lowered herself into a plush velvet armchair and unconsciously rubbed the smooth pile with the tips of her brown fingers. Her eyes flew around the room, taking it in. An intricately carved four-poster bed took up most of the room. Next to it sat a marble-topped washbasin covered with crumped cloths. The man directed the two women poised on either side of the bed.
“Hold her down when I am ready to pull the infant out,” he commanded. “Prevent all movement or they both may die.”
The doctor pulled dirty metal forceps out of his bag and wiped them quickly with a blood-stained cloth. Then he bent over the bed.
“Now,” he commanded.
The women pressed their pale hands against the patient’s shoulders and arms, pushing her hard into the mattress. Mattie winced in sympathy and sucked in her breath as the doctor thrust the forceps deep into her thin body. “Ahh, aahh, ahhh,” screamed the woman. The doctor tugged hard on the metal handles, but there was no movement.
Repositioning himself with his legs braced wide apart, the doctor pulled again. His hand slipped off the end of the instrument, leaving it protruding from the woman’s body. He muttered to himself and rubbed his sweaty hands on his pants, then repositioned himself and firmly grabbed the forceps once again. Heaving on the forceps, the doctor’s hands slowly slid backwards; the instrument moved along with his thick fingers. Sandwiched tightly between the triangle of the forceps, Mattie saw bulges of purplish scalp emerge between the mistress’s thin, white legs.
The doctor grunted. His left hand lost its grip again. “He is stubborn!”
Resuming his quest to remove the infant, the doctor grabbed the forceps. Pulling again just as the woman’s uterus was contracting, the infant’s head emerged until Mattie could see the tips of ears. The contraction ended. When the doctor pulled again there was no movement. The next pull came along with a contraction, and this time the rest of the head, shoulders, torso, and limbs rushed out. A purple, motionless infant flopped onto the bed.
The doctor stared at the limp child. Mattie fought the urge to grab the infant, turn it over, and rub hard. Helplessly she waited for the doctor to do something.
“Do it,” Mattie silently encouraged the baby that was ruining her life, “take a breath.”
The doctor tied off and then cut the still pulsing cord as the infant lay motionless. The infant suddenly jerked, then tipped back its damp head, opened its blue mouth, and let out a raspy wail. Mattie gave a silent cheer, You did it, little one!
“Good thing I was here for the delivery,” Doctor Jameson declared. “This one needed modern medicine to take her first breath.”
“A girl!?” asked the new mother.
“Yes,” confirmed the doctor matter-of-factly.
The young woman craned her neck to see and reached out her arms for her daughter. The doctor carelessly bundled the infant in a receiving blanket and started to pass her to the woman in the bed.
“Not now,” said the large woman with the bun. “You are too weak to hold the girl. Give her to the nurse,” she directed the doctor.
The mother collapsed against the bed in resignation. With a shrug of his shoulders, the doctor carried the damp bundle to Mattie. Handing the newborn over, he asked, “Is your milk in?”
“Yes, sir. My son, he born some months ago,” replied Mattie, looking down at the oak floor.
“Then do what you came here to do,” replied the doctor. He turned back to the bed to receive the afterbirth and stitch up his patient’s tears.
Mattie looked down at the nameless pink baby. The forceps had left blue and purple bruises around the baby’s ears. The infant was already licking her lips and bobbing her head in search of food. Drawing up her shirt, Mattie exposed a full breast with a large nipple ready for an infant’s mouth. Mattie took her breast in hand and gently tickled the tiny lips with the raised nub until the baby opened her mouth wide. Then Mattie swiftly pulled the eager mouth over her breast. The baby sucked vigorously until Mattie felt the familiar tug as her milk flowed. She settled back on the soft, cushioned chair, holding the baby girl against her heart. Gazing at this new life, Mattie thought about her beautiful son, asleep on a hard pallet in another world only two hundred steps away.