Sunday, September 23, 2012

Kenneth W. Neal
"The Birth of Radford Andrew Neal"

Magazine Mountain, Arkansas
September 18, 1880

“I’m sorry, John, but she’s gone.”
The midwife, Mary Sturgis, stood wiping her hands. 
Her splattered apron spoke to a long and difficult birth, one that had ended badly.
“But you have a healthy boy,” she said, putting her hand on his arm.
“He’s awful robust, considering what he’s been through. He must weigh better than nine pounds. That was the problem, I think. He was a big old baby and Melissa was to small to bear him.”
“Can I see her?”
“Sure, but take a look at this big old boy first. He’s already begging for something to eat.”
John Henry Neal took his new son in his arms, and sure enough, the boy was gnawing at his hands.
“I need to see her,” he said, handing the baby back to Mary.
He pushed past Mary to a bed in the corner where a now silent Melissa had struggled to bring the boy into the world.
“For the first 24 hours or so, she was pretty quiet,” Mary said.
“She was mostly Indian, you know, and their woman don’t moan and carry on like us whites,” Mary said.
“But even out in the barn I heard her crying and screaming,” John Henry said.
“Well, you would too in her place. The boy tried to come out butt first and I couldn’t turn him around. He got stuck. Wouldn’t come out; wouldn’t let me push him back in.”
“How long did this go on?” 
The tears were coming freely now as John Henry realized that he had not only lost his second wife but also now had a newborn baby on his hands.
“I reckon she just strained and pushed until she was exhausted. You know it’s been nigh onto three days since you called me.
“I’ve seen it before. She was in the midst of a hard push and then went limp. When I couldn’t get a pulse, I went ahead and pulled the baby. Kind of tore poor Melissa. I hope you don’t mind. I had to do it to save the boy.”
John Henry nodded.
He pulled the sheet back from Melissa’s face. She was as beautiful as he remembered.
His mind was racing.
It was September and winter would be coming soon. The boy wouldn’t have much of a start before snow flew.
On Magazine Mountain the winters could be tough.
John Henry turned to Mary.
“How am I going to feed him?”

Melissa’s breasts were already swelling before the birth but now they would never nurse a baby. The thought brought the tears again. 
Mary frowned. “I reckon we have to find a wet nurse.”
But where? John Henry and Mary pondered that for a bit. 
The nearest neighbor to the Neal shanty was miles away. Mary lived a good 20 miles from John Henry. At 50, she was not a candidate to nurse the baby.
“John Henry, I can’t think of anyone in this neck of the woods able to nurse that baby. We’re going to have to feed him some other way.”
She thought of Melissa struggling to birth her boy. 
“John Henry, I remember Melissa was dripping milk. The milk was already coming.”
With that, she almost leaped to the bed and exposed Melissa’s breasts. The mother was still warm.
“Quick, John, get me a glass.”
“No,” he protested. “We can’t go squeezing around on her, poor thing. Let her rest in peace.”
“John Henry, if we can squeeze even a part of a glass out of her, it might be enough to give that boy a start. You know as well as I do that the first milk from a mother is the best for a baby. Starts their digestive juices working; cleans them out, too.”
She didn’t wait for John Henry to give her permission. 
She took the glass, pushed it under one of Melissa’s teats and started kneading the breast. Mary had milked a lot of cows in her time and this was the same thing, she told herself.
And she was convinced that Melissa would want her to get all the milk she could.
“Mary, this is awful. She’s dead and gone and we are torturing her even after she’s dead.”
“No, we’re not. We’re helping her do what she wanted to do, bring life to that little whelp over there in the crib,” Mary nearly shouted.
“Look, John Henry, I’ve got about a half a glass, enough to feed that boy for awhile.”
Sure enough, a thin, bluish liquid virtually ran from Melissa’s breast into the glass.
“Do you have a baby bottle?” Mary demanded.
John Henry’s blank look told Mary what she needed to know.
He had a bottle that he had used to feed newborn calves.
“ It’s in the barn,” he sputtered.
“What in the world is it doing in the barn?”
“I fed a calf with it.”
“It’ll have to do. Go get it.” 
John Henry reappeared a few minutes later with the bottle.
The bottle with a huge rubber nipple was dirty. The calf sucking it was not too tidy and John Henry hadn’t bothered to wash the bottle.
Mary looked at bottle with disgust.
“Well, put some soap and hot water in that wash pan and let’s get that sucker clean.”
“Fill that kettle put it on the stove. We’re going to have to scald the hell out of that bottle.” Mary blushed at her outburst and the use of a term that she thought should be used by men only.
But she was about half put out with John Henry. He had made hardly any preparations for the birth of the baby. He had left that to Melissa and Melissa had planned to have the baby Indian style and be back to her chores the next day.
John Henry had called for the midwife only when Melissa did not quickly have the baby.
He did as directed and gave the bottle and the nipple a heck of a wash. The nipple was part of a big reddish cap on the end of the bottle, which must have held about a quart of liquid.
“Here it is,” he said.
“Did you sterilize it?”
He frowned. “What’s that?”
“We have to scald it to kill all the germs. Then we can put our milk in it and see if the boy can get his mouth around that big old nipple,” Mary said.
She poured the boiling water into a wash pan, swished it around a little bit and then threw the water out. She put the bottle and nipple in the wash pan, covered them with water and put the pan on the stove.
John Henry watched.
“You have to do this to kill the germs,” she said.
“Didn’t seem to bother the calf much,” he offered.
“Well this boy is a sight more valuable than that calf and he’s not as big and stout,” she fumed.
Poor little guy, she thought, looking at the new baby. What chance does he have, with only John Henry standing between him and the world?
They poured Melissa’s milk into the warm bottle. Mary put a little milk on the nipple and dragged it across the boy’s mouth. The infant turned his head to follow the nipple and grabbed onto the outsize teat.
Soon he was sucking away.
“Well, he’s a powerful little sucker. He might make it if we can find enough milk for him,” Mary said.
“You got a goat?” she asked.
Blank look.
“You got a cow?”
“Yep, got a good Jersey. Gives the richest milk you ever seen,” John Henry said.
“Might have known,” Mary said.
“This boy can’t take rich cow’s milk for a time. Too hard for him to digest.”
“Well, what do babies eat if not milk?” John Henry blurted.
“That’s why I asked about a goat. Goat milk is easier on the baby than cow’s milk. It’s richer and I guess it agrees with a little feller more than cow’s milk. We have a goat. I’ll get some milk over here first thing in the morning and we’ll see how the big boy here likes it.”
John Henry had taken over the feeding chores and for the first time was admiring his brand new baby boy.
The little squirt was positively greedy, virtually gobbling his mother’s milk. The bottle was near empty.
“John Henry, I have to leave. I’ve been here three days. Work’s piling up at home; got an old man to feed.
“Sure, Mary. You know how much I appreciate all you’ve done.”
“I sure do hate to leave you like this John Henry. A dead wife in your bed; a hungry and fretting little baby and no help. I promise to be back soon as I can. I’ll either bring the goat milk or send Elmer over with it in the morning.”
“If the boy won’t go to sleep and keeps demanding to be fed, I think you can take some cow’s milk and match it with water and let him have a little of it. Just enough to satisfy him and get him to sleep. Watch his navel. I tied it and cut it and it should drop off in a few days but keep an eye on it.”
With that she grabbed her shawl and left abruptly. He heard her cluck to the horse pulling her wagon. The wagon creaked. Gradually the sounds were gone.
It was quiet. The boy had finished off the bottle and was asleep.
John Henry glanced the bed. He knew he had to get about burying her. The prospect sickened him. He sat in the rocker with his new boy asleep in his arms and dozed off himself.
The coal-oil lamp flickered and went out as the last kerosene burned. John Henry didn’t notice.

note: canned or condensed milk, courtesy of Borden, was available as early as 1870. Might have John Henry asking around and discovering condensed milk, which the little fart took to immediately. 

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